A Monument to Blah

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Monuments aren't always made of stone. You might say that there's a World War II memorial embedded all through American culture. It's in the fiction of Norman Mailer and James Jones, in the wartime poetry of Randall Jarrell and Anthony Hecht, in the tremendous D-day invasion scenes of Saving Private Ryan. Any one of those will give you just a glimpse, but an unforgettable one, of what war can be.

All the same, for reasons anybody can understand, veterans have for years been looking for a large-scale acknowledgment on the Mall in Washington, the national memory bank where the Korean and Vietnam memorials stand. Later this month they will finally get one. On May 29 they will collect there with their families, former Senator Bob Dole, who co-chaired the memorial effort, and actor Tom Hanks, who spearheaded the fund raising, to dedicate the National World War II Memorial, a project that took 17 years. If only it had been worth the wait. That war remains the great hinge on which 20th century America turned. The men and women who fought it deserve a monument commensurate with what they endured and accomplished. What have they actually got? Purest banality, an inert plaza dressed with off-the-shelf symbols of grief and glory. This is more than a missed opportunity. It's one more misfortune of the war.

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Jan. 17, 2004

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Designed by Friedrich St. Florian, an architect based in Providence, R.I., the 712-acre memorial created controversy early on because of its proposed location. So as not to rupture the sight line between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, or to intrude upon the space where the 1963 civil rights march was held, it was originally planned for a site off the central axis. But eventually it was shifted there. By way of compromise, the memorial's central feature is now a stone plaza sunk 6 ft. below ground level. Even that doesn't do much to minimize its impact, as the view to the Lincoln Memorial is forced between the two widely spaced halves of an impotent colonnade that rises above the plaza.

At the center of that plaza is a rebuilt but scaled-down version of the Rainbow Pool, which marks the far end of the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool. On either side is a four-story arched pavilion — one marked ATLANTIC, the other PACIFIC — each enclosing four bronze columns that support a circle of bronze eagles. Around the plaza's perimeter is that colonnade, 56 granite pillars (one for every U.S. state and territory at the time of the war), each 17 ft. high. The memorial is also a bulletin board. All around there are surfaces bearing words: VICTORY AT SEA. SOUTHERN EUROPE. NORTH AFRICA. Every campaign and theater of war, every state in the Union, appears to be present and accounted for. But there is not a syllable anywhere with the power to move.

It doesn't help that St. Florian's modernized neoclassicism — his wind-sheared surfaces and axial symmetry — instantly brings to mind Fascist architecture of the 1930s and '40s. It's true that in those same years neoclassicism was also the chosen style for government buildings all over Washington. But St. Florian's clean-lined take on neoclassicism more closely resembles the Art Deco — flavored Moderne favored by Mussolini. That colonnade? Il Duce would have loved it. In most other aspects the memorial is in tune with the flavorless avenues of bureaucratic Washington. Walk over to the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, and you can see a reprise of St. Florian's stars and flat-surface columns. But allow him this much — his design can't be accused of excess sentiment. It seems contrived to call up no feeling at all, unless you count a vague sense of officialdom, of a task discharged.

Great war memorials can be bursts of glory. Go to Boston Common, and see the exalted 1897 bronze relief by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the one dedicated to the black Civil War regiment headed by Robert Gould Shaw. They can be grave and abstract, like the vivid slash that is Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial. What they can't be is tepid. World War II wasn't fought at room temperature. Can we possibly be satisfied to remember it that way?