You’d think after a year of non-stop traveling, I’d been worn out and ready to plop myself on a couch and not move for a couple days. Well, I did do that after I came home, but mostly because I was blindsided by a bad case of strep throat. A few days of being laid up on the couch with that, and I was ready to be on the move again. It didn’t take long to plan my next sojourn.
I have a few people out on the east coast, in the Washington, D.C. area, and I thought I’d pop over for a visit. I can honestly say that, having wandered around several European capitals, the only difference between visiting other capitals and your own capital is that you know all the people that have been immortalized in sculptures.
Believe it or not, that’s a monumental difference.
When I was younger, my family went to D.C. on vacation, and we spent one whole day walking through the monuments. As an eight-year-old, it was only interesting for a while. I remember that I liked the FDR memorial because there was a sculpture of a dog. The Vietnam Memorial was just plain sad, and I remember a distinct desire to be doing almost anything but looking at that shiny black wall (it didn’t help that I didn’t know anyone in Vietnam and didn’t really understand what it was). Visiting the monuments this time around was different, though. Maybe it’s a part of getting older and understanding why monuments are important for nations. Maybe it’s also that, having traveled through a large portion of the European Theater, learning a lot more of the nitty-gritty aspects of the war, and seeing people deal with the ramifications of the war to this very day, a monument dedicated to the people who died in World War II makes a whole lot more sense.
One of the things I’ve wanted to do for a while was to see the monuments at night. I love the pictures that you see on postcards all over D.C., with the white marble lit up against a pitch-black sky. I wanted to see that for myself. So, much to the chagrin of at least one of my companions on this endeavor, we started at the Capitol, trekked the length of the National Mall (no small feat, especially after having lapped it several times during the day) to the Washington Monument, on to the World War II Memorial, and finished up at the Lincoln Memorial. This seemed like a great plan until we realized that we had to walk a mile and a half to the nearest subway station (a bone of contention with us girls who spent four years in Chicago; one should never have to walk that far or pay that much for a ride on public transit).
I thought this was a great experience, blisters aside. The lighting at the World War II Memorial is such that the funeral wreaths hung on the pillars look like victors’ laurels. To me, after seeing the residual pain of the war, as well as having grown up listening to Grandpa’s war stories, both seem appropriate. Lincoln seems even larger at night, and he stares at you, staring at him, daring you to contradict or cheapen his definition of the ‘last full measure of devotion.’ The words of his speeches on the walls take a back seat to the one who said them, like one of Mom’s sayings that sticks with you long enough for you to see the truth in it.
Let’s take a moment to talk about monuments and memorials. The difference between the two has always seemed, to me at least, to be murky at best. The only reason I knew that some of these were monuments and some were memorials was that it sounded better when you say ‘Jefferson Memorial’ than ‘Jefferson Monument.’ Essentially, it’s a matter of degrees, not of kind. Monuments can be memorials, and memorials can be monuments. The difference is that memorials generally are more involved than monuments. For instance, the Washington Monument is a monument because it’s very plain. The Lincoln Memorial, on the other hand, has a much more dynamic appearance, with a larger-than-life statue of Lincoln in regal repose and famous quotes from his speeches lining the walls.
Both monuments and memorials are important to nations at large; what we choose to honor with sculpture, especially on a grand scale and in our capital cities, defines our narrative of ourselves. Every nation has a narrative that it constructs of itself – some have even argued that a ‘nation’ is nothing but a narrative construct. I wouldn’t go quite that far (I like the rather more romantic idea of people being involved), but I would say that what we choose to honor tells everyone, both citizens and visitors, what we aspire to.
Think about it. George Washington was our first president, to be sure. That’s historical fact. However, he was also one of the last members of a dying breed: he was a gentleman, in the true sense of the word. He endeavored to act with integrity, was willing to put his money and his musket where his mouth was, and then retire to his farm and lead a quiet life. That’s what Americans are taught as being the ideal life of an active American citizen: someone who does what’s needed to be done and then goes home to their family and does their thing.
Building a monument to Washington doesn’t suggest that we think he’s perfect – after all, our history books cover such things as the Whiskey Rebellion and the fact that a good portion of our Founding Fathers, the people who signed a piece of paper saying that “all men are created equal,” owned slaves. Rather, building monuments to people like Washington is intended to help us define ‘American.’
This isn’t brainwashing. This isn’t silly. This isn’t overly patriotic people being overly zealous about something that doesn’t matter. This isn’t a waste of money, any more than printing out family pictures to hang in your home is. This is important and a testament of the tenacity and hopefulness of people, and not just Americans. Tadeusz Kościuszko and Adam Mickiewicz don’t grace the streets of Warszawa because people thought they were dashing. Garibaldi’s belongings aren’t in display in the Vittorio Emanuele II monument in Roma because he had impeccable taste. We, as peoples, need to be surrounded by physical representations of what we consider to be virtuous so that we are constantly reminded to aspire to that level.
If that doesn’t matter anymore, then we should tear those monuments down. Because using the World War II Memorial as a footbath is even more disrespectful to the people who died trying to save their world than not remembering them at all.
Bonus Crash Course:
Abraham Lincoln: sixteenth President of the United States, leader of the Union during the American Civil War, and a major driving force behind the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution (abolition of slavery on a national level)
Adam Mickiewicz: Polish national poet, whose writings, such as the epic poem Pan Tadeusz, inspired national pride in Poles and influenced politics in partitioned Poland
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR): thirty-second President of the United States, who instituted the New Deal, the economic plan that helped the United States recover from the Great Depression
George Washington: gentleman farmer from Virginia, military hero of the French and Indian Wars, fearless leader of the American Revolution, and first President of the United States
Giuseppe Garibaldi: Italian military hero who played a major role in the unification of the Italian peninsula (namely, he unified the Italian peninsula)
National Mall: the park in Washington, D.C. between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, which is ringed by national museums and gardens
Tadeusz Kościuszko: Polish military hero who led several campaigns for Poland’s independence and traveled to what would become the United States to help Washington train his rag-tag troops
Thomas Jefferson: gentleman farmer from Virginia, who joined the Continental Congress and drafted the Declaration of Independence before becoming the third President of the United States; also, in his retirement, he sold a part of his sizeable collection of books to the United States Congress after their library was torched by British soldiers during the War of 1812, and is thus the father of the modern Library of Congress