Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Wartime Memories: Numbers, Symbols and Names

The power of the tombs of unknown soldiers rests in the abstract identity of the person inside. Anyone can mourn there because the soldiers lack real names and lives. Their identity was itself a casualty of war, making the ultimate sacrifice by allowing themselves to be effaced. These kinds of memorials were fitting for an age of total war in which large numbers of men fought and died, some never to be returned home, left to the battlefields. Appolinaire descried World War One as a meat grinder in which men came out the other end as an undifferentiated mass.


Place Broglie, before the National Opera, Strasbourg

In his book on war memory, George Mosse situates the tombs of unknown soldiers in the myriad of local memorial that paid tribute to local men who died in WWI and, later, WWII. Whereas the latter were specific, the former were general. They allowed nations to mourn collectively. I might still shed tears when I see wreaths laid before the tomb in Arlington.

It is now harder to make the same abstraction that allows for collective mourning. First, mourners demand that they find some concrete representation of their relatives in the memorial. Sometimes this means that the process of naming heroes and victims cannot be achieved at once time in one place: in Israel, two rabbis read aloud the names of Holocaust victims on Yom ha-Shoah, but never achieve but a small fraction of the names. Even with 800 dead, Gen. Sanchez could not allow enought time for a naming of Americans who died in Iraq in the last eighteen months.

Second, the nature of warfare has changed. The numbers of Americans who die have decreased, and they can be more easily identified. (How long did it take to find an unknown soldier for Vietnam?) Even if the technology of war is more destructive, other technologies have emerged that prevent people from disappearing into the miasma of total war as they did ninety years ago.

The new memorial for WWII in Washington attempts to balance some of the problems, remaining abstract in some ways, but also representing specifics in others. Every major battle is names, every state and territory is represented, every casualty represented in some small way.

Architect/Classicist John Massengale visited the World War Two Memorial this weekend. His entry on it affirms my preliminary thoughts on the project: that it tries to abstract too far, and that it cannot replicated the feat of the Vietnam War Memorial (please read is post at length). Mr. Massengale notes that,
[Architect] Friedrich St. Florian abstracts Classicism to the point of clunkiness rather than simplicity. More detail would make more contrast in the light and shadow, one of the prime elements of Classical beauty. And I'm skeptical of a very loud fountain and pool as such a prominent element in a humid climate like Washington's.

In particular, I have been troubled by memorials that try to represent each individual who was involved with or was affected by the original event. The 168 or so chairs at the site of the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal building is one example: places left empty by the absence of those lives. Architects tried to work the number of dead from September 11, 2001 into the lower Manhattan site, some suggesting either ditches or towers that are 2,800 or so feet (or some other units of messure) long, or deep, or tall. Mr. Massengale points out that this reflects the success, and failure, of the Vietnam Memorial:
In architectural circles today, the Vietnam Memorial is the sine qua non of memorial design, to the degree that the jury for the World Trade Center memorial, which included Maya Lin, chose the design that was most like the conceptual sketch Lin had published in the New York Times. And then forced the designer to pair with a landscape architect who made the execution of the design more the way that Lin would have done it.

This new conceptual paradigm can be emotionally powerful, but its palate is limited. Traditional, transcendent beauty is only allowed at the abstract level like the proportions. At the same time, an emphasis on mundane details is practically mandatory. A common feature of the majority of recent memorial designs is the use a prominent element to doggedly show the number who died: not only are there 2,173 benches to represent 2,173 dead, for example, but the number 2,173 becomes so material and central to the concept, that there is little subtlety or transcendence. And the result is more often the Korean Memorial than the Vietnam Memorial.

Even in the Vietnam Memorial, many Vietnam veterans found that the conceptual elegance didn't speak to their experience and memories, and the traditional sculptor Frederick Hart was hired to make a statue of 3 GI's standing near Lin's memorial. The architectural establishment's emphasis on the Style Wars and abstract conceptions, limits both Modernist and Classical memorials. The Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, great Classical works of the 2oth century, show how much more can be done.

The Vietnam Memorial filled a unique function: it was the only real commemoration of its kind in the nation. I can only think of the memorial in Angel Fire, New Mexico as another example. But in every town, in America and in Europe, there is likely to be a list of the Americans who died for the country–especially WWII. Almost every town in France has some small memorial–usually an obelisk surrounded by plaques, perhaps with other adornments, somewhere near the center of town. Strasbourg has two–one near the Place Broglie (municipal government section), the other in the Place Republique (prefectural government section). But these French memorial include names of those who died in Algeria and Indochina, two shameful wars, or at least mentions the wars themselves. What town in America does the same for Vietnam? America lacked local spaces for Vietnam vets–places for them to mourn and remember.

There are things about the WWII Memorial that are positive, mostly its circular conception–a sort of City of Sacrifice in which different types of participation are remembered. But where is the statue of Rosie the Riveter?

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