Iwo Jima: The Pains of Memory

By Rollins, Peter C. | The World and I, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Iwo Jima: The Pains of Memory


Rollins, Peter C., The World and I


As the United States passes into the post-Cold War era, veterans of our past conflicts show a dual concern with our current lack of preparedness and lack of memory.

As is always the case with generational tensions, we of the older generation worry about passing along values to our grandchildren. War memorials are one form of pedagogy for future Americans, although, of late, efforts at focusing memory have been distressing.

The recent debate over the Air Force Memorial has produced much heat but should not be seen as an isolated incident. Wars are remembered painfully, and, it seems, memorials to wars are painfully placed.

In 1981, when Maya Lin's design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was approved, there was an outcry from veterans--including (then) novelist James Webb--that the black wall was a "scar in the earth" which lacked the heroic touch. Secretary of the Interior James Watt blocked dedication until a flagpole (symbolizing love of country) and a statue (representing strong, committed warriors) were added to the design.

Later, after considerable additional controversy, a Vietnam Women's Memorial was added to commemorate the contribution of the 9,500 women who served in Vietnam. The resulting complex has developed its own special synergy as the interaction of figures, the wall, and the flag has worked its way into national memory.

In 1995, the Korean War Veterans Memorial was added to the opposite side of the reflecting pool--across from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There, a squad of soldiers returns from a patrol, the brutal Korean winter wind blowing their ponchos against their bodies.

Over a reflecting pool at the apex of the memorial, visitors--many of them Korean tourists--are reminded that "freedom is not free," a statement that strikes home to combat veterans of all eras.

There were few complaints about the Korean monument outside the confines of various committees in Washington, but there was a certain amount of "monument envy" in the planning. Korean planners were both envious of the magnetism of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and determined that their monument would avoid the antiheroic errors of "the Wall."

For example, the names of Korean War dead can be summoned up on a computer kiosk at the KWVM, but this service is subordinated to the larger-than-life statues and the calm of the reflecting pool area. The KWVM is a place to show respect and to conduct reflection; it is not a place of mourning.

In 1995, plans for the World War II Memorial were unveiled; almost immediately, they came under fire from Congress. (The memorial will be sited at the end of the reflecting pool, opposite the Lincoln Memorial.)

Sen. Robert Kerry of Nebraska, along with others, worried about the elevation of the World War II memorial; would it be so high that it would obstruct the view of the Capitol from the Lincoln Memorial? In 1997, the World War II designers went back to the drawing boards to deal with this criticism while continuing to raise money, under the leadership of Bob Dole, for the general concept.

Of the many ironies in these developments, not all can be reconciled, because taste and personal background will become involved in such evaluations.

For example, many Vietnam veterans were happy with the initial plan approved by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation (VVMF). Still, the addition of the flagpole and statue certainly enhanced the patriotic and soldierly virtues--although many observers found Three Fighting Men less than heroic.

Furthermore, the Vietnam Veterans Memo states, on its initial (right side of the apex), that it is dedicated "in honor of the men and women of the armed forces of the United States who served in the Vietnam war." While the site has been enhanced by the beautiful women's memorial (still needing donations in 1998), it was not true that women's contribution had been ignored--yet that was the chief argument for adding the statue. …

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