The summer sun is blazing down, and at the National World War II Memorial, shade is hard to come by. You stare at the inviting pool, the jets of cool water spurting from the memorial’s fountain beckon you forward. Do you dip your toes in or, better yet, wade in for relief from the heat?
You could, but you would be violating National Park Service rules — as signs at the memorial clearly state. And, in the minds of some, it is also tacky and disrespectful.
Washington is a city of memorials — somber places where we reflect on who we are and those who have perished fighting for the nation’s ideals. It is also a city full of tourists on Segways and hordes of school kids in matching uniforms. Every day, those two worlds collide. How, exactly, is one supposed to strike the delicate balance between relaxed vacationing and respectful, dignified reflection?
On a recent Sunday afternoon, with the temperature in the high 80s, Eric Echevarria, 31, of Atlantic City, carried his toddler in his arms and waded several feet into the memorial’s Rainbow Pool. Multiple signs along the edge of the pool clearly read: “Honor Your Veterans. No wading. Coins damage fountain,” but he either did not see them or paid no heed.
The memorial’s pool, Echevarria said, is a place to “relax, cool off” after a long day of walking. “People will say what they say,” he said, dismissing the idea that wading might be inappropriate or disrespectful. “It’s all about what the value [of the memorial] is or what the meaning is to you.”
Nearby, Ashlee Montgomery, from Maryland, sat on the edge of the pool with her feet in the water as her 6-year-old son splashed around.
“Well, my thought is that I don’t have a problem with it, because I’m in it,” Montgomery said. “It’s a place to come and spend time with family.”
Montgomery, who said that her grandfather fought in World War II, disputed the notion that wading in the water takes away from the memorial’s significance. She comes to learn about the war, she said, and her son asks her questions about the war. “It pulls people in,” she said.
Still, there are many who are shocked by the scene of hundreds of tourists wading in the shadows of the memorial’s majestic stone slabs. To them, the contrast between the hallowed space of the memorial and the almost water-park ambiance is jarring.
“This is a memorial, this is not a pool,” said Jasmine Daniel, 20, a senior at Howard University.
Daniel, an interpretation intern with the National Mall and Memorial Parks, said there needs to be “a discernment between reflection and recreation” — something she does not see right now.
The issue of tourists behaving badly “is, unfortunately, a challenge we see every summer, not just at the World War II Memorial but at memorials throughout the city,” said Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, a Park Service spokeswoman. “We hope that members of the public will choose to respect these sacred places and the people they honor.” But there is not much officials can do other than making an “educational contact” and encouraging people to heed the posted signs, Anzelmo-Sarles added.
Veterans and their families have also taken umbrage at the carefree splashing, said Holly Rotondi, executive director of Friends of the National World War II Memorial.
The memorial honors the 16 million who served in the U.S. armed forces and the more than 400,000 who died in World War II.
Rotondi said she recently received a phone call from the son of a World War II veteran complaining about visitors dipping their feet in the water, saying it was “very disrespectful to the generation” who fought in and lived through the war. And two years ago, a photo of a man changing a child’s diaper on the edge of the pool caused an uproar, she said.
Rotondi said the issue is “very controversial” and “highly emotional.”
“I can certainly understand both sides, and I can certainly sympathize with both sides, but . . . there’s a limit to what can be tolerated at a national memorial.”
It is easy to see why something seemingly as trivial as wading into a pool can engender so much disagreement when you look back at the history of the memorial, which was mired in controversy from its inception.
From as early as 1995 until its official opening in 2004, the design and location of the memorial was the subject of a heated battle. Early opponents of the memorial’s design said it was too large and would block the sweeping vista between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. After its construction, critics such as Blake Gopnik, then the chief art critic at The Washington Post, slammed the memorial for being “all stock celebration, not true commemoration,” “bland and backward-looking” and “with so little eloquence that it demands subtitles.”
But for Gopnik, it is the very failure of the memorial to evoke veterans’ greatness and courage that makes it acceptable, and perhaps even necessary, for visitors to wade into the pool.
“There is a slight, dare I say, fascist tone to the memorial,” said Gopnik, now a critic-at-large for artnet News. It is the monument that is disrespectful to the legacy of the veterans, he said, and people wading into the pool are “willfully fighting the spirit of that particular memorial, the faults of the memorial, the problems of the memorial.”
By fighting back, Gopnik said, people are turning the memorial into something about democracy — something the veterans fought and sacrificed their lives for.
“I think it’s wonderful and respectful towards what veterans fought for . . . to turn [the memorial] into a place where they can go and frolic, almost like putting a pool in your back yard and telling neighbors to come and play,” Gopnik said. “That’s a good American thing.”
The very meaning and purpose of a memorial should also be considered carefully, said Julian Bonder, a professor of architecture at Roger Williams University who has researched the relationship involving memory, public space and memorials.
“Memorials are related to life. Even though they can be related to mourning, that mourning is about something absent, which is life, or people who gave their life,” he said.
“Should one put their feet in a fountain when it’s a hundred degrees in Washington? . . . I’m not advocating that people take a swim in those fountains, but I don’t think it’s extremely disrespectful just to put your feet in the water, especially if those feet in the water makes the visitor feel alive,” Bonder added. “There is a strong connection between life and death at these memorials.”
Then there is the fact that the memorials inhabit a democratic, public space.
The question of proper behavior at memorials “is always based on the notion that democracy is uncertain,” Bonder said. Memorials commemorate the people who fought for democratic ideals, and an important question to keep in mind, Bonder said, is, “How do we honor those who gave their lives for us to enjoy our lives in freedom?”
The conundrum of how to behave at public spaces and memorials is not limited to the nation’s capital. At the National September 11 Memorial Museum in New York, some have been offended by the sight of kids running around and tourists taking selfies. And earlier this year, a group called High on Life, a trio of young Canadian men who make travel videos for a living, was criticized after a photo emerged showing them clowning around at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.
Back at the National World War II Memorial, James Panzetta, 90, reflected on the war. The veteran from Pennsylvania fought with the 10th Armored Division in Germany, and this was his first visit to the memorial. As Panzetta put it, he “replaced the people killed at the Battle of the Bulge.” Seeing people dipping their feet into the water and wading in the pool takes away from the memorial, he said, “but most of these people don’t even remember the war.” For him, it is better that visitors come and wade than to stay away and forget.
And if he had his say, what changes would he make to the rules at the memorial?
“I certainly wouldn’t have a dog in it,” Panzetta answered without missing a beat.
He pointed at the pool.
Sure enough, there was a woman letting her dog in the water.