Tuesday, June 28, 2005


June 28, 2005

Heat comes easily to Washington on a late June afternoon. The air is thick like in a steamy shower, but there’s no curtain to pull back and the nearest street vendor is selling bottled water at ballpark rates.

The scene in the quarter mile radius that holds the city’s three major war memorials looks more like a theme park than a spiritual center. Young parents strain to track their zig-zagging kiddies through the swarms, while older gentleman, many in the dress of war veterans-- khakis, neatly tucked shirt, navy and gold cap-- walk two strides ahead of their wives and grown children. Their thoughts are thousands of miles and decades behind us in weird places that must make this pageant seem like their sweetest dream of heaven.

Although we’re only blocks away from K Street and the Capitol, you won’t find too many shirtsleeves on the corner of 17th and Constitution. And it’s not just because of the weather, though there isn’t a dry back in sight. It’s vacation season in America, you see, and families from all across the dark fields have made the trek to the capital. It’s vacation, so the dress is informal. But a trip like this is not made strictly for leisure, and the State Fair atmosphere is quieted by a chorus of sour faces made in the direction of anyone who forgets it.

If this is an educational excursion, then it might be interesting to consider what is being taught in and around the “Constitution Gardens.“ And if these questions are asked, and measured properly, the answers might be instructive-- not only as to the meaning or intentions of the memorials, but as to how Americans comprehend their violent history.

“Constitution Gardens”…the words won’t be heard rolling off the tongues of even the worst, immodest tourist. Most people know this rolling plot as the staging area for the Armies of the Night, or the site of Martin Luther King’s most fondly remembered speech (and, lest we forget, the place where Forrest cut short his speech and waded through the Reflecting Pool to reach Jenny). Less than a half mile straight south from the heavily fortified outskirts of the White House lawn is the head of the “Gardens” and, where King once mounted a stage to speak, sits the first, in one of two chronological considerations, of the three war memorials.

The World War II Memorial was opened to the public on April 29, 2004. It is a large and triumphantly designed spectacle. It is also, despite the howls of critics, the most comfortably arranged of the three memorials. At opposite poles of the coliseum-like enclosure are tributes to the soldiers of the Pacific and European fronts. Like the banners that line a baseball stadium, the names of each of the 50 states are engraved on smaller arches that circle the bowl. In the center is a large pool that visitors can dip their feet into on a searing hot day like today. One woman has fallen asleep on the edge of the water. With fountains surrounding the pool, it is a serene scene, but by no means somber.

World War II is the one war that Americans don’t have to apologize for. Not to other countries, not to hippies and pacifists, and not to their children. The monument and the people that pass through it are emblematic of this; the guilt that poisons the air only 400 yards away is clean as a whistle over here. The elegant phrases of the era’s political leaders, carved sporadically on the walls, stand as only vague reminders of the human cost of the war.

The memorials to commemorate World War II, Korea, and Vietnam were each completed in the last two decades, though in an order that contradicts their historical sequence.

The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial was, like the writer, born in the latter half of 1984, though its gestation period was slightly longer. The two years it took to translate Maya Lin’s dark vision into black granite reality were wrought with controversy, a fact not entirely disconnected from the idea that this, of all wars, was not the one to remember first. But it was, and today it remains the country’s most compelling war shrine, literally digging itself into hallowed ground.

You can’t quite see, even on the clearest of days, either of the other two locations from the almost subterranean topography of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. Dug into the center of two acres of crisp, green grass, “the wall” is almost 250 feet long and cuts an obtuse “V” when viewed from overhead. On the ground, the first, inch-high panels begin at foot level and stay there while the parallel walkway descends more than 10 feet before rising back up from the nadir.

On the wall is a list, written in the order by which, one day at a time, 58,000 American boy and men soldiers were killed during the war. It is a staggering number of dead, one that my father once described to me, in the only terms I could fathom at the time, as being enough to fill up Shea Stadium for a playoff game. Many years later, the volume of names engraved on the wall is still shocking, but for different reasons.

The names, and it’s hard to catch more than one-or-two per panel if you want to keep a slow pace, seem familiar today, more so than I when I first and last beheld them about five years ago. Baldwin, Ballard, and Banda are three names on the wall. And in my view they seem a stark representation of who fights the wars for this country today. They fit each of the arch stereotypes. “Kermit” Baldwin, the brother. “Cesar” Banda, the ese. “Carrol” Ballard, the seventh generation American, though he grew up poor. No, you can’t quite see the World War II Memorial from here, but its legacy lingers in air.

The cruel relationship between the two pivotal wars of the Republic’s modern history is never so clearly played out as in the “Constitution Gardens.” The soaring arches of one monument give way to the buried ignominy of another. In between lies the Korean War Memorial, a tribute as murky as the war it remembers. Scattered on the plot are sculptures of forlorn looking soldiers; None seem to be looking in the same direction. From a strictly interpretive standpoint, this memorial has the most to say about the state of modern war. The enemy flashes in and out of the shadows and the objective of the fight is blurred or unknown. The only honor is in surviving and, I imagine, remembering as few of the details as possible. A difficult task for the soldiers, but not so for civilians and politicians. Not at all difficult, in fact. Americans are gladly prone to forget.

It’s hard to not think, as you make the walk back to the subway, that some time in the not-to-distant future this carnival will gain another attraction. On the Constitution Avenue side of the Reflecting Pool lies a piece of virginal land that almost begs for marking. But this time, perhaps, we’ll do it differently…

Let’s dedicate a monument to the con-men and gluttons that make places like this necessary; to the men who make beautiful words meaningless. The ones who bequeath only frustration and anxiety to coming generations-- all in a lust to expire from their natural lives in the same spasm of mythical glory they claim to bestow on the dead American soldier.


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