Sacred Real Estate: What Makes Washington’s WWII Memorial So Dreadful?

Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape
by Kirk Savage
(University of California Press, 2009)

Sixty-eight years ago last month, my grandfather was playing touch football with his new Army buddies at Fort Lewis, in Washington State—only to be interrupted by the announcement of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Years later, he would be fond of telling the story of how, in the midst of the pandemonium, he had to buttonhole a friend to ask where exactly Pearl Harbor was. “I had never heard of it before,” he would say.

I have always liked that story, especially in the gentle self-deprecation of my grandfather’s telling, as a reminder of how hard it can be to unlearn what we know of history. Everyone, of course, now knows the location of Pearl Harbor, about the subsequent entry of the United States into World War II, and of the eventual victory of the Allies over the Axis of Germany and Japan. But for most Americans on December 7, 1941, none of those things were evident.

I was thinking about my grandfather and his football game earlier this month, when I walked, for the first time, through the World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington. Dedicated in 2004, the Memorial is a broad plaza of fountains, pillars, and sculpted wreaths. It also sits in the shadow of the Washington Monument, in a direct axis with the Lincoln Memorial. It’s hard to imagine more symbolic real estate.

How this monumental configuration came to be is the subject of Kirk Savage’s brilliant new book, Monument Wars. Equal parts historical narrative, art criticism, and public inquiry, Monument Wars tells the story of how the iconography that we take for granted has been the subject of both careful planning and long, complicated disputes. Given the emotional power of this terrain (think of the images of the Obama inauguration last January), the book might have easily been subtitled, “how sacred space is made.”

Savage points out that the National Mall is essentially a twentieth-century creation that has relied on an eighteenth-century origin story—a fable that the urban planners of the nation’s capitol told about their fulfillment of the original planner of Washington, Pierre Charles L’Enfant. Throughout the twentieth century, the architects and guardians of the Mall repeatedly claimed that they were restoring the Mall to L’Enfant’s original vision after a century of neglect. As compelling as this story might have been, Savage explains, it was hardly true. For starters, L’Enfant had no plans to extend the Mall westward beyond the current site of the Washington Memorial. (The Lincoln Memorial is built on landfill.)

More importantly, throughout the nineteenth-century the Mall existed as a carefully managed urban forest, a patchwork of trees and plants that were the envy of visitors from throughout the world. What changed in the early twentieth century was a shift from thinking about the Mall as set of public grounds to a public space. To travel on the “ground” was to be rooted in the earth, to experience a surrounding physical landscape in its variety. “Space,” on the other hand, is something that can be rationally controlled, and managed from above; cleared and filled with symbolic experience. So instead of paths winding through groves and gardens—and abutted by vibrant urban neighborhoods—we have the symmetrical, museum-ringed plots of the modern Mall, which functions as the medium of patriotic experience.

There is much to admire in Savage’s book. (The history of the construction of the Washington Monument alone is as dramatic as any novel.) But what I like most is that Savage does not unearth the forgotten history of the Mall’s making just to discredit what it has become. We may have lost something as we moved away from the public grounds of nineteenth century; however, Savage understands that we have gained something as well.

Reading Monument Wars, I was struck by how fortunate the Mall has been in its public art. Savage makes an excellent case for the aesthetic success of the Washington Monument, an unlikely harbinger of modernism when it was completed in 1885. The Lincoln Memorial invites a kind of reverential contemplation in the visitor—a rare feat for such an iconic locale—and even compels many of them into a careful reading of two rhetorical masterpieces, The Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s second inaugural. And Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial is nothing short of the most significant piece of public sculpture of the late twentieth century; one that, notably, invites its own careful reading.

Unfortunately, all of these works also reveal what makes the more recent World War II Memorial so dreadful. As Savage notes, its proud, vertical pillars of white marble (adorned by sculpted wreaths) seem to be a deliberate response to the spare black granite of Lin’s Vietnam wall of names. The World War II Memorial names places, not people, and its visual idiom is a deliberately martial one: names of commanders, soaring eagles, didactic inscriptions. The tone of the Memorial is, as Savage puts it, “authoritarian certitude.” For the visitor, the roar of fountains drowns out any kind of deliberative reckoning, and necessarily raises the volume level. At the Lincoln Memorial, parents whisper to their children; here, they shout.

In the midst of this, it was hard for me not to think of my grandfather and wonder what he would have made of the space. In the years that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor, he would be deployed to the South Pacific, survive the war, and return home to raise a family. The war he liked to talk about (at least with me) was made up of football games with his friends, cribbage in the trenches, and the exotic surprises that Australia and the Philippines held for an Oregon farmboy. Of course, there was a good deal more to his war, but he didn’t care to talk about that. He was a proud veteran who would be buried in a Veteran’s Cemetery not far from the towns where he lived most of his life, but he was also a profoundly modest man. If he thought he belonged to the “greatest generation,” he never showed it.

So it was hard to find much of my grandfather in the triumphal, swaggering World War II Memorial of the National Mall. That is a shame, because he and his comrades deserved better. But Savage’s book also reminded me not to fret too much about this missed opportunity. Monument Wars shows that no matter how sacrosanct they have become, places like the National Mall are also unpredictable and fluid. The Lincoln Memorial, for instance, has acquired a whole new symbolic register thanks to its role in the African American freedom struggle of the last century, particularly as the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s oratory. Who knows what work it might perform in the future. And who can tell what the World War II Memorial might mean to Americans decades from now. If we are lucky, its unapologetic braggadocio will look like a historical aberration; if we are less so, it will appear as a warning of the shape of things to come.