A Memorial of Their Own

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After
the United States cuts and runs from Iraq — when, and not if — and
leaves the Iraqis to sort out their own society, figure out their
own government, and alter or abolish the choices we’ve spent the
last 18 months making for them, the veterans of this pointless and
foolish war (and the families of those who did not come back alive)
will surely clamor for a monument of their very own.

Committees
will be formed. Money — probably in great big drippy gobs — will
be raised. Legislators will be lobbied. Architects will be hired
and designs unveiled. This being America, there will be an indecent
argument over who is more entitled (in other words, who suffered
more) to have final say over the memorial — widows, orphans, the
wounded, Fox News and Weekly Standard pundits. People who
could not have been bothered to actually volunteer and fight the
war will cry buckets of tears for the veterans, for their widows
and orphans, and will eagerly impugn the patriotism of anyone who
opposed the war or even wonders if America really needs another
war memorial on an already monument-clogged Mall.

Well,
being as the thing is going to be built whatever anyone feels about
the issue, I’ve decided to offer a little advice on what it ought
to look like and maybe even where it ought to be built.

See,
I’m fortunate enough to, on my morning bike rides across the Mall
to work, to pass by five national war memorials. So, I’ve
learned a little something about memorial design through simple
observation. Ride with me. I’ll show you.

(This,
of course, doesn’t count the great marble Temple to Father Abraham,
which really isn’t a war memorial so much as it is a memorial
to war…)

First,
on our right as we come off the Memorial Bridge from the Commonwealth
of Virginia and navigate the now partially blocked roundabout where
Father Abraham sits, staring at a nonexistent teevee or a terrified
Congress, is the Korean War Memorial. This is a visually complex
and stunning memorial — ghost soldiers marching in formation, a
fountain, the number of American dead (and, separately, "UN"
dead, who really are mostly Korean allies) etched in stone along
with the names of all the countries that sent forces (the morning
I took these photos, a group of Colombian soldiers were laying a
wreath to honor their fallen), and the pictures of soldiers and
civilians carefully etched into a polished stone wall.

It
is, in fact, the most interesting war monument for anyone with a
short attention span. There’s simply so much to see. The slightly
larger-than-lifesize soldiers themselves look more like ghosts than
men, like something that Rod Serling may have dreamt about and then
written into a Twilight Zone episode. Perhaps that was the idea.

The
photos etched in stone are, so the monument itself claims, drawn
from actual photos. So they are ghosts in the wall. This whole memorial
is haunted. It’s an interesting idea.

There’s
no "space" for contemplation here, except maybe to ponder
the "ghosts" or what the makers of the memorial intended
by carving "Freedom is not Free" on one of the walls.
(Guess…) You simply cannot help but think about this war when
sitting or standing within this monument. You immediately sense
it when you visit – this memorial is clearly about US, and
not about anyone else. Surely not about the Koreans.

But
this monument’s main problem is that it is simply too complicated.
The etched photos probably won’t last longer than a few years without
constant maintenance. The soldiers probably require regular maintenance
(spiders appear to really like the statues). In short, this monument
assumes there will always be a United States government to care
for it. It is not so much, then, a monument to the Korean War as
it is a monument to the Department of the Interior.

No,
despite its obvious self-absorption, this is not the model we are
looking for in an Iraq memorial. We are not out to honor the groundskeepers
of the US Park Service.

Onward.
(That smell is the Park Police stables. Just move on…) Do you
see that little building on the right, hidden in the trees? Why,
betcha didn’t know the District of Columbia built itself a World
War memorial a little more than 80 years ago. It looks like a tiny
Greek temple, and it’s as gentle and quiet a place as you can probably
find on the Mall.

The
names of the dead are carved on the side, but you can sit inside
this beautiful little memorial and not think about war even once!
And that’s the problem — it prompts, possibly, the wrong kind of
reflection, and certainly doesn’t focus the mind on the war. Because
our memorials have to be about us, about what the war did to us,
about what it continues to do to us.

This
little white marble structure, lovely as it is, contemplative as
it might be, is clearly not about us. An Iraq memorial cannot be
allowed to foster anything but the right kind of contemplation.
No, this isn’t it either.

Okay,
so on we go. Ahead of us is the National World War Two Memorial.
It’s huge, quite possibly the size of the Vatican City, with a giant
fountain, at least 50 large columns (one for each state, which seems
oddly out of place), two giant entryways ("Atlantic" on
the north and "Pacific" on the south), an elevated pond
(the ducks really like it), and a giant field of glittering stars.

It’s
gray marble and concrete combined with already-weathered bronze
make this memorial look like something Albert Speer would have designed
to celebrate Nazi Germany’s final victory against the decadent West
and Bolshevik Russia. The wreaths each look like they’d easily fit
a swastika, and I cannot get images of harsher-looking eagles with
much straighter lines hanging over each entryway. This is not so
much a memorial to World War Two as it a memorial to the American
version of National Socialism, of state supremacy, of rule by rightly
guided elites, of global conquest and domination. Much like the
Temple of Father Abraham, this memorial is designed to awe and overwhelm
anyone who visits — "this is the state, and it means everything.
You mean nothing."

This
memorial is always full of people. Buses pull up and disgorge visitors,
young and old alike. The old, wearing their legion caps, come to
remember and consider the dead, talk about the war with the living
and reunite with friends. The young come to learn whatever it is
the young are supposed to learn about the Second World War these
days. Mostly they look bored. Aside from watching the ducks (which
is a great hobby I suggest anyone take up; ducks are fun to watch
and far more interesting than politicians, think tank scholars,
24-hour teevee news or war memorials), there isn’t much to contemplate
here except death, destruction and the obliteration of the individual
soul.

(However,
several hundred years from now, when the faces of the ghost soldiers
have melted off the Korean wall and the names too hard to read on
the Vietnam wall, the World War Two memorial will make absolutely
stunning ruins! I can imagine future symposia discussing the meaning
of truth and beauty in the midst of vine-covered columns and weed-clogged
pools…)

Because
this memorial is so oppressive and bleak, it simply fails at being
properly self-absorbed (and therapeutic) like either the Vietnam
or Korea memorials. This memorial is clearly NOT about us.
It aggrandizes the state too much. And in all the wrong ways. This
is not a good model for our Iraq war memorial either.

Okay,
now we ride north, cross Constitution Ave., wait at the light, and
then cross 17th. See that gap between the concrete blocks
that now restrict access to the Ellipsis? Ride through it. That’s
right, this is now a parking lot for White House employees. Look
carefully, on your right, you see the giant flaming golden sword
in the salmon-colored enclosure? That’s the 2nd Division
memorial.

The
only time you’ve probably seen this is when you’ve been stuck in
traffic on Constitution Ave. And you’ve probably wondered what it
is. The location stinks. It’s hard to get to. The Ellipsis is closed
to through traffic now, and while the field inside is open to amateur
athletic events (when it isn’t used for state business), you really
have to go out of your way to gaze upon the flaming sword and the
list of the 2nd Division’s battlefields, places scattered
across Europe and a couple of world wars.

This
is not about us, or glory, or the state, or an idea, or anything.
This simply doesn’t belong on the Mall; it belongs near the entrance
of a military post somewhere. No, this certainly is not our Iraq
war memorial. Not by a long shot.

(The
less we say about our ride around the Ellipsis the better. Notice,
there are more rapture-oriented bumper stickers here than you’ll
see on a normal ride through a District of Columbia neighborhood.
And see that plastic scrotum hanging from that truck’s trailer hitch?
That’s family values for you!)

Ah,
the fifth war memorial, tucked in just south of the Treasury and
just east of the White House complex — the memorial to The Army
of the Tennessee, built by the society of said army a little more
than a century ago. This is definitely old school. A big granite
pedestal topped with a bronze statue of a guy on a horse. A Yankee
general, I’m guessing. Four federal soldiers stand a dour permanent
guard, lest some quarter of Atlanta, Columbia, or Chattanooga decides
to get uppity again and needs a little more burning. Because the
lesson wasn’t learned the first time around.

For
us moderns, however, there are some serious problems. First, this
memorial could sit anywhere — New York, Cincinnati, Urbana, Montpelier
— and Mall memorials have to be something you couldn’t build just
anywhere. It borders on the banal. Would New York City set aside
an acre or two for a platoon and a rock photo album of ghost soldiers?
For a tiny Nazi Vatican with really cool waterworks? For black walls
carved with the names of nearly 60,000 dead men and women? Would
Denver? Los Angeles? Minneapolis? But a guy on a horse could stand
just about anywhere, and could mean just about anything. It could
even be a memorial to the wrong side. Can’t have that.

Second,
there are naked people on this statue. That may have passed muster
with decadent and depraved Americans 100 years ago, when they believed
in clearly pagan and artificial goddesses like Columbia, but statues
of naked people — even to honor a war (especially to honor a war)
— simply will not work for the America we live in today. Not in
George W. Bush’s America.

From
all these examples, it’s clear that Iraq war memorial will have
to be — first and foremost — about what the Iraq war did to us.
Iraqis? The people we set out to liberate? We meant well.
We always mean well. Because God made us better than everyone
else. It will have to be designed in such a way that it focuses
the mind on us, who we are, and what happened to us. And it must
assume that a government will always exist to care for the memorial.
We Americans don’t really build for the ages anyway.

So
here’s my suggestion. It borrows a little from Saddam Hussein’s
architectural inclinations, but since Bush has often mused in public
that it would be much easier to be a dictator anyway, I don’t think
he’d mind. Saddam built several of his memorials — most notably
the swords memorial of central Baghdad — from the melted steel Iranian
helmets. It was both utilitarian but also hugely symbolic, and the
swords memorial actually starts out as a pile of helmets and eventually
becomes giant castings of Saddam’s hands holding the swords that
cross the avenue.

So
here’s my suggestion — the US Iraq memorial should be a giant statue
of George W. Bush in his flight suit, suitably packed and manly,
towering over the world and holding his hand out to the people of
Iraq (and probably America too) in the fashion of Kim Il Sung (a
like-minded "fatherly" leader who understood how much
easier leading was as a dictator), with the grateful hands of the
millions he’s liberated reaching up to him out of the ground, the
spectators in a drama that really is all about us and how really
good and noble we are anyway.

It
would be quite a sight, one that would likely comfort the many true
believers, and one that would focus the mind and soul on the goodness
of the war, the value and purpose of sacrifice, and the godly nature
of American political leadership, and the virtue of our God-blessed
state.

We
could cast it out of the casings of all those Iraqi weapons of mass
destruction we found.

(As
for the Iraqis, if they ever get around to building some kind of
monument to the occupation or liberation or whatever they will eventually
call it, I would suggest depleted uranium — it probably casts better
than Kevlar.)

October
7, 2004

Charles
H. Featherstone [send
him mail
] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing
in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer
in Alexandria, Virginia.

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