What is so godawful about Washington’s new World War II Memorial? Not even Pappy Chatterbox, a card-carrying member of the Greatest Generation (he had a desk job in Florida, but still can’t bring himself to laugh at Mel Brooks’ “Springtime for Hitler“) could muster any interest in seeing it during a recent visit. Like every other college graduate in America, he’d read all about what an eyesore it was. He figured it wasn’t worth seeing. So did I, until I happened to drive past it and decided to take a closer look.
The memorial, set to be dedicated on May 29, has received a near-unanimous Bronx cheer from the critics. “This is all stock celebration,” complained Blake Gopnik of the Washington Post, “not true commemoration … [O]ur soldiers’ worst enemies would have felt equally comfortable with its design.” In TheNew Yorker, Paul Goldberger similarly pronounced the new monument “banal and timid, overly concerned with being well mannered.” Even the Post’s architecture critic, Benjamin Forgey, who rather liked the memorial after it was scaled down from an earlier, more bombastic plan, found “something a bit stiff about the memorial’s classically inspired design.” Just about everybody agrees with the National Coalition To Save Our Mall that the memorial “drives a wedge between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial,” which previously were separated only by park land and the Reflecting Pool, and that this is a bad thing.
The famous vista of the Mall from the top of the Lincoln Memorial—the site where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech—is indeed altered, slightly. The distant Washington Monument now appears, at its base, to be encircled by two white bands—the oval marble walkways surrounding the Rainbow Pool, a fountain around which the World War II Memorial was built—and, at the bands’ far ends, a few vertical rectangles—the pillars that commemorate the participation in World War II of each state. It looks like a vaguely exotic necklace. Someone is bound to observe sooner or later that the most famously phallic building in our nation’s capital has finally gotten laid. In any event, the feminizing effect is fairly subtle and not at all unpleasant.
As for the neoclassicism, well, what’s the matter with it? Pierre L’Enfant’s Mall and its environs are studded, for better or worse, with neoclassical buildings, and the World War II Memorial (unlike a disastrous but widely praised planned addition by Frank Gehry to the Corcoran Museum) harmonizes with that environment. In particular, the memorial relates nicely to a nearby monument to Washington, D.C.’s World War I dead, a handsome (if unassuming) Greek temple erected in the early 1930s.
The main worry with neoclassical architecture, especially in white marble, is that people won’t enjoy hanging around it—too sepulchral and forbidding. That doesn’t appear to be the case with the World War II Memorial. There are welcome areas of shade inside the pavilions commemorating the Pacific and Atlantic campaigns and a big, friendly fountain to dip your feet in. It was warm today, and as I walked around the Memorial, I observed many people taking advantage of this last feature. It’s possible to imagine that, once the crowds die down, young lovers will smooch here—a venerable war-memorial indiscretion that no one would dare attempt at the infinitely more solemn Vietnam and Korean war memorials at the opposite end of the Reflecting Pool.
Can you feel the importance of World War II as you stroll around the memorial? Well enough, I think. The quotations carved in marble are mostly stirring; the only misstep is a fairly bland quotation from the writer Walter Lord (best known for his Titanic book, A Night To Remember) about the Battle of Midway. One particularly nice thing about the memorial is that it provides relief from the telephone-book style that dominates memorials today—the endless lists of victims’ names that commemorate large national events. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial started it (at least at the national level), and the New York Times’ “Portraits of Grief” for Sept. 11 took it to its logical bloated conclusion, obscuring any sense of what these disasters meant to the country as a whole. The approach worked in the case of Lin’s memorial because Lin is a genius and because the Vietnam War seems, in retrospect, to have been largely about death. But that isn’t true of World War II—not, at least, to succeeding generations. The World War II Memorial does have a stone kiosk off to the side with computers where you can look up the names of the war dead, but, wisely, that concept is not integrated into the memorial itself.
Would you like to see what a truly kitschy war memorial looks like? I invite you to walk down the Reflecting Pool from the World War II Memorial and take a gander at the Korean War Veterans Memorial, dedicated in 1995 and obviously intended to be the anti-Vietnam memorial. As with Lin’s memorial, there’s a black marble wall, but instead of names, it has pictures of soldiers, and in front of these are rows and rows of sculptures depicting individual soldiers. The effect is as though someone grabbed your collar and shouted, “I dare you to question whether the Korean War was worth fighting.” The World War II Memorial is no work of genius, but it is good enough, and it takes you away from that bitter battle, which is a relief. I, for one, am thrilled to experience, at long last, a war memorial that errs on the side of serenity.