They deserve better

Posted: May 28, 2004 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Those of us who publicly opposed placing the World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington argued that doing so was a prescription for failure. If the memorial were to respect the sight lines, symmetries and elegance of the Mall, it would be too small to do justice to the grandeur of the Second World War. And if the memorial were large enough to reflect the majesty of its subject, it would overpower and ruin the delicate harmonies of the Mall.
 The World War II Memorial has just opened, and it is indeed a failure. The good news is that the Mall survives. The bad news is that for all its attempted monumentality, the memorial is deeply inadequate -- a busy vacuity, hollow to the core.

     The World War II Memorial is a parenthesis, quite literally so -- two semicircular assemblies of pillars cupping the Rainbow Pool on the invisible axis that connects the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument.

     The pool, with its fountains, makes a nice space for tourists and toddlers to dip their feet on a hot summer's day. But as a remembrance of the most momentous event of the 20th century, it is a disaster.

     Where does one start? The memorial's major feature -- 56 granite pillars 17 feet high, adorned with wreaths and marked with the names of the states and U.S. territories -- is a conception of staggering banality. One descends the main entry to the monument and the pillar to the left is marked American Samoa; on the right, the Virgin Islands.

     What do the states have to do with World War II? What great chapter of that struggle was written by the Virgin Islands (or Kentucky, for that matter)?

     The Civil War was very much a war of states. Its battles were defined by state militias that fought and died as units. But World War II was precisely the opposite. Its glory was its transcendence of geography -- and class and ethnicity. Its fighting units mixed young men from every corner of America. Your classic World War II movie features the now-cliched platoon of the Polish millworker from Chicago, the Jewish kid from Brooklyn, the Appalachian woodsman and the Iowa farm boy bonding and fighting and dying for each other as a band of brothers.

     And yet it is these gigantic soulless pillars, each mutely and meaninglessly representing a state or territory, that define this memorial. What in God's name were they thinking? Did not one commission that passed on this project ask: ``Why states?''

     But that is just the beginning of the banality. The monument is strewn with quotations inscribed in stone, meant to inspire. You descend into the parenthesis from street level, and the first large stone panel to greet you on your right reads ``Women who stepped up were measured as citizens of the nation, not as women ... this was a people's war, and everyone was in it.''

     ``Stepped up''? ``Everyone was in it''? Is this the best we can do? Are we not embarrassed to put such pedestrian prose hard by the biblical cadences of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural carved in stone at the Lincoln Memorial just a few hundred yards down the Reflecting Pool?

     And then, alas, the ultimate banality. The centerpiece of the monument is a low curved wall, closing the top of the parenthesis, as it were, straddling the central axis of the Mall and adorned with 4,000 gold stars.

     The gold star, of course, was given to those who had lost a son in the war. Why 4,000 stars? To represent the more than 400,000 American dead: each star represents a hundred.

     Why a hundred? Did they die in units of a hundred? Did they fight as centurions? The number is entirely arbitrary, a way to get the stars to fit the wall.

     Four thousand stars are both too few and too many. Too few to represent the sheer mass, the unbearable weight of 400,000 dead. And too many -- and too abstract -- to represent the suffering of the mother of a single fallen hero.

     This wall has the feel of a bureaucratic compromise between commemorating every individual (as does the Vietnam Memorial) and representing loss as a whole (as do tombs of the unknown soldier). The solution -- take 400,000 and divide it by 100 -- is nothing but sheer imaginative laziness.

     I feel sorry for the old veterans who came with war bride and grandchildren to make their pilgrimage to the monument's opening this Memorial Day weekend. They deserve to be celebrated. They deserve their memorial. And they will no doubt celebrate this one because it is all that they have. They will lend it the dignity and power of their own experience. But once again, it is they who will have done the work. They should not have to. They deserve better, far better.