The new World War II Memorial is a profound artistic testament to one of America’s greatest victories. I wonder what a future memorial to the Iraq war might look like.
From a location at the opposite end of the reflecting pool from the Lincoln Memorial, the WWII Memorial soars skyward, gleaming white in the sunshine. A few hundred yards away sit two other memorials, each of them striking in their simplicity. The Korean War Memorial’s gray steel soldiers appear frozen in time, soaked by an imaginary rain, looking ahead to a dangerous and uncertain future. They stand in a triangular-shaped plot, a metaphorical minefield, perhaps, separated by a chain from the visitors who stream past. The Vietnam Memorial’s black granite panels, carved like a scar into the ground, host scores of visitors daily, visitors who are encouraged to reach out and touch the names, and by extension the lives, of the 58,235 Americans who died in Southeast Asia.
These memorials are unique in different ways. On the surface, one seems to celebrate victory and life, while the other two only offer reverence for the dead. But the sacrifice of each man and woman who died in World War II is no less tragic than the lives of those lost in Korea and Vietnam. The sacrifice of over 400,000 Americans, commemorated within a field of 4,000 gold stars, is noted behind the solemn statement, “Here we mark the price of freedom” Every loss is a tragedy. These brave Americans left behind mournful wives, husbands, parents, children, and friends.
Likewise, while the World War II memorial celebrates heroism—most notably in the names of famous battles—Salerno, Normandy, and the Battle of the Bulge in Europe; Midway, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa in the Pacific—there were countless acts of individual heroism in Korea and Vietnam as well. The personal triumphs of these later wars have not been celebrated in the same way as that of the collective victory in World War II. The stain of defeat in Vietnam—or, in the case of Korea, the ambiguity of neither victory nor defeat—is so embedded in our memory that it can become difficult to associate them with heroism. But all wars, whether they end in defeat or victory, share common dichotomies: life and death; barbarism and selflessness; triumph and tragedy.
Most Americans, even those without much knowledge of history, know a story or two from the nation’s many wars. Tales such as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain rallying the 20th Maine at Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg; Audie Murphy single-handedly holding off German tanks for over an hour in France in 1945; John Kennedy rallying his crewmates from PT-109 in the enemy-infested waters in the south Pacific. Recent films and television series, such as “Saving Private Ryan” and HBO’s “Band of Brothers,” have renewed our interest in World War II. Even though we have knowledge of such stories, the true tale of war is that nearly every person in combat performs heroic acts, and few of these acts are celebrated in books or movies.
The similarities of war notwithstanding, how do we explain the stark differences reflected in the memorials we have built to honor those who fight, and those who die? In most instances, the differences speak not to how the wars were fought, but rather by how Americans choose to remember them. And, in so many ways, wars are remembered by the closing scenes, not by the day-to-day combat, the counterinsurgency, the long, hard slog.
For most Americans, the closing frames from World War II are dramatic, happy images: a sailor embracing a woman in Times Square; the faces of hundreds of GIs rejoicing from the decks of troop transports returning to the United States.
Those images differ with the images from the last days of Vietnam, of Americans scrambling into the open door of the last helicopter as it took off from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, and of the handful of desperate South Vietnamese left behind to face certain doom.
And so, I wonder, what kind of memorial will be erected to commemorate those who have died in the Iraq War? It will not be, it cannot be, like that for World War II. The elimination of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan made Americans safer. Unfortunately, the Iraq War, although launched under the pretext of fighting terrorism, has in reality only exacerbated anti-American sentiments, which can only make the problem of terrorism far worse.
But the recognition of this stark fact must not detract from the sacrifice of those who went into harm’s way at the behest of our political leaders. Those same politicians now owe it to Americans to craft a swift exit strategy that will limit further casualties in Iraq. If they do that, the Iraq war memorial can look very different than that for Vietnam.