01 August 2010

A Brief Tour Of Grief

After three days of attending meetings for the National Urban League, I took a day in this hot town to visit three poignant places on the National Mall - The Viet Nam Memorial, the Korean War Memorial and the Second World War Memorial. They are clustered around the Reflecting Pool that connects the Lincoln and Washington Memorials.

Being a Saturday in summer, the crowds were abundant despite the 90 degree heat. Getting there, visiting, and returning took over three hours. This was no quick sweet stroll. My visit went in reverse order of their creation. The first was the oldest, though for the most recent of the wars, Viet Nam. It is also the most well known.

Hard to believe it was so reviled and protested when it was proposed and built, but I vividly remember a sermon I delivered on that controversy. Seeing it in person for the first time, which is hard to believe, I noticed something for the first time. It inverts the usual formula for a public memorial.

Most memorials present a stylized image, a statue 0f soldiers mostly, that represent no one in particular because they cannot. Like the Tomb of the unknowns, each is present in the generalized image. Ms. Lin's design chose to honor every single individual, but at the price of a single recognizable image. Its existence is literally based on the engraving of every name, which, because of its being built into the earth not upon it, make it seem as though these names were engraved on the earth itself. Its power is that of carving one's initials on a rock to claim a shred of immortality. I was literally weighted down by all these names, so many they cannot be taken in, and the even greater weight of the stories they lived that should have been much longer. The sense of loss, tragic loss to them and the country, is inescapable.

Opposite the Reflecting Pool is the newer Korean War memorial, which combines elements of the Viet Nam memorial, favoring the stylized soldiers but with slabs of stone and a pool of water. The effect is more complicated, as attention is drawn to several objects. But the center is a larger than life patrol of soldiers in rain gear. The edges of this memorial include a list of all the nations involved in the conflict, though that is so subtle one can easily overlook it.

Long overdue, it being the truly "Forgotten War" without a clean end, I was ultimately less impressed because the oversized statues loomed up, almost like phantoms. They so dominate the memorial that the images overwhelm the purpose. Far from inviting me in to contemplate the lives of those who died, I found myself pondering the intended message of the memorial itself. Politics was on my mind, far more than poignance.

Lastly, I visited the Second World War memorial, dramatically situated at the opposite end of the Reflecting Pool, dramatically larger and grander than the other two, and the newest yet. This one frankly claims a more monumental role, not only in its size and location but also in its style which strive for an Olympian aspect.

Large steles pierced with bronze wreaths form an enormous oval surrounding an oval pool with a low continuous spraying fountain. Each of these steles signify a state or territory in the US, arranged in a curious fashion that is not self evident. Two large pavilion like towers anchor the longer axis of the oval representing the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters. A massive bronze sculpture is inside each, attached to the ceilings and walls and not to the floors.

It is as grandiose as the Viet Nam Memorial is solemn. And that is part of why I felt unsatisfied by it. The intended purpose, judging by its form and mass and style, is not to memorialize but to glorify. It succeeds too well, in my opinion. I almost hear crowds cheering, trumpets playing, laurels being placed on heads. And the people there sense the difference.

Those at the Viet Nam memorial moved slowly, as though in a cemetery. Which it is in a sense. Those at the Korean War Memorial explored it, trying to find its center and meaning. Apt for a war that remains undefined and unfinished. Those at the Second World War memorial put their feet in the water, chatted on the wide plaza, looked more self involved than thoughtful. While the intent may be to glorify, the response is ironically informal. Only at the edges, outside the memorial itself, did I find a touch of poignance, in the old man in a wheelchair whose blue cap said Pearl Harbor Survivor, and the line of blue frocked white bonnetted Mennonite pondering it all.
Three wars, the monuments, and in three hours three different nations as well. I could go on, but this is already too long.

1 comment:

Cathy J said...


I just recently revisited the Vietnam Memorial and visited for the first time the Korean War and the WWII Memorials.

I too, was completely absorbed by the somber, overwhelming gripping that I felt in my heart while slowly walking down the pathway in front of the black wall covered with the names of the fallen. The personal mementos, flowers and flags that are left tucked near the wall are such poignant reminders that each of these names represents a son, brother, father or husband. You are right. It was so quite, so somber.

Although I did not feel the same heaviness at the Korean Memorial, I was touched by the faces. Both those carved into the stone wall and the reflections of the faces of both the visitors and the statues of the patrol of young men. As a parent of a son , I find it hard not to see Brian's face in those reflections.

It was night when we visited the WWII Memorial so it was most likely a very different experience than the one you described. There were only a few us of there. So the only sounds were of the traffic and the water falling in the fountain. The lighting is beautifully done, creating subtle shadows up the stone obelisks. When I looked further up the Mall, I could see my favorite memorial. Mr. Lincoln, who lived and led through such a horrible war in our history, was looking over this site. I wonder what he would have thought of this massive conflict?

I think that each of these memorials represents each era and generation well. The "greatest generation" is known for it's selflessness and sacrifice for the greater good while often remaining quietly anonymous. So the absence of names seems somehow fitting. The Korean War sent young men in the prime of their lives and some would say, the prime of our country's history, off to fight an undefined "conflict". So, we see only the faces that represent the eager, young, hopeful men and women of that generation. And lastly, I think there is something so moving about only seeing the names of the men and women who lost their lives in Vietnam. Those names represent many who went to war without conviction, without the support of their county and came home without the honor they deserved. Those names not only honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, but represent those who came home to scorn and ridicule and who forever changed by that experience. Many Vietnam veterans remain "faceless" even today.

Sorry this is so long. I hope you are enjoying your time in DC. It is a great city to visit.