National World War II Memorial


Architect, Friedrich St. Florian

Monuments are always at least as much about the people who erected them as the things they commemorate.  And sometimes they’re even moreso.  If the World War II Memorial is not a complete monstrosity, you can’t blame it for not trying.  You can’t blame it, in particular, for the situation that bore it, which effectively undermined the 1901 McMillan plan that created the modern National Mall, with its long, elegant perspectives and grand aesthetic wholeness. That was then. A century later, September 11, 2001 ushered the world into the global realities of the 21st century, which proved to be quite different from the orderly triumphalism that the age of Clinton wanted to announce. In strange harmony, the very look and genesis of the World War II Memorial, a campaign begun under Clinton and completed at at the end of the first term of George W Bush, in 2004, changed fundamentally the monumental landscape of Washington, DC. The view from Congress has been altered by circumstances alright. This monument, after all, was decisively completed and dedicated in the midst of a war with Iraq and the grim, frightened security state incarnated by the USA Patriot Act. It shows us at least as much about the time that built it as about the war it commemorates.

Like pretty much every national monument after 1980, the WWII memorial has had to acknowledge (and compete with) the remarkable success of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.   While some have tried to emulate it, the current WWII memorial seems to do everything possible to deny the VVM.  The WWII memorial architect’s original design was a simpler, more elegiac one, even seemingly under the ground line, in a way more harmonious with the VVM and attuned to its appeal.  But after many design reviews and changes demanded from conservative political and architectural overseers, it became a monument to an earlier generation that also seems based in the norms of an earlier time.  Hence the common criticism of its design, with its busy composition of great bronze eagles and rows of victory wreaths as well as ostentatious neo-classical forms, that it seemed more appropriate to moments past: to Soviet battle monuments or the age of Napoleon.

Unlike the personal, individual, even ambivalent experience the VVM allows, the WWII memorial has little role for the viewer. It is all bluster. As Kirk Savage well notes, the WWII memorial “splashes its message of righteous force and moral triumph from one end of the space to the other.” There is little possibility, and less motivation for leaving interacting.  Soldiers themselves have little role to play.  24 small bronze panels by Raymond Kaskey, located by the steps on uneven ground, picture anonymous soldiers in a sort of sentimentalized narrative that has little to do with fighting or death. Even more telling is the “Field of Stars” on the “Freedom Wall” at the very axial center of the monument. The four thousand stars are meant to commemorate the approximately four hundred thousand of the American war dead. They are easy to miss for most viewers, competing with the many large forms nearby, the incessant hiss of fountains and the distant vista of the Lincoln memorial.   Even more, the stars are surrounded by a moat, a pool of water which is forbidden to enter. The viewer is forced to stand back and read the overbearing moral which is carved before them, “Here We Mark The Price of Freedom.” This vista doesn’t get a lot of committed viewers. Indeed, visitors have less role to play here and often seem dazed, bored or both. They are a lot less likely to even obey the visiting rules, like not wading in the water of the central fountain.

The process of building the monument itself reflects how little share the spectator has, as many of its characteristic features were imposed by contemporary politicians rather than proposed by veterans of the war or the public.  Most crucial is the very site of the monument. The long, open, grassy perspectives from Capitol to Washington Monument to Lincoln Memorial served for a century as the basic skeletal structure of the Mall, holding together, and balancing, its many monuments and the views that they engendered as well as facilitating spaces for protest.   A controversial act passed by Congress in 2001 broke the fundamental law that guranteed this arrangement, allowing the monument to be placed directly on the Mall between the Lincoln and Washington monuments, thus breaking the spatial and visual continuity between the two, and destroying both the symmetry of the whole and reciprocity of views (and physical travel) along its grand expanse.

A symbolic national memorial, the WWII Memorial proceeded with little attention to symbolic aspects of its own creation. The design of an Austrian-born architect, one of the two firms that actually constructed the monument was wholly owned by a German firm that had used concentration camp laborers during the Nazi era. Perhaps even more amazing, the monument continues to serve as a projection for current (largely right-wing) political projections. Thus in 2014, a decade after the monument’s completion, the Senate passed a bill which would have placed a plaque on the memorial with the words of FDR’s D-day prayer, an act said to reflect America’s “Judeo-Christian heritage and values.” Opposed by groups from the ACLU to the American Jewish Committee to the Interfaith Alliance, this illustrates the continuing appeal of this monument to attempts to impose or project contemporary ideals.  And continues the question of just whose memorial this really is.  After all, stylistically at least, it makes it look a bit like the other guys won.