Remembering America's Fallen Soldiers—Before They’ve Fallen

How the design of a Virginia war memorial enshrines the inevitability of conflict.

Win McNamee / Getty Images

An hour south of Washington, D.C., in the heart of historical downtown of Fredericksburg, Virginia, there is a war memorial composed of six massive granite pillars, topped with a slab bearing strong gold letters that read “Our Fallen Heroes.” The face of each pillar is reserved for the names of the area’s fallen soldiers—just over half of the pillars are for wars stretching from WWI to the current “Global War on Terror,” and the rest—to the shock and infinite interpretations of passersby—for wars that haven’t been fought yet.

Constructed in 2008, the memorial was a collaboration between the city of Fredericksburg and the Fredericksburg Area Veteran’s Council (FAVC). The goal was for the city to have one place where they could honor the city’s fallen, but to allow for the potential to accommodate for future conflicts. When asked about the significance of these blank slates, secretary of the executive board of the FAVC Golda T. Eldridge said that they were incorporated to fit with the aesthetic design of the memorial and that there was “no specific intent for any symbolism in mind” when including them. And yet to many, a memorial with nearly half of its space reserved for upcoming conflicts is an eerie statement that such conflicts and casualties are an inevitable wave on the horizon.

Fredericksburg Area War Memorial, David Caprara

Even the senior planner for the city of Fredericksburg, Eric Nelson, admitted that he found the blank walls to be “freaky.” But the most common reaction to this memorial seems to be encapsulated by Elizabeth Davis, 29, a longtime resident of the Fredericksburg area whose husband died while serving in 2014. “Although it may seem grim, the reality is that we don’t live in fantasy world, and there will always be more fighting,” she said.  “The people who designed it were just being realistic.”

Davis is probably right. Our species has been warring for at least as long as we have kept written history, and there is no indication that we are going to break this cycle anytime in the foreseeable future. Yet, setting this commentary on the human condition in stone—as is literally the case in this memorial—feels fatalistic.

This memorial puts into focus our outlooks on life—and how we implicitly make comments upon the human condition. If war is an inevitable element of the human experience, why stop at a memorial with only six columns and not create an entire circle to make a giant Stonehenge of memorials for future wars? This design could even allow for an entire second or third tier of slates for future dead soldiers—perhaps even an entire skyscraper. If America wanted to take this realism to its logical conclusion, it could even build an entire unlivable city of war-memorial skyscrapers for unborn dead soldiers.

To the sane, funding is probably not the only thing stopping the creation of these Dr. Strangelove-esque “memorialopolises.” During the design process for the Fredericksburg memorial, architect Frank Robinson suggested to the FAVC that the blank panels be engraved with the words “May these panels remain empty for all time.” But they were not included in the finished product.

“Those few words would be my closing sentiment on the design on the Memorial,” said Frank, “and I do hope it to be true.”