It was a perfect Washington evening, warm with just a hint of the summer to come, with a tiny crescent of a moon climbing into the eastern sky to replace the sun sinking behind a grove of elms.
The Washington Monument pointing toward the clouds reminded the men, women and children out for a stroll that in America, troubled though we are in the midst of a war that many are reluctant to acknowledge as war, the sky is still the only limit to the nation's aspirations.
Across the Mall, the Lincoln Memorial loomed with elegant gravitas, testifying that the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. The breeze seemed to echo the promise of Martin Luther King, who once stood on those steps to speak about his dream.
Now these two great national landmarks are linked in vision and sanctity by a new memorial, to be dedicated this Memorial Day weekend to the men and women of a generation, now swiftly fading into history, who saved civilization over four years of war six decades ago.
The pillars and pavilions, shooting fountains and waterfalls, granite blocks and bronze reliefs envelop a public space that invites reflection and action, stillness and a rush of excitement. Silent stones stand in solemn counterpoint to the geysers of water that seem to shoot for the stars. Sculpted ropes of bronze connect an arc of pillars attesting to the strength of national unity.
We were engulfed in the buzz of children's voices delighting in an outing at the end of a day, punctuating the lowered voices of elderly men exchanging memories of a time long ago, in places far away where they couldn't be sure they would ever see home again.
An elderly black man stood before the word "Remagen," carved in stone, and a tear trickled down a leathered cheek as he spoke softly of comrades who died at a bridge too far in March 1945. Nearby a Guatemalan family of four, in their new country for only five years, spoke of their joy of living in the United States. Teenagers from Ohio, on their senior trip to the nation's capital, pointed to a flock of birds flying overhead and remarked that they could be a squadron of warplanes.
This no ordinary memorial was 17 years in the making, overcoming the objections of preservationists determined that not a single blade of grass would be disturbed on the Mall, of "Enfantistas" who brooked no changes in the original plan of the Mall by Pierre L'Enfant, of the minimalists who object to its monumental celebration of the veterans of World War II.
The architectural critics, whose linguistic obfuscation matches their bombast, have huffed and puffed over the lack of emotional "resonance" or "stock" symbols of commemoration. Their model of perfection is the minimalism of the Vietnam Memorial, a triumph of its kind, but that is a memorial, after all, to a different kind of war and a different kind of veteran.
The new memorial is as American as apple pie, born of the restless spirit of the '40s, a product of highbrow esthetics and lowbrow sensibilities, of uptown sophistication and downtown appreciation of simple pleasures. Together the men and women who made it happen were finally able to combine artistic exuberance with traditional images of celebration and sacrifice, made accessible without snobbery. The memorial is public art at its best, born of democratic principles for the good both of Americans and America's visitors.
There was no early pressure for a memorial by veterans returning from the war. The men who won the war came home to an appreciative public who gave them parades and respect for sacrifice. Many of them were eager to take advantage of the GI Bill and concentrated on getting an education and creating families. They were determined to get ahead and had no interest in looking back at either the heroism or the horrors of war.
But as national monuments went up to honor veterans from Korea and Vietnam, it became clear that a monumental piece of the history of the 20th century was missing in action.
Critics complain that the inscriptions have too many words, but the words inspire. The greatest generation did not live by abstractions, nor did it rely on visual images alone to convey an idea. A simple sentence chiseled in granite speaks to a powerful idea: "Here we mark the price of freedom."
Nearby is a wall laced with 4,000 sculpted gold stars, each commemorating a hundred of the 400,000 Americans who gave their lives so that this nation may live. God bless them all.