Politics set memorial site

May 30, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- When it comes to accommodating apple-pie constituencies, Congress demonstrates remarkable speed for a body more famous, or infamous, for foot-dragging. The latest example is its decision to brush aside a duly authorized final review of the plan for a World War II Memorial on the Mall that connects the U.S. Capitol with the Washington and Lincoln Memorials and plunge ahead.

President Bush marked Memorial Day by smilingly signing the bill that scraps the scheduled reconsideration of the controversial site and design by the National Capital Planning Commission. Inasmuch as a World War II memorial of some sort has had congressional approval since 1993, you have to wonder why another few months' wait would have mattered, considering the questions raised about the site and design.

The complaints focus on the aesthetics of interrupting the long open stretch between the two existing majestic presidential memorials and of interrupting it with an ornate collection of arches, pillars and other glitzy doodads that to some eyes at least will smack more of militaristic breast-beating than of warm and loving remembrance.

The imperative of proceeding without a final review is justified by some on grounds that the World War II veterans' population is fast disappearing. Only 4.9 million GIs are still alive of the 16.4 million who served in the war that brought down German Nazism, Italian fascism and Imperial Japan.

But the memorial supposedly is intended for the ages, and the Mall's uncommon and inspirational simplicity is such a hallowed part of the capital city that cavalierly dismissing one more review of the appropriateness of the approved site and design seems an unnecessary rush to judgment.

The aging veterans (a fraternity of which I am barely a member, having arrived bleary-eyed at a U.S. Navy boot camp on the early morning of V-J Day) certainly deserve consideration. Many of them, wearing their American Legion and VFW caps, got it in a photo opportunity around Mr. Bush's desk as he signed the no-more-delays bill.

But the memorial is going to be on the Mall for a long, long time. Without the criticisms of the site and design being thoroughly aired before the nation -- not just in an insiders' debate -- before construction, the controversy is likely to haunt the resulting product long after it is in conspicuous place.

Of all of Washington's tributes to the nation's war dead, judging from the size and solemnity of the crowds attracted, none has tugged on American heartstrings more than the Vietnam War Memorial in a sunken clearing just off the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. In its quiet simplicity, it demonstrates a special reverence for those remembered there. That our country lost the war in which they fought makes the soft tribute all the more appropriate.

The planned World War II Memorial shouts triumph, and perhaps in light of that war's ringing accomplishment of saving the world from totalitarianism, it is equally appropriate. But that purpose already has been stirringly achieved in the Iowa Jima Memorial, replicating the dramatic flag-raising on Mount Suribachi, that stands in relative isolation over in Arlington. Wouldn't simply moving it to or near the Mall have served the purpose nicely?

After the Soviet occupation of Berlin in 1945, the Russians built a huge war memorial called the Garden of Remembrance in the eastern sector, with a score or more of large tombs dominated at one end by a huge statue of a Russian soldier crushing a swastika under his boot. It remains there today, silently blaring its muscular tribute to the fallen heroes of the Soviet Union in a style in keeping with that overblown, fallen empire.

The World War II Memorial now slated for the Mall is no such heavy-handed affair. But neither does it seem to reach for the simple grandeur of the structures that flank the Mall and of the special stretch of American history that the Mall itself memorializes.

In this most political of towns, however, 4.9 million World War II vets (not to mention their other comrades in arms) represent a lot of votes, and they won't be around to cast them forever.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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