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Christopher Gehrz


"We Will Remember Them"

A new national World War I memorial?

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Even the Commission acknowledges that designing a new national memorial a hundred years after World War I is a "daunting but exciting challenge." Most practically, what's now Pershing Park must remain a park. According to the design goals, the memorial "should be designed primarily as open space," and it "should recognize and relate to its urban context" and "play a part in public and private activity patterns in the immediate area."

That goal is neither new nor impossible. One of the most striking American WWI memorials is Victory Memorial Drive (dedicated 1921), a 3.8-mile section of Minneapolis' Grand Rounds Scenic Way that passes through 200 acres of green space. It's an early example of a "living memorial," one that meshed seamlessly with Theodore Wirth and Charles Loring's grand vision of an urban park system. Referring to the now-replaced elms shading the road, the Army officer who spoke at the dedication promised that "as these trees grow, so will memories of these men and women who died in the cause of liberty grow through all generations." Likewise, my favorite of the five finalists for the new memorial in Washington—Maria Counts' "Heroes' Green"—incorporates 116 Gingko trees (one per thousand American servicemen killed) and 16 Tulip Poplars (one per million total lives lost worldwide) in its attempt to "[blend] memorial, park, and garden into a new type of public space."

But Counts' lovely design would run up against the same challenge as Victory Memorial Drive: it can't have taken more than a generation before Minneapolitans started driving, biking, jogging, and walking their dogs along that road without turning a single thought towards the 568 men of Hennepin County who died in the Great War. It's not a uniquely American problem. While we were at London's Hyde Park Corner last January, Sam noticed that the New Zealand war memorial—a series of free-standing bronze girder—is designed so that it intrudes on the jogging path, forcing some degree of attentiveness from runners who otherwise breeze past the site's three other WWI-related structures.

Even assuming that Washington's new memorial can "recognize" but not disappear into its urban context, it must still provoke a certain paradoxical kind of remembering in those who take notice. Most fundamentally, says the Commission, the memorial "should honor and commemorate the service of American forces in World War I with sufficient scale and gravity that the memorial takes its place within the larger network of memorials and monuments situated on and around the National Mall." The first two verbs in the charge are deceptively straightforward. But as the design goals clarify, the memorial must at once "honor the heroism and valor" of all Americans who "served, fought, and died" in the war and "commemorate the tragedy and magnitude of loss suffered" by the nation. It's a tall order to mix national glory with national sorrow. Or shame.

In the most generous reading possible, American valor brought the war to a conclusion in time to keep the number of combatants killed from surpassing ten million. (Another five or six million civilians perished.) But to what other end? In order to justify anything like an alliance with European democracies that did not hold democratic elections until after Armistice—and certainly didn't put the cynical expansion of their empires to a vote in the Middle East and Africa—Woodrow Wilson had to rise to Lincoln-like heights of idealistic rhetoric. But how can a nation build a memorial to a "war to end all wars" when three succeeding 20th century wars are being commemorated within walking distance? That the only Wilson Memorial in Washington is a bridge across the Potomac hints at the failure of his plans for a world "made fit and safe to live in."

And there are multiple heroisms and tragedies to remember. Will the memorial honor the valor of the pacifists, progressives, socialists, and labor leaders whose dissent risked imprisonment, unemployment, and ostracism? Will it repent of the nativism unleashed against German-Americans and other "hyphenates"? With the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial just a mile to the southwest, will a WWI memorial specially commemorate the African-American soldiers who fought in a Jim Crow military, defending rights abroad that they couldn't exercise at home? Diversity would join National Pride among the four themes organizing the hundreds of photographs comprising STL Architects' "American Family Portrait Wall." The bronze pillars of Johnsen Schmaling's "Plaza to the Forgotten War" would support cast glass monoliths "inscribed with intimate letters from servicemen and women torn between hope and despair." (Perhaps there will be space for a few bitter words from W.E.B. DuBois: "For the America that represents and gloats in lynching, disfranchisement, caste, brutality and devilish insult—for this, in the hateful upturning and mixing of things, we were forced by vindictive fate to fight … .")

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