It’s the WWII memorial, which occupies a tragically central place on the national mall. It’s awful.
Good art is hard, and rare. Thankfully, public art this bad is rare as well. I’m not alone in thinking it’s a really terrible piece of work, but maybe I can explain why.
For a historian, the first problem with the memorial is the columns, one for each state plus six territories. As my colleague Christopher Hamner pointed out, if there was ever a “Federal” experience in American history, an example of big central government in action, it’s WWII. Sixteen million people in uniform, massive federal spending–it’s fair to say that directly or indirectly, virtually every working American was employed by the govenment during WWII. The degree of centralized control over the economy was unprecedented. So to organize the memorial to emphasize the individual states completely distorts the experience of the war.
On the right some tourists from South Carolina are posing next to their states’s column. None of them are old enough to have served in WWII. They are celebrating their present residence in South Carolina, not coming to any understanding of WWII.
The “federal” quality of WWII is obvious when you think of the military. In past wars, the Army had organized itself by state. In the Civil War, for example, you might serve as a member of the 54th Massachusetts infantry, or the 11th Pennsylvania: state citizenship was extremely important and was reflected in the way the army organized itself.
By WWII all that had changed. You showed up at a local induction center, and that was pretty much the end of your State experience. You might be happy to meet a fellow Kansan while working your way up the Italian Peninsula; you might long for home, but the experience of soldiers in WWII was an experience of regional and ethnic and state differences being combined. All those movies where the platoon has an Italian guy from Brooklyn, a pole from Chicago, a midwestern farmer, an appalachian hunter, a jew and a catholic? That’s not an accident: it’s part of Hollywood’s cooperation with the federal govenment, and it’s also an accurate account of individual soldiers’ experience.
But the memorial emphasizes State citizenship, not national citizenship. You often see veterans who visit the memorial being photographed in front of a state piller. What would you do if you were born in PA, but now live in Florida? Neither PA nor Florida were particularly relevant to your experience in WWII. What if you grew up in a military family, with no particular state allegiance? You didn’t fight as a Californian or a Vermonter, you fought as an American.
The place to memorialize Kansans who fought in WWII is Kansas. This is a national memorial to a national effort. You can’t look at the fifty plus columns and not think of fifty congressmen demanding representation and perks for their state, or 50 ideologues advancing “states’ rights.” The thing reflects not the history of WWII, but the political reality of Congressman jockeying for pork and press.
Then there’s the general architectural style of the memorial, which recalls nothing so much as, incredibly, Albert Speer, Hitlers’s state architect. There’s a quality of gloomy teutonic moderne to it which is “un-American,” to use a hackneyed phrase. It’s heavy, severe, streamlined, intimidating: strongly reminiscent of what the Nazis called “stripped classicism.” The “Nazi architecture” thing isn’t something only overeducated professors notice. You hear it from visitors as you walk around.
In each of the two towers are eagles holding wreaths. They are almost but not quite good, oversize and looming, nazi-ish.
You would think that anyone designing art around WWII would stop and think: “hmmm….who liked to use the iconography of eagles and wreaths?” Yes, eagles and wreaths are common symbols in western art, but this is a memorial to WWII. Which side used the eagle and the wreath as its symbol? [1. I’m told that the nazi bird is actually a phoenix, technically. But no one knows what a Phoenix looks like, since they don’t exist, and anyone who looks at this sees an eagle.]
It’s astonishing and revolting that the memorial pursues a style most associated with the fascist dreams WWII veterans fought against.
The memorial departs from this tuetonic severity in the wall of gold stars, one for each 500 Americans who died in the war. It’s behind a fountain, on a semi circle set back a bit from the plaza. Really, it’s hard to describe where it is because there’s no architectural point or focus to it. You aren’t drawn towards it: it isn’t impressive or compelling. Notice, in the image below, how you can barely find the stars, and how no one is looking at them?
If you go to the nearby Vietnam memorial, and walk along the wall, you very powerfully feel the weight of the death of all those young men. It’s sobering and moving to see just how many people died in what would have to be judged a minor war. But at the WWII memorial, you come away puzzled, with a vague sense that not that many people died in the war. The “one for every 500” idea entirely fails to convey that tragic scale of the war, just as the state pillars fail to convey the national character of the war effort, and the teutonic architecture fails to convey American traditions. Even worse, the gold stars trivialize it–they look like nothing so much as the gold star stickers elementary school teachers used to hand out.
We are supposed, I guess, to remember “gold star mothers,” whose children died in the fighting? That would be a good memorial, a memorial that combined the soldiers’s agony with the agony of his loved ones waiting helplessly at home. But it doesn’t do that–instead, off to the side by the steps, there’s a small bronze plaque showing people gathered by a radio. Nearby, there’s an identically sized relief showing nurses, and another showing journalists: it’s hard not to look at these and think “wow, they should have had better lobbyists.”
The stars themselves compete with a huge fountain, which sprays jets of water in the air in a gay effect entirely out of keeping with the nazi solemnity of the rest of the thing. Are you supposed to feel a sense of triumph? Or a sense of gloom? Look at how the fountain dwarfs and further trivializes the gold stars. Having no center, no coherence, the memorial is a bland mass of cliches.
Consider the spooky and effective Korean war memorial, also nearby. That memorial doesn’t list the names of all the dead, but it confronts you with near life size statues of a platoon moving through a field, and on a polished granite wall, their ghosts.
The effect is pointed, solemn and eerie. The Korean war memorial includes a pool, and fountain, but it’s still, and tranquil, not vaulting and festive. It’s coherent. If anyone doubts my reading of this, the Korean memorial and the Vietnam memorial are a few 100 yards away from the WWII memorial. I’m confident that virtually any vistor will find them deeper, more thought-provoking, and far more moving than the huge WWII memorial.
Here’s the best thing about the WWII memorial, hidden away near a maintenance shaft. During WWII American soldiers would scrawl this graffito, “Kilroy was here,” everywhere they went.
Soldiers from WWII recall over and over how they saw this in the most unusual and astonishing places. It’s part of the folklore of the war, a sign of the culture of soldiers, their irreverence, their sense of humor in the face of grim reality. “Kilroy” wasn’t from any state; he wasn’t solemn and pompous: he was exactly the opposite, a public proclamation of the shared humanity of common soldiers. The memorial hides two of these graffito on its “back” side. You’d never find them unless you knew where to look. Once again, the memorial is grossly wrong about the history and experience of the war: it’s entirely counter to what “kilroy was here” expressed. If you were marching into a newly liberated French town, you’d see “Kilroy was here” scrawled on a fountain in the town square, or on the side of city hall. The people who liberated Italy proclaiming themselves in a playful way. It was a proclamation, not some furtive secret. At the WWII memorial, a piece of folk culture GIs scrawled everywhere to proclaim their presence is hidden. What was most present is concealed, and what was least present–the states–is put forward.
Maybe some day, when the generation of WWII veterans is gone, we can tear this terrible piece of banality down, and build a more fitting memorial.