Battle of the monuments

Jim Fain

December 19, 1990|By Jim Fain

WASHINGTON — FORGET THE budget debate. A mere family spat. We've got a real ruckus on our hands now -- competing designs for a war memorial. Nothing so engages the visceras of our gypsy town.

One faction, born to lose, wants to preserve some natural beauty and architectural symmetry in this best designed of American cities. The other wants to honor with infinite specificity the veterans of a war, in this case Korea.

The commission overseeing the project selected an uncommonly lousy design and turned it over to a local architectural firm which promptly made it worse.

In the first version, 38 grunts in combat gear march toward a flag. The memorial commission, with the usual quota of generals career-trained in inter-service sensibilities, converted this infantry platoon into GIs from all four services (without making it clear how the sailor got stranded on dry land). For good measure, they threw in artillerymen, engineers and medics.

In the new incarnation, this ecumenical force is engaged in a fire fight (one has been hit) and, given the weaponry with which the drug war is waged hereabouts, may well be outgunned.

Fortunately, there are no women in the ranks, guaranteeing that the current debate is only a forerunner of more colorful ones to entertain us in days to come.

You may remember that the Vietnam memorial was amended first to include Old Glory and then three human figures, all of which were male. An outcry naturally arose to add a woman. The powers that were sought to assuage it by stationing near the door at Arlington Cemetery one female statue to represent all GI Jo's. Lots of luck.

It's not as if the military has been neglected. A good half the statuary that litters the community commemorates Civil War generals, to the convenience of the pigeon population. Lesser soldiers also get their due, along with the lobstermen of Maine. My favorite is Maj. Archibald Butt, military aide to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, though he is remembered less for martial art than his misfortune in sinking with the Titanic.

We commemorate in pink granite John Ericsson, inventor of the screw propeller and the Civil War ironclad ship "Monitor," illustrating not just the whimsicality but the needle-point categorizations of the selection process.

Hardly a surprise then that we're running out of room. The prestige address is the Mall, that lovely strip of park running from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. Soon it will be wall-to-wall memorials, a national mausoleum we will be forced to double-deck.

To retard the process, we've done the democratic thing: created multiple committees, guaranteeing not only that each new horse looks like a camel but also is examined meticulously to insure that pack, plow, Merry-Go-Round and Tennessee Walking are represented along with racing steeds.

We ought, obviously, to call it quits and let future celebrity recycle its 15 minutes somewhere else. We have the two most haunting memorials of all time -- Lincoln and Vietnam. They're national treasures. We probably ought to hang on to the Washington as a phallic hoot.

Ship the rest to Nevada. If not, soon we'll have to salute Grenada and Panama. Maybe we can just erect one giant Jenkins' ear to memorialize all lesser wars, including J. Edgar Hoover's.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.