Totem of war, backdrop for peace

Historic Memorial Hall will be site of events at conference

Annapolis Mideast Conference

November 27, 2007|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,SUN REPORTER

As diplomats and world leaders gather at the U.S. Naval Academy today in hopes of laying the groundwork for a new Middle East peace agreement, they will be surrounded by reminders of the terrible cost of war.

Memorial Hall, where President Bush will kick off the conference this morning and the bulk of the official events will be held, is filled with tablets that carry the names of 2,623 fallen graduates, killed in conflicts dating to the Civil War.

Great battles and acts of heroism are shown in paintings and displays, such as a model explaining how a Marine officer nearly died after blowing up a bridge controlled by the North Vietnamese in 1972 and a giant flag bearing the words of a dying commander who urged his sailors in 1813: "Don't give up the ship!"

Talk of an elusive peace amid a backdrop that honors the sacrifices of American warriors seemed completely appropriate for some graduates, but others worried that failure could forever cheapen what many regard as the most hallowed space on campus.

"Everyone who goes there feels the weight of that room. It's all-encompassing," said Capt. Michael Simon, a 2004 graduate who said the room's meaning changed greatly for him as the names of people he knew intimately were added to the lists of the fallen.

Besides the events in Memorial Hall, lunch will be served after an introduction by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Smoke Hall, just a short walk downstairs.

Founded in 1845, the Naval Academy has seldom played host to momentous world events. While the military college frequently hosts top military officials from other countries, today's gathering will exceed anything in the institution's 162-year history, according to school historian James Cheevers.

The closest comparison, many agree, came in 1906, when President Theodore Roosevelt greeted a fleet of U.S. and French ships on the banks of the Severn River that were escorting the remains of Revolutionary War naval hero John Paul Jones.

The campus prepared yesterday for virtual lockdown as representatives of 40 countries descended on school grounds. Academy officials revised class schedules, ordered some employees to stay home and told others not to try to leave during the conference. All were asked to remain indoors and refrain from taking photos, and the academy's academic dean urged faculty members not to speak to reporters.

"Please be patient and flexible," Joseph Rubino, special assistant to the Naval Academy superintendent, wrote in an e-mail sent to faculty, staff and students yesterday. "Eyes of the world will be on us and we should all be proud to be part of the Naval Academy Family."

Midshipmen were not expected to participate in any way in the conference, but a small group of students today is scheduled to go to Washington and visit the embassies of Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan.

Located at the heart of the academy - the entrance to Bancroft Hall dormitory - the spacious hall lies under a great dome, up a granite staircase. It is often referred to as the school's "sanctum sanctorum," or "holy of holies"

Under the "Don't give up the ship!" flag in the room's center is a marble tablet bearing the names of 956 graduates killed in combat, including 12 from what's listed as the "Global War on Terrorism." Most on the list were killed in World War II, although the graduation years go back almost to the academy's founding.

Retired Capt. Bob Hofford, a 1961 graduate responsible for the hall's upkeep and for adding the names of fallen graduates to the tablets that span the entire room, said the casualty listings, names of Medal of Honor recipients and other displays "make it a tremendous backdrop."

Walter T. Weathers III, a 1993 graduate who served five years in the Marine Corps after graduation, said Memorial Hall "really captures the spirit of ultimate sacrifice" and hoped conference attendees would feel that impact.

Still, he worried that Arab delegates would bristle, since some of the names on the wall honor combat deaths in the Middle East.

"I wonder if it would generate some resentment, if they say to themselves that, `This is the place they train their officer corps to conduct war in our land,'" he said. "But from a broader view, the place encompasses what's great about this country. ... It doesn't matter what color you are, who your dad is or where you come from, you can come here and serve your country."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

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