Craptastic Memorial

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On a subject completely unrelated to Israel and Lebanon…

I didn’t care for the National World War II Memorial, and I’m a big fan of World War II. One commenter suggested that it looks kind of like something that Albert Speer would have designed, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Albert Speer would, at least, have come up with something comprehensible and impressive. The World War II Memorial is neither.

The first problem is that the design is virtually incomprehensible. The gold stars are apparently representative of American war dead, 100 for each star, but the symbolic connection between a gold star and a hundred dead soliders is counter-intuitive and strikes me as inappropriate. Gold stars have several different meanings in American culture, and previous to the WWII Memorial I don’t believe any of them had anything to do with war dead.

The basic layout is a little bit better, as I can understand the reasoning behind the division between the European and Pacific theaters of operation. The citadels on either side include inscriptions commemorating major battles in each theater, which reminded me of the Arc De Triomphe. Unfortunately, the inscriptions don’t tell us anything important about the major battles, and give little sense (either concrete or abstract) as to how the campaigns played out, and why the particular battles were meaningful.

The worst part of the design is its most noticeable element, the 56 pillars around the plaza. Each pillar represents a state or territory. The official reason given for the erection of the pillars is to “celebrate the unprecedented unity of the nation during WWII”. This doesn’t make a bloody bit of sense, and I almost have to wonder if the architect was some sort of states’ rights fanatic. The states played virtually no independent role in the war; mobilization was carried out on a national scale, no state (other than Oregon) was attacked, and the major units had no particular connection to individual states (other than through the naming of battleships). Nevertheless, the most immediately apparent part of the design is this tribute to the individual states, as if World War II had been conducted in 1845 instead of 1945. Especially in the context of an increasingly mobile population (my grandparents lived in four different states during the war alone, and training was conducted on a national, not state, basis) the kind of connection that this memorial tries to evoke is simply artificial. No one fought and died in World War II out of loyalty to Utah, or New Hampshire, or Arkansas. The centrality of the state memorials to the design is an anachronism; it makes sense in the context of a Civil War memorial, but not a World War II Memorial. Moreover, the placement of the state markers isn’t even done well. Alaska and the Philippines are, for some reason, on the ETO half of the memorial. The markers are placed in order of entry to the Union which, while defensible in the abstract, has nothing whatsoever to do with American participation in the Second World War.

On to the second big weakness of the design, its genuinely unimpressive character. I understand why no one wanted to build something big and imposing on the site of the Memorial. A triumphal arch wouldn’t have been such a bad idea somewhere else, but a 160′ monument in between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument would have been unpopular with a lot of people. I’m actually think that a triumphal arch would have been fine even where the World War II Memorial currently stands (you could have recessed it into the ground a bit), but that’s probably a minority view. Given that, and given the importance of World War II both in US history (it marks the global ascendance of the US) and world history, I think it would have been appropriate to build an impressive monument somewhere else. On the other hand, the sole virtue that the World War II Memorial seems to have is that it doesn’t disrupt the Mall. But, if that’s the only thing you’re looking for in a monument, then you really oughtn’t to build one; good monuments are very bad at being inconspicuous.

Anyway, I thought it was terrible. Maybe I’m just really into triumphal arches, but I think that a well-designed one would have been fine between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Another alternative would have been two arches, one representing the PTO and one the ETO, on the north and south flanks of the Reflecting Pool. Or maybe not. But there had to be something out there better than what was eventually decided upon.

UPDATE: Apparently there is an established relationship between gold stars and World War II war dead. My bad…

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