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Christopher Gehrz


"We Will Remember Them"

A new national World War I memorial?

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Every other January, my colleague Sam Mulberry and I take a group of students to Europe, where we spend three weeks learning about the history of World War I in a few of the places it affected: Flanders and the Somme, London and Paris, Munich and Oxford. As we journey, we encounter myriad attempts to make meaning of an impossibly complicated story. More often than any other symbol or text, we see three words: "Lest we forget."

On a centenary poster outside St Paul's Cathedral: "Lest we forget." On a simple wooden cross in a Belgian field, placed by English footballers where their ancestors turned No Man's Land into a makeshift pitch during the famous Christmas Truce of 1914: "Lest we forget." On tens of thousands of gravestones in Commonwealth cemeteries, where other words failed grieving families given the option of writing an epitaph: "Lest we forget."

At first glance, the phrase can seem rote, unnecessary. Surely a world war—fought by 65 million people and involving far more—cannot pass from the memory of anyone who experienced it, or heard about its glories and horrors second hand. Nor from the collective memory of a community broken, defined, or otherwise affected by it.

And yet, we forget. Time marches forward, carrying our attention with it. The complicated riches of contemplating the past don't stack up against the urgent needs of the present and the terrifying anxieties or tantalizing possibilities of the future.

So like the poet Laurence Binyon, watching the first Tommies cross the English Channel in 1914, people for a hundred years have pledged themselves against their nature:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

That vow has been renewed again for the war's centenary. The BBC plans over 2,500 hours of TV and radio programming, and the British and French governments have jointly budgeted €65 million ($70 million) for commemoration. Australia's public and private sectors plan three times that much spending, though a lackluster public response so far has led one historian to warn of "Gallipoli fatigue."

(Not surprisingly, given such figures, the line between commemoration and commerce has blurred. Early in our tour of the Western front, our young Belgian guide worried that too many of his countrymen were trying to make a few euros off of centenary-related tourism. "That's not memory," he muttered.)

By comparison to what's happening in Great Britain, Europe, and Australia, the commemorative effort in the US has been relatively muted. Perhaps it will grow once we hit 2017, but even so, the US World War One Commission receives no taxpayer support. It will have to rely on private donors to raise the $25 million budgeted for the centerpiece of its commemorative efforts: a national memorial in Washington, DC.

Now, it's not like there are no WWI memorials in this country. In fact, there are thousands of them: statues and stones, plaques and parks, flagpoles and football stadiums. (The Chicago Bears, Texas Longhorns, and Nebraska Cornhuskers are just a few of the teams whose gridirons commemorate American losses from 1917-1918.)

And it's not like there's no national WWI memorial in this country. That's in Kansas City, where the Liberty Memorial has towered over the city since 1926 and is now fused with the National WWI Museum.

But there's no national WWI memorial in the capital city. London has the Cenotaph. Paris has an eternal flame at the Arc de Triomphe. Even Ottawa has a granite arch made famous in 2014, when its unarmed guard was killed by a gunman en route to the country's parliament. Meanwhile, Washington has had to settle for a relatively obscure statue of General John J. Pershing. (Raise your hand if you knew that it stands in a park across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.)

That despite the fact—as the Commission's website rather huffily points out —that World War I took more American lives than the Korean War and Vietnam War combined: "Yet while those who fell in Korea and Vietnam, as well as in World War II, are honored and remembered with memorials on the National Mall, no such recognition is given to the veterans of World War I."

From 350 designs submitted last summer, the Commission selected five finalists. But while a winner will be announced on January 20th, a glance at the commission's vision and design goals suggest that "We will remember them" is easier said than done.

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