Until this Memorial Day weekend I wasn’t keen on the new World War II Memorial on the Washington Mall. Friedrich St. Florian’s design struck me as cold and impersonal: a circle of stone slabs surmounted by wreaths. I like monuments that depict people, and my idea of a wonderful–and perfectly adequate–World War II memorial is the statue of the men raising the flag at Iwo Jima on the U.S. Marine base in Arlington, Va. I thought: Why on earth do we need another memorial?
I’ve changed my mind, however. The main thing that changed my mind was the World War II vets. They poured into the city this weekend for President Bush’s dedication of the memorial on Saturday, and also because yesterday was Memorial Day, the time to remember all the sacrifices that the men and women in our military services made for our country. The Greatest Generation is now a generation of old men, and they typically had to be helped along by their families, so those families were there, too: wives, sons, daughters, grandkids, taking in the sights and sounds of Washington. They were thrilled to be here. I was thrilled, and infinitely touched, to see them. They were a generation of heroes who were once ordinary people from the farms and towns and city neighborhoods of America, and they were now for the most part ordinary people again. My city and my country were paying them the honor that had long been their due. This is what the World War II memorial meant to them. When I looked at the memorial with their eyes, it began to mean something to me.
Another thing changed my mind about the World War II memorial. It was this rambling, long-winded, full-of-himself essay on the memorial on the front page of the Washington Post Sunday Opinion section, written by Philip Kennicott, the paper’s self-proclaimed “culture critic.” Kennicott hates the monument. It “torments us,” he writes (by “us,” he of course means himself and some other Highly Sensitive People in the important world of “culture criticism.”)
He hates the monument because it incorporates Roman-style arches, and we know that the Romans stood for imperialism, like You Know Who in Iraq. He hates it because it’s made of stone, and the Highly Sensitive People believe that all is relative, so nothing should ever be set in stone. And he hates it because it commemorates a war, and the Highly Sensitive People believe that wars don’t solve anything–even World War II, because of Hiroshima and all that. So here is what Kennicott thinks of the old vets who were thrilled to be in Washington this weekend for the dedication:
“Even as veterans, descendants, politicians and other celebrants gathered to participate in the opening of the World War II Memorial this weekend, debate about its merits continued, though you could hear a note of caution in the tone. It is taken for granted that the veterans of World War II deserve a memorial of some sort. And though that war has sparked controversy over Japanese American internment camps, the use of the atomic bomb, the firebombing of Dresden, none of this is on the table right now. The memorial simply assumes, and embodies, the language (and often the clich’s) that have grown up around ‘the greatest generation,’ heroes all, who fought the ‘last great war.'”
How nice, Mr. Kennicott. These old guys who came to Washington weren’t heroes or the “greatest generation”–they were “cliches,” sentimental geezers in Bermuda shorts and funny-looking hats. They haven’t beaten their breasts sufficiently over Japanese internment camps in California–maybe because they spent their war in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps in the South Pacific or slogging their way through Europe to liberate German death-camps in Poland.
In every war horrible tactical and even moral mistakes get made. That’s not a “controversy”; it’s a fact. World War II was no exception. We firebombed Dresden; the Germans firebombed the Coventry Cathedral and huge swathes of London to rubble. We dropped our atomic bomb twice; the Germans, fortunately, never got a chance to finish making theirs. We don’t need Highly Sensitive People like Philip Kennicott to inform us that war is hell and that the victims are often civilians. The ghosts of six million dead Jews and God knows how many millions of others can tell us that. Guess what–we crude, stupid non-Highly Sensitive People know perfectly well what is “on the table” (talk about a cliche)!
So I’m glad the veterans came and that we honored them. I’m glad they liked the memorial. I’m glad it’s “taken for granted” that they deserved a World War II Memorial “of some sort,” because they did. Bless you, greatest generation. Sometime soon I’m going to take a trip to your own place on the Mall, and I’ll be thinking of you and thanking you.