Marc Ferris is author of “Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely History of America’s National Anthem.”
When Congress and President Trump approved a bill potentially providing space on the Mall for a National Desert Storm War Memorial, they delivered a slap in the face to the brave Americans who fought in World War I.
The Great War, so-called before the advent of World War II, is one of the nation’s many forgotten wars, evidenced by the fact that there is no national memorial to the conflict on the Mall. This disgrace helps consign the conflict to the cobwebs of memory.
Indeed, the 100th anniversary of the country’s declaration of war against Germany, on April 6, generated little fanfare. Participants in the war effort are deceased, of course, resulting in a lack of political pressure to find room on the Mall. Identifying a spot would be the right thing to do.
The existing World War I memorial on the Mall, built by D.C. dignitaries in 1931, honors only local service members, and few know of its existence. The modest marble structure is situated in a grove of trees 500 feet southwest of the massive National World War II Memorial (dedicated in 2004, 59 years after that war’s end).
Christened in 1981, it sits in a zone designated as Area 1, outside the core section of the Mall, the grassy grounds that stretch from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol and from the White House to the Jefferson Memorial.
The Desert Storm memorial also will be in Area 1, but one approved site, a field at 23rd Street and Constitution Avenue near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, is a much more prominent spot for a war memorial than Pershing Park, which is one long city block from the Mall proper.
In 2013, anticipating the 100th anniversary of American entry into World War I, Congress created the United States World War I Centennial Commission, which sponsored a design competition to reimagine the Pershing Park space.
The organization selected the winner in 2016, and the project is slated for completion by November 2018, the centennial of the war’s end. The goal, however, is contingent on the ability to raise $30 million to $35 million in private funds.
Almost anything to gussy up the forlorn square would be welcome. The area’s pool basin is dry, and a kiosk is shuttered. The only references to the war — a statue of Pershing and a modest wall filled with text and maps outlining the progress of U.S. forces in the battle theater — occupy a small fraction of the property.
But the winning design lacks a suitable sense of grandeur.
Those who served in the Gulf War during the early 1990s deserve their memorial, which will consist of a free-standing, coiled wall constructed of Kuwaiti limestone and will pay proper tribute to the 383 service members who died. It will stand out in its landscape — unlike Pershing Park, surrounded by urban bustle.
World War I remains an orphan in the country’s military history, despite its importance. President Woodrow Wilson, echoing Thomas Paine, correctly predicted that World War I would unleash “days that are to try men’s souls.” Once Congress declared war, the federal government embarked on its largest project up until that time.
Nearly from scratch, Washington mobilized to fight a total war at home and abroad, leading to an expanded federal bureaucracy that continued to balloon over the years.
For the first time, soldiers faced modern weaponry, including tanks, chemical agents, machine guns, viable submarines and air power, causing the deaths of more than 116,000 Americans.
No one should be surprised that those who fought in World War I received terrible treatment from the government that sent them into harm’s way. In addition to a major corruption scandal that roiled the Veterans Bureau in the mid-1920s, in 1932 Gen. Douglas MacArthur led a violent assault on the Bonus March camps in the District, dispersing several thousand unarmed Great War veterans seeking an early payout of their promised war bonuses as the Great Depression deepened.
By approving a Desert Storm memorial to occupy a site on the Mall, Congress continues to denigrate the legacy of World War I veterans. The federal government owes it to all service members to commemorate such a seminal episode in the country’s history at a prominent location on the Mall.
It is deplorable that the First World War has received such second-rate treatment in the nation’s capital.