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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Honoring War Sacrifice

When an impoverished Russian government a few years ago began pouring billions of rubles into a monument to the Soviet victory in World War II, foreign observers had no trouble coming up with an explanation. Every additional meter on the soaring victory tower, we opined, every extension of the grand stepped fountain, would help salve the pain of modern humiliation and help Russians forget their loss of great-power status.


Now the United States, unnoticed probably by most Americans, is proposing to build its own memorial to World War II. The recently chosen design, while not quite as grand as Russia's tribute to what it calls the Great Patriotic War, is grand enough -- nearly three football fields long with two curving colonnades, fountains, flagpoles, memorial chambers, a wide plaza and a stage, all occupying perhaps the most central remaining site in the nation's capital.


Construction of such a prominent memorial to war would be a change for Washington. The city has its share of statues of generals and other war monuments, including the relatively recent memorials to conflicts in Vietnam and Korea. Yet as a world capital Washington is most unusual for the unbellicose nature of its most important landmarks: the monuments to Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, the White House and Congress, the Mall lined with institutions dedicated to learning and beauty.


The vast memorial to World War II would be at the very heart of these, at the end of the Reflecting Pool between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Even the Russians didn't put their World War II memorial in Red Square. (Lenin's corpse does remain there, in its suit and polka-dot tie, but that's another story.)


Proponents of the memorial's centrality argue that this won't be just a monument to military victory, just as World War II wasn't just another war. It was, the organizers say, "the defining event of this century'' -- a triumph of freedom over oppression, democracy over totalitarianism, sacrifice over selfishness. It was the last "good war,'' when we last came together as a nation.


Glib psychoanalysis comes more easily when nations other than one's own are on the couch, but this nostalgia for the supposed clarity and unity of the war era certainly was central to many of the 403 design proposals submitted to the American Battle Monuments Commission. Not all carried what Robert Kotlowitz calls, in his remarkable World War II memoir, "the inflated smell of distant glory.'' Andrea Gehring, of Santa Monica, California, for example, proposed a trail of cast-iron bronze leaves, some single, some in clumps, winding their way beneath the live elm trees from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, symbolizing the sacrifice of a generation and its connection to past ideals. But most submissions leaned heavily on triumphal arches, grand columns, eternal fires and impressive globes.


Kotlowitz's slim memoir, "Before Their Time,'' is a useful reminder that, while there are just wars and necessary wars -- and the war against Hitler was one -- there are no good wars.


"I saw a hole open up in the back of Lieutenant Gallagher's neck when the bullet passed through from the front -- surprised at how large and black it was, clean, too, as though it had been drilled by a mechanic's precision tool,'' he writes about his platoon's disastrous first engagement. "There was a surge of surface blood at first, then a gurgle, like a tap being turned on, then a sudden torrent as he fell without a sound. ... The sounds, too, never before heard, swelling over the noise of small-arms and machine-gun fire, of men's voices calling for help or screaming in pain or terror -- our own men's voices, unrecognizable at first, weird in pitch and timbre. And the hum inside my own head, just as weird and unfamiliar, buzzing furiously, trying to drown out the sounds coming from all around me.''


Perhaps no monument can, or should, capture such truths about war. Architect Friedrich St. Florian's elegant winning design is certainly not militaristic. His monument would be wide but not high, preserving the vistas of the Mall. World War II is "not only about triumph and gallantry, but also about conflict and unspeakable sufferings,'' he notes, so the war should be remembered but not glorified.


But should it be remembered there, at the heart of monumental Washington? The organizers claim it fits well between the Washington and Lincoln memorials, commemorating as they do the key events of the 18th and 19th centuries. But the Washington Monument is not just a memorial to the War of Independence, and the Lincoln Memorial commemorates far more than the Civil War. They, and the Jefferson Memorial too, honor ideals of independence, liberty and equality.


World War II and its veterans and victims deserve their memorial, of course. But to make a war memorial serve as the 20th century's chief contribution to monumental Washington is almost unfair to them, forcing the war to bear too many of our idealizations and imaginings. That would be a shame for Washington, and for our memory of the war.





Hiatt is a member of The Washington Post editorial page staff.