Monument Du Jour?

Memorial Day has come and gone and – with it – the dedication of a new World War II memorial on the National Mall in Washington.

Like many Americans, I’ve got mixed emotions about the new monument. 

We owe a tremendous amount to the 16 million men and women who served, and the 405,399 who died, in what may have been the last war this country fought for legitimate reasons and it was wrong that tributes to two later – and less justifiable – conflicts would be constructed beforehand.

But the National Mall of late has become a hodgepod of monuments, memorials that has marred what was once a beautiful, pristine expanse between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington monument.

It started with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a long-overdue but controversial tribute to those who died in an unpopular and unnecessary war. That memorial, set back into the landscape just east of Lincoln’s monument is relatively understated, but each monument that has followed is larger, more elaborate and more of a scar on the landscape.

Franklin Roosevelt once said that any memorial to his presidency should be no larger than his desk, yet the FDR monument is a rambling garden of stone and fountains that covers more real estate than the Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson memorials combined.

Likewise, the Korean War memorial occupies more real estate but pales in comparison to the ground gobbled up by the World War II monument. One can only contemplate the monuments yet to come – including Desert Storm and Iraq, assuming the current war in the desert ever ends.

As a native Southerner, I grew up around monuments to yet another war – the one we liked to call the “war of Northern aggression” or – as you Yankees refer to it – the Civil War.

In Virginia, we have monuments, statutes, battlefields, roadside markers and other constant reminders of the conflict between the North and South. When my Illinois-born wife came with me to visit my home state for the first time, she looked at all the Confederate monuments and shook her head.

“My God,” she exclaimed. “How many monuments would be here if you’d actually won the Civil War?”

Her irony is well justified. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which opened first on the Mall, honors a war we lost, one that ended with Americans scrambling aboard helicopters on rooftops as the Viet Cong closed in.

Next came the Korean War Memorial, a conflict that was never officially a declared war and one that ended with a truce where the two sides kept pretty much what they had before after too many Americans went home in body bags.

“I had to wonder,” a World War II vet told me over Memorial Day. “I had to wonder just when we would get around to honoring those who died in a war we actually won?”

Yes, it should be disturbing that it took so long to honor those who fought in World War II. Some now ask when we will honor those who died in World War I, the “war to end all wars.”

And lest we forget, the National Mall does not yet host a monument to the one that started it all – the Revolutionary War.

It is sad that we must build monuments to honor those who fell in war.

But it is even more depressing that we must continue to build these monuments because we have yet to learn that there can never be a war to end all wars.