The Challenge of Memorializing America's Wars

Honoring the cause while confronting and remembering sacrifice can be a complicated endeavor.

Susan Walsh / AP

Each Memorial Day, tourists descend on the nation’s capital to visit memorials and monuments honoring members of the U.S. armed forces who've died defending their country. For the family and friends of the fallen, the act of remembering is daily—as is their grief. This distinction between public acknowledgement and private grief is captured tangibly in the sites on the National Mall.

Often the terms “monument” and “memorial” are used interchangeably to describe the iconic sites in the nation’s capital, but there is a difference. The New York Times recently cited philosopher of art Arthur Danto’s definition to illustrate this distinction: “We erect monuments so that we shall always remember, and build memorials so that we shall never forget.” While memorials are a source of remembrance, monuments seek to celebrate the purpose, the accomplishments, the heroic. They evoke the cause. As the Global War on Terror Memorial Foundation campaigns for a site to honor those who've died in Iraq and Afghanistan, its members will likely have to grapple with these definitions in deciding what exactly it should be.

In March, Representatives Mike Gallagher and Seth Moulton introduced legislation authorizing a study and fundraising for a new national memorial. The bill also exempts the memorial from current law, which states that a memorial can’t be authorized until at least 10 years after the war has ended. The Global War on Terror Memorial Foundation is leading the initiative. In an interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune, Andrew Brennan, the founder and executive director of the group, argued that “we have met the historic burden context,” in light of the thousands of those who have died, been wounded, or deal with post-traumatic stress. But memorializing wars while confronting and remembering sacrifice can be a complicated endeavor.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall provides a striking example of this. The wall, inscribed with more than 58,000 names of servicemen and women, has become a major attraction in Washington D.C. and plans are now well underway for an adjacent education center that will provide information on the individuals the wall records. But bringing the memorial to fruition was fraught with conflict. The tension that divided supporters of the memorial 35 years ago stemmed from two key questions: How does a nation remember its wars? How do we memorialize our war dead?

On July 1, 1980, Congress authorized the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and allocated three acres on the National Mall near the Lincoln Memorial for its construction. The Memorial Fund, led by Vietnam veteran Jan Scrugg, the originator of the initiative, raised over $8 million with the support of nearly 300,000 individual contributors.

The design review committee selected the design of Yale University architecture student Maya Lin. Lin proposed a polished black granite wall with the inscribed names of the Americans who had died in the war. The proposed wall, with no decoration, not even a flag, provided a stunning tally of loss. Many of the early supporters of a memorial were troubled by the absence of any recognition of heroic service.

Vietnam veteran Jim Webb found it nihilistic, ignoring the honor and courage of those who served. Ross Perot, one of the early advocates of a memorial and a major financial contributor, called it a tombstone and Tom Carhart, a Vietnam veteran, described it as a “black gash of shame.”

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial leadership accommodated much of the criticism. They agreed to display prominently an American flag and commissioned Frederick Hart to design a statue that would stand nearby. With these modifications, then-Interior Secretary James Watt approved the plan. Hart’s “Three Soldiers” statue was dedicated in 1984. The 1993 dedication of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial recognized the thousands of women who served courageously in Vietnam. The wall—and the two accompanying statues—completed a site that many, including nearly all of the early critics, came to consider special, even sacred.

Today, the Vietnam Wall cries out eloquently the magnitude of sacrifice, nearly 500-feet long, marked by line after line of chiseled names. Each name, in turn, whispers the record of a single life lost, and invites its own private memorial. The ground below has been personalized by mementoes left behind—and by many tears.

The celebration of warriors and their sacrifice is at least as old as classical Greece. According to Thucydides, Pericles eulogized the Athenians who died in the Peloponnesian War as men “who preferred death to survival at the cost of surrender.” He judged them as the valiant dead who “proved worthy of their city.”

Memories of patriotic sacrifice enrich national pride: The courageous dead were worthy of their city or their country. Now the survivors must be worthy of them. It is not necessary to go back 2,500 years to Athens to affirm this. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln stood at Gettysburg, on ground still stained by death and in air filled with the stench from shallow graves, and eulogized the dead only in the most general terms. He provided no tally of cost, focusing instead on the purpose of their sacrifice. He promised, “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion,” and assured that “we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”

Lincoln mourned privately even as he resolved publicly. More recently, the Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington, dedicated in 1954, reflected this patriotic resolution. The Felix Weldon statue, based on the Joe Rosenthal photo of the six marines raising the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima, provided a stirring tribute to the Marine Corps—and to the World War II generation. The base quotes Admiral Chester Nimitz: “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.” There is no acknowledgement, however, of the more than 6,800 Americans who died in that battle, including three of the six men who raised the flag.

There has been a democratization of memorials since the 19th century when town squares and public plazas were marked by resolute figures, typically generals, and usually on horseback. From the Civil War onward these public places generally included a tablet or statue base that listed the community members who served—and those who sacrificed.

National memorials, meanwhile, continue to illustrate the tension between statue and base, between the several goals of heroic celebration, honoring service, and remembering loss. Dedicated in 1995, the Korean War Memorial features a striking tableau with 19 stainless-steel statues representing American troops warily crossing a field, bounded on one side with a black granite mural showing the experiences of and honoring those who served.

In the years since it was completed, Korean War veterans have worked tirelessly to include the names of those who died in this war. In October 2016, President Barack Obama signed the Korean War Veterans Memorial Wall of Remembrance Act. Now the Korean War Veterans Memorial Foundation is raising funds to add a laminated glass wall including over 36,000 names of those who died in the conflict.

The World War II Memorial dedicated in 2004, on the other hand, is monumental in a traditional sense. It includes granite pillars and arches representing the theatres of operations, bas-relief sculpture, two poles with American flags, a plaza, a pool, a fountain, and a wall with 4,000 gold stars each representing 100 Americans who died while serving in that war.* These stars are symbolic, abstract, not personal—they project the scale of loss, though not the individuality of sacrifice.

It is a memorial but it is also emphatically a monument. None of the other memorials on the Mall, completed or proposed, has sought to be so large and magisterial, traditionally monumental even.

Apart from the triumphant scale, this merging of forms is what the Vietnam Memorial became when the representational statues joined Lin’s Memorial Wall. It is what the Korean War Memorial will become when the Wall of Remembrance is completed. And it is what the Global War on Terror Memorial Foundation will be tasked with as it presses forward with its site.

Recognizing those who served is important. But to do so without honoring those who sacrificed, as individuals and not as numbers, would provide an incomplete narrative of war. It is their narrative Americans salute today. And need to remember every day.

* This article originally misstated the number of American military deaths represented by each star on the World War II memorial as 1,000. We regret the error.