Our Highways Are an Ever-Expanding Museum of America’s Wars

I could hardly make out the words on the sign, but I knew what they said.

A highway memorial sign for Nicholaus Zimmer, Hugh Martin's buddy from basic training | Hugh Martin in Jalawla, Iraq, 2004.
Courtesy of Hugh Martin / The Atlantic

South of downtown Columbus, Ohio, lost on the way to a tailgate, I saw the road sign bearing his name. The brown aluminum placard flashed between passing cars. I’d been holding my phone, listening to directions, and I dropped it. I could hardly make out the words on the sign, and then it disappeared behind semis, but I knew what they said: Army Specialist Nicholaus E. Zimmer Memorial Highway. Fifteen years earlier, when he’d been killed by a rocket-propelled grenade near Kufa, Iraq, I was on a base four hours north, staring at dark hills and crooked coils of concertina wire during a quiet 12–4 a.m. guard-duty shift.

I thought about merging into the right lane to pull over. A guy from our basic-training platoon, now a truck driver, had stopped on this freeway years back and taken a selfie with the sign. A bunch of us “liked” it on Facebook. Guys typed things like “RIP Nick” and “Miss you brother.” I always told myself I’d go see the sign. I never had.

As I moved with the hundreds of other vehicles, I was angry to be among the anonymous mass passing his name. No one here fucking knows Zimmer, I thought. I also sensed a self-deprecating awareness: Yes, how sad, I’d seen the name of a dead friend on a road sign and now felt a numb indifference to the rest of the day—to the first football game of the season for the nationally ranked Ohio State Buckeyes.

If I pulled over, what would I do anyway? Was I really going to loop around, park on the side of the highway, take a photo? Touch the metal sign? Run my hand over it?

I wanted to call someone from basic. Carter, in Missouri. Hernandez, in Texas. Just to tell them that I’d seen Nick’s sign. But I didn’t make any calls. Two feelings surged inside me: grief so sharp in my throat that I could cry and a rage that manifested in my two-handed grip on the steering wheel, as if ready to rip it from the console. I cussed quietly, tried to keep it all down. How many times in Iraq had I felt palpable fear in my body but did everything I could to keep my face blank, my expression passive? After an IED. After the first mortar attack. After tracers flew over our heads.

I was in the left lane and couldn’t get over. The sign was almost a half mile behind me. The cars kept pushing along.

As of 2019, Ohio haD designated 394 memorial highways, including Nick’s. Many of these name service members killed in action, police officers killed on duty, former governors, or famous Ohioans such as the sharpshooter Annie Oakley and the football player Lou Groza. Other memorial highways are more nebulous: the Atlantic and Pacific highway, Lake to River Highway, Freedom Memorial Highway. State Route 4, a highway crossing through 13 counties, honors the Wright brothers. Two highways honor Johnny Appleseed. State Route 172 in Stark County, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, honors the Football Heritage Corridor. U.S. Route 35 in Gallia County, near the restaurateur Robert Lewis Evans’s family farm, honors Bob Evans. But at least 42 of these roads, by my count, relate to wars, veteran organizations, or military divisions and regiments: World War I Veterans Highway, Southern Ohio Veterans Memorial Highway, Catholic War Veterans of the U.S.A. Highway, Purple Heart Trail, Pearl Harbor Memorial Highway, Women Veterans Bridge, the Grand Army of the Republic Highway. At least nine highways honor 18th- and 19th-century historical figures who also happen to be veterans: Ulysses S. Grant, Duncan McArthur, and George Washington, for example.

All of these names, combined with the 203 specifically naming dead post–Civil War veterans, make the highway system an ever-expanding road museum to the growing list of American wars, of the war dead.

Nick’s sign, on a grassy stretch behind a medical supply and UPS warehouse, stands on the southeast corner of Interstate 270 in central Ohio. I-270, officially declared the Jack Nicklaus Freeway, after the golf star and Columbus native, loops approximately 54 miles around the city, passing through suburbs such as Worthington, Dublin, and Grove City. The sign that I saw stands near Grove City’s busy Broadway exit, facing northbound traffic. An identical one, about five miles up the freeway, near the West Broad Street exit, faces southbound traffic. Known as the “Outerbelt,” this mitten-shaped loop has its origins in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1956 National Interstate and Defense Highways Act. In post–World War II America, responding to increasing traffic accidents, a narrow and congested highway system, a growing population and surge of registered vehicles, and the desire to create jobs for returning service members, Eisenhower pledged to construct “41,000 miles of road by 1969.” In his February 22, 1955, message to Congress, Eisenhower explained how these highways would serve their role as “defense.” “In case of atomic attack on our key cities,” he said, “the road net must permit quick evacuation of target areas, mobilization of defense forces and maintenance of every essential economic function … the present system in critical areas would be the breeder of a deadly congestion within hours of an attack.” As I drove in the left lane—congested, sure, but with ample room to evacuate in case of atomic attack—I was angry because the roadscape was so commodified, banal: interstate numbers, speed limits, motels. The logos for Waffle House, Burger King, and Big Boy were on a wide blue sign reading Food–Exit 2. And then, among it all, Nick’s name.

But what did I expect? Something holy and pure? Something bigger? Cars to slow and honk and flash their lights? I realized how most drivers saw Nick: another name, available for visual consumption or not, flattened—literally—on a steel sign.

Nick was laughing when I met him in the Fort Knox barracks bay where we lived for 15 weeks. We were the only two boys in the platoon from Ohio, and our lockers stood side by side. Both of us were 18, our high-school senior proms just a few weeks past. He was probably the only guy everyone liked immediately. On the first days of training, so many guys acted distant and hard. Not Nick. He had us laughing from his drill-sergeant impressions, from the wry smile that showed his mouth of perfect teeth. He was a skateboarder, a fan of Flogging Molly, a trash talker of military authority. After a drill sergeant punished us with overhead arm claps until we couldn’t feel our shoulders, Nick walked into the barracks smiling sarcastically, joking, “That was fun!” Among so many guys raving about guns and how many push-ups they could do, Nick’s personality was refreshing.

I remember him outside of the barracks as all of us shined boots. It was the day after our weekend pass and Nick laughed as he explained what he and his girlfriend had done in a hot tub at the Elizabethtown Holiday Inn. I still see him sitting cross-legged in the grass, running a horsehair brush across his boots, the warm Kentucky evening closing in as we finished our last task of the day.

I don’t remember saying goodbye to Nick. After graduation, he’d eventually ship to his active-duty station in Germany. I’d go back to Ohio to drill with the National Guard. I do remember that a few of us wrote down our numbers and addresses in a small notebook that Nick had. He promised, as he had many times during training, to show me around Columbus once we were both back home. We might’ve hugged or shaken hands—it’s all lost in my memory. I never heard from him again.

It was a year after 9/11. In less than two years he’d die, south of Baghdad, on an M1A1 tank.

To keep them from interfering visually with “directional guide signs,” memorial signs must, according to the Ohio Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices, “have a white legend and border on a brown background.” Also according to these guidelines, a memorial sign like Nick’s must be placed in an area where it won’t “compromise the safety or efficiency of traffic flow.” All of this is to ensure that the sign won’t confuse drivers trying to read, for instance, the blue or green signs noting a specific exit to Grove City or the nearest Sunoco. A memorial sign asks for attention, but not too much attention. There have been many disputes over the meaning, purpose, benefits, and risks of memorial signs, as with the more ubiquitous roadside memorials honoring drivers killed on the roads, many of which are constructed by families.

In a 2019 study, drivers viewed videos of “road scenes with and without memorials” in order for researchers to examine, as they put it, “attentional allocation.” The memorial used in the study was a simple white cross. Although the memorials were not overly distracting, the researchers found, they were also not “safety neutral”: Some participants “reported quite strong negative emotional reactions.” Researchers stated that the memorials could be, depending on the location and the viewer, “distracting and/or distressing.”

Diptych of Hugh Martin reading a newspaper in Iraq and a landscape with a soldier and a child.
Left: Hugh Martin at FOB Cobra reading a newspaper, Iraq, 2004. (The FOB was a couple of miles from Jalawla.) Right: Sadiyah, Iraq, 2004.

In 2004, five months into my unit’s deployment to Iraq, I woke up after a night of patrols. I made coffee, sat on my cot, and began to read from the stacks of newspapers that my mother would send once a month. Copies of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, always a few weeks old. Reading the sports pages and local news from home usually made me feel calm, grounded. I also had a routine to look, when I could, at the U.S. Department of Defense casualty list. I couldn’t help but check it. I scanned the list, as I had hundreds of times. Seemingly out of nowhere, I saw Nick’s name. I couldn’t believe it. I looked at the name again. In my mind, he was still at Knox, where I’d seen him a year and a half earlier. I thought of how he’d promised to show me around Columbus. Sitting there, in 2004, I thought this was still a possibility. I felt like I wanted to rip up the paper, but I just stared at it.

I remember thinking, for a second, that this name in the paper was spelled differently than the one I’d imagined. “Nicholaus.” That couldn’t be him. But how could I have known, in basic, how to spell his first name? Of course it was him. It was in the paper. It’s on the sign.

In 1912, arguing before the House of Representatives, William P. Borland said, “Now, the question will be raised … as to the appropriateness of a highway as a memorial as compared with what is regarded as the conventional form of a memorial building, or something utterly useless.” Borland wanted to construct a memorial highway for Abraham Lincoln from the city of Washington to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The “utterly useless” building he referred to was the Lincoln Memorial, which would be built and dedicated on the National Mall in 1922. Borland, like many people at the time and many today, argued for utilitarianism over aesthetics. “The nearer a memorial comes,” he said, “to being actually useful to the people now living upon the Earth the better it is, not only as a memorial, but as an expenditure of the taxpayers’ money.” For Borland and others, useful implied that a memorial should align with some public service or good, like a highway from D.C. to Gettysburg, a distance that, in 1912, took almost a day to travel due to poor roadways. His proposal was rejected, but as the century went on, and as highways and roadways multiplied, so did naming and making them into memorials.

Although pinpointing the first military-related memorial highway is hard, the confluence of American roadways and military-themed memorials goes back at least to 1945, when the New Jersey State Council of Garden Clubs dedicated a five-and-a-half-mile section of U.S. 22. Called the Blue Star Memorial Highway—after the banner hung on homes for a serving family member—this highway honored New Jersey citizens who’d served during World War II. Consisting of more than 6,000 flowering dogwood trees planted along the road, this “living memorial,” the New Jersey State Council of National Garden Clubs explained, “would be better to help beautify and preserve the country the men had fought for than to build stone monuments.” One of the other benefits was the sheer volume of vehicles that would pass by the memorial: “As this four-lane highway is one of the great traffic arteries between New Jersey and other states, it is estimated that 29,000 cars will pass the memorial daily.” As Blue Star Memorial Highways spread across the country, names of specific soldiers, many of them Medal of Honor recipients, began to appear as well. Since 9/11, highway memorial signs for veterans have multiplied in nearly every state, especially Ohio. Remembrance, if that’s the best word, could take place on a massive, collective scale—a constant drive-by of commemoration.

One can’t help but note another parallel to this rise of drive-by memorials: the 1930s invention of the drive-through, first at banks and then at restaurants. Easy and convenient, the drive-through saves us time and gets us back on the road.

I suspect that Nick’s sign, for most drivers, constructs a simple narrative—a soldier dies; he is memorialized on a highway; we remind ourselves of said soldier as we pass.

The sign, like any memorial, contributes to the construction of American identity.

The sign implicitly praises militarism, nationalism, and blanket reverence for the American dead, no matter the efficacy of the war.

The sign means to remind drivers—or impose upon them—on the way to work or a football game or the mall, that we Americans value our war dead.

The sign hopes to strengthen the social fabric between self and nation.

The sign, if I want to defend it, does push, perhaps in a productive way, Nick’s ghost into the present.

Does the sign fight complacency, albeit weakly, by informing countless individuals passing in their vehicles of one more dead veteran’s name?

Does the sign, juxtaposed against corporate logos for hotels and fast food and gasoline, diminish or ironize Nick?

Does the sign just say, Here, think about the war, briefly—but keep your eyes on the road?

One reason Borland wanted a memorial for Lincoln outside of D.C. involved an experience he had had during his first congressional term, in 1909. In a story about walking around the city with a friend, Borland described how they “passed monument after monument to dead men, some of them men whose names and services we could not remember.” Borland later concluded, “There is a limit to the extent that we can beautify the city of Washington by mere monuments and memorials to dead men, many of them dead memorials to dead men.”

In his 1995 article “The Monument Glut,” James Reston Jr. argues that the proliferation of war memorials in Washington, D.C., makes visiting the National Mall “the walking-around equivalent of changing channels on a television.” The need to produce and construct “memorials,” even on highways juxtaposed against fast-food signs in fields behind UPS-shipping warehouses—where Nick’s sign stands—seems, if anything, a bit desperate.

In some states, such as Florida, roadside memorial signs are so prevalent that they’re viewed as “clutter.” From 1998 to 2011 alone, the Florida Department of Transportation erected 738 signs. U.S. Route 19 in Florida, a 160-mile stretch between Crystal River and Tallahassee, hosts dozens of memorial signs. Among its many names are the Blue Star Memorial Highway, the Nature Coast Trail, and the names of dead American soldiers, police officers, and politicians. In a 2011 article in the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times), then–Democratic State Senator Larcenia Bullard said, “We’re cluttering the highways with all these signs.” Former Republican State Senator Greg Evers expressed disappointment that a roadside memorial sign for Air Force Colonel George “Bud” Day, a Medal of Honor recipient, had to be shared with other road memorials. “To honor a person of that caliber, it shouldn’t just be a memorial,” Evers said. “He should deserve the full dedication of the road.”

But how much road is enough?

Years before seeing Nick’s sign I read about the nonprofit Ohio Flags of Honor, which was started by Nick’s parents. Until this year, they traveled around Ohio and displayed American flags in parks and other public spaces. Each flag was inscribed with the name of an Ohio soldier who had been killed overseas since 9/11. The exhibit required you to move among the 302 flags. Like visitors to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., individuals had to explore and search as they read the names inscribed on the poles. The process involved effort and participation. I thought of another parent, Carlos Arredondo, whose 20-year-old son was also killed in Iraq in 2004. Over time Arredondo created a mobile memorial that he takes to parades, ceremonies, and demonstrations. Although it includes his son’s uniform, boots, dog tags, and medals, the most stark element involves a flag-draped wooden coffin, which Arredondo wheels around on a cart. “I think people need to see that,” Arredondo told Linda Pershing, an associate professor at California State University at San Marcos. “If they don’t see it, they don’t feel it. If they don’t feel it, they don’t care.”

In the months after I returned from Iraq in 2005, I learned to be cautious when mentioning the war. Sometimes it could silence an entire room and I’d find myself stared at as if I’d announced that I was dying. Other times people would express their thanks and mention some distant link to the war—their cousin’s boyfriend or a neighbor’s son had also served and, therefore, they sympathized with whatever experience they imagined I had had.

What’s easier than talking, of course, is to just install a $500 freeway sign.

The 133rd Ohio General Assembly, which met during 2019–20, introduced legislation to add more than 60 new highway memorial signs to the existing tally of 394. The 134th Ohio General Assembly, which adjourns on the last day of 2022, has introduced legislation for at least 39 more highway memorial signs.

After Nick’s sign was installed, in a 2014 article about its dedication and placement, Ohio Representative Cheryl Grossman said, “This is very important … Let us never forget.” But with a similar memorial sign every few miles or so, how could we remember?


This article originally misstated the name of Crystal River, Florida.