The Mall, the Memorial, the Mudslinging

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Design for the proposed World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.

Thereís no doubt about it: World War II is hot — in Hollywood, in the New York media world and especially in Washington, where a years-long battle royal rages on over a once uncontroversial memorial honoring the so-called Greatest Generation. Last month, the House of Representatives granted final approval to the memorial project, despite vocal and emotional opposition from some veteran groups and a handful of legislators. And Thursday, a federal judge dealt what appears to be a decisive blow to that opposition, denying a request to temporarily halt construction.

The question is not whether to build a monument — everyone seems to agree itís long overdue — but rather where it will best fit into Washingtonís meticulous architectural choreography.

Current plans place the memorial, an imposing (detractors say fascistic) design by Austrian architect Friedrich St. Florian, smack dab in the middle of the Mall, between the towering Washington Monument and the stately Lincoln memorial (site of Martin Luther Kingís "I Have a Dream" speech). Opponents call it an outrageous defacement of a national space, while defendants consider the prominent placement a fitting testimony to the monumentís importance.

The official website of the World War II Memorial Committee doesnít emphasize the monumentís locale, focusing instead on its purpose. The memorial is "symbolic of the defining event of the 20th century in American history. It will inspire future generations of Americans, deepening their appreciation of what the World War II generation accomplished in securing freedom and democracy."

Not exactly, retorts one World War II veteran who is among those leading the campaign to Save the Mall. Cpl. John Graves calls the memorial, as it is currently designed, "a grandiose fiasco, designed to destroy the heart of our National Mall to memorialize those of us who served in World War II." He is joined by other veterans, one of whom announced in May he would give up his Purple Heart if plans went forward to build the currently proposed monument. Veterans and conservationists are joined by environmentalists, who fear building the memorial in the Mall could disrupt local ecosystems.

Unofortunately for the monumentís opponents, the race to halt its construction appears to have hit a brick wall. When the House of Representatives voted a second time to approve expedited construction work on the memorial, they were simply punctuating a previous vote; the previous week, the body agreed 400-15 to move the construction forward despite legal challenges filed by opposition groups. The Senate has also voted to speed up the building process, and President Bush has added his support for current plans.

And for those opponents not adequately intimidated by that show of political clout, and the federal court's latest ruling, there is yet another, even more awesome adversary: Americaís current top celluloid war hero. Tom Hanks is one of the memorialís earliest and most vocal backers.