Whenever I get the chance — and it isn’t often enough — I’ll take my lunch hour across the street from our VOA offices, briskly walking as much of the Washington National Mall as time and weather will allow.
So briskly, and so preoccupied by matters at work or the sports conversations streaming into the radio headsets in my ears, that I barely notice some of the most spectacular and moving pieces of architecture in the nation, if not the world. They are our national monuments, many of them war memorials to the nation’s fallen.
And while millions of people, here and abroad, make elaborate plans and spend great time and money to visit Washington, just to see those same memorials as well as the phalanx of Smithsonian museums that lines the Mall, I am not alone in bypassing them without so much as a thought. Cross-country skiers whoosh by these winter days, softball and soccer players chase balls right up to their edge come Spring, and commuters drive through and past the great greensward unmoved by its grandeur every day of the year.
Yet all across our nation, we go to great, even glorious, pains to remember those who served, and what they fought and died to defend.
There are statues and monuments dedicated to servicemen — and a few women — who fell in the Revolutionary War and the U.S. Civil War of the 18th and 19th centuries, respectively.
Gigantic soldiers’ and sailors monuments and arches fill public squares and park entrances in Cleveland, Ohio; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Brooklyn, New York; and other old cities in the North. And you’ll find a lone statue to an ordinary, anonymous Confederate soldier from the U.S. Civil War in just about every southern town. In Richmond, Virginia, one of the capitals of the Confederacy, there’s a whole row of memorials — this time to admirals and generals who fought for the South — on Monument Avenue.
But only the First World War and conflicts that followed have truly national monuments. As you might expect, they are centered on the National Mall.
It’s hard to capture visitation numbers, but what may be the most popular memorial of all commemorates the nation’s most unpopular war. From the day the memorial to American armed-service members killed in the Vietnam War opened in 1982, people have left thousands upon thousands of objects there – teddy bears, pairs of boots, small flags, photographs by the hundreds, even cans of beer – to remember loved ones and buddies. Other visitors trace rubbings of one among more than 58,000 names on the memorial’s black-granite wall.
There are also majestic memorials to the veterans of the Second World War and the Korean conflict, even though the latter is considered “the forgotten war” that fell between the merciful end of World War II and the bitter war in Vietnam.
As the time nears that a century will have passed since another global conflict, the First World War, was fought, that Great War “to end all wars” may truly have become the nation’s overlooked struggle. Only one U.S. veteran of that war survives. Former Army corporal Frank Buckles will turn 110 on February 1.
Most of the millions of Americans who visit the Washington National Mall will not even notice that there’s a memorial to World War I in their midst. It’s a small and simple monument that looks like a miniature Greek temple, sitting off by itself in a little clump of trees not far from the magnificent memorial to President Abraham Lincoln.
For sure, I’ve missed that monument on more than one of my walks, though I remember joining Carol as she photographed it one day.
Almost literally in the shadow of what Americans sometimes call the “national pencil” — the towering obelisk to our first president, George Washington — the monument to the 16 million men and women who served the nation in World War II opened in 2004. To me, Friedrich St. Florian’s design, including two great arches, 56 pillars surrounding a grand fountain, and etchings and inscriptions depicting scenes as mundane as taking a physical and as powerful as hand-to-hand combat, is most magnificent at dusk, when spotlights seem to lift the entire scene above the gloaming.
The Korean War Veterans Memorial is shorter on grandeur and longer on attention to the individual fighters and support personnel in this “police action” on the Korean Peninsula from 1950 through 1953.
The memorial, placed in a wooded grove that had once been an Army Corps of Engineers landfill, cost $18 million, much of it raised from veterans themselves. The original concept called for 38 stainless-steel troopers, patrolling cautiously along the 38th Parallel during the 38 months of the war. But the number proved unwieldy, so the effect was achieved by reflecting 19 figures on an adjacent polished wall on which the visages of support units — truck drivers, cooks, nurses, mechanics, airlift pilots and the like — peer from the granite.
An astonishing 24-thousand faces appear in that 50-meter (164-foot)-long wall. They were computer-generated from anonymous photographs kept at the National Archives.
There are precious few words to be found at this memorial. One inscription salutes the nation’s “uniformed sons and daughters who answered their country’s call to defend a country they did not know and a people they had never met.”
And there’s one other single sentence carved there, off by itself:
Freedom is Not Free
Even on my walks when I pass this memorial, I flip off the radio and think about these powerful words. And about others that Carol and writer Ryan Coonerty found on patriotic monuments all across the country.
Here are just a few, specifically from U.S. war memorials, that I lifted from Ryan and Carol’s coffee-table book, Etched in Stone, published by National Geographic in 2007:
Here once the embattled farmers stood and fired the shot heard round the world. —Ralph Waldo Emerson
(At Minute Man National Historic State Park, Concord, Massachusetts.)
On the red rampart’s slippery swell, with heart that beat a charge, he fell. Forward, as fits a man. —James Russell Lowell
(At the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial, Boston Massachusetts.)
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. —From President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
(At Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.)
Uncommon valor was a common virtue. —Admiral Chester Nimitz
(At the Marine Corps War Memorial, better known as the “Iwo Jima” Memorial, in Virginia.)
O hear us when we cry to thee, for those in peril on the sea. —From the “Navy Hymn”
(At the United States Navy Memorial in Washington.)
The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. —General Dwight D. Eisenhower
(At the National D-Day Memorial, Bedford, Virginia.)
And speaking of General Eisenhower, there’s a new war memorial of sorts in the works. Tentatively set for completion in 2015, it will honor the World War II Allied commander — and future U.S. president — on a 1.5-hectare square on Independence Avenue, across from the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum.
If I’m still here then and still taking my “daily constitutional,” I won’t very well be able to miss it. It will be literally right next door.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Gloaming. Twilight — the time when the sun has set but there’s still some light in the sky.
Greensward. A large plot of ground, covered in grass.
Rampart. An earthen embankment, built as a fortification for defensive purposes.