They've been called the men of "the greatest generation." In the usual course of human events, the men of the greatest generation should have been dancing, laughing, loving and playing. But they weren't. They were fighting and dying in a brutal war far from home.
But no monument in the nation's capital honors the men of Anzio, of North Africa, of Normandy and a dozen Pacific islands whose very identity was inscribed in blood on the memory of the nation. The Korean War, the "forgotten war," is not forgotten on the Mall. The Vietnam War, the most divisive of all our wars save the Civil War, is honored with a solemn wall inscribed with the names of every man and woman who died in that war. Every Union general who managed to stay on his horse between Fort Sumter and Appomattox is honored somewhere in Washington.
But those who revel in the honored glory of Steven Spielberg's portrayal of "Saving Private Ryan," or in the latest depiction of "Pearl Harbor," have nowhere in Washington to mourn the loss of those brave men who died in World War II.
"It has literally taken twice as long to go from congressional approval to construction of a World War II memorial than it did to fight and win World War II in the first place," says Rep. Bob Stump, Arizona Republican, sponsor of the House legislation to begin construction of the World War II Memorial on the Mall. Only 15 congressmen voted against it.
Sen. Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas, another Republican, is the sponsor of the legislation in the Senate. He expects a vote before Memorial Day. President Bush has promised to sign it at once to put a stop to the bureaucratic wrangling that has so far prevented a start on the memorial, of a fine design that has been the subject of 22 public meetings, four laws, dozens of visions and revisions which several federal agencies, including the Commission on Fine Arts, says is OK.
Bill Clinton dedicated the site on Veteran's Day five years ago. More than $170 million in private funds have been raised for the memorial, more than originally thought necessary. But after the National Planning Commission gave its final approval last year, the credentials of one of its members was questioned, and the bureaucratic critics delayed everything again.
Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, only 4.4 million are alive today and not many will be around to see their memorial. Veterans of World War II are dying at the rate of 1,500 every day.
As you plan your Memorial Day holiday, pack your suitcases and picnic baskets, you may want to write to your senators to push Tim Hutchinson's legislation. To paraphrase a World War II fighting song: "Praise the Lord and pass the legislation." But be forewarned that the critics comprise a motley crew, armed with specious arguments and spoil-sport energy.
Some critics say the memorial will inconvenience protest gatherings in the future, as if that's ever been a problem in Washington. The granddaddy of all protests, the March on Washington in which Martin Luther King's delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, took place at the Lincoln Memorial, a quarter of a mile away.
Other critics say the memorial will destroy views and vistas. Nonsense. Two-thirds of the space will be comprised of grass trees and water, with only a small concrete surface for the sunken plaza, pillars and pool.
Still others say the design echoes Nazi/Fascist architectural "triumphalism." This may be the most ludicrous criticism of all, for a site quite modest and eloquent when compared to other monuments in and around the Mall. Not only that, the men of World War II did indeed triumph, and we can all thank God they did.
There's the green gang, who argue that the memorial will disrupt the environment and force arsenic-polluted water into the Tidal Basin and Potomac River. Actually, the contaminated water now on that ground will be removed with the placement of new pipes, and the water supply will be subject to EPA standards.
When Tom Brokaw went to Normandy Beach to document the 40th anniversary of D-Day, he walked the beaches with American veterans, listening to the stories of men then in their 60s and 70s. He was not only deeply moved, but suffused with gratitude for all that they had done: "I realized that they had been all around me as I was growing up and that I had failed to appreciate what they had been through and what they had accomplished."
They deserve the honor of remembrance. A memorial is the least we can do. Even that is not enough.