Memorial falls far short of tribute WWII vets deserve

  • By Charles Krauthammer
  • Thursday, May 27, 2004 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON – Those of us who publicly opposed placing the World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C., argued that doing so was a prescription for failure. If the memorial were to respect the sight lines, symmetries and elegance of the Mall, it would be too small to do justice to the grandeur of the Second World War. And if the memorial were large enough to reflect the majesty of its subject, it would overpower and ruin the delicate harmonies of the Mall.

The World War II Memorial has just opened, and it is indeed a failure. The good news is that the Mall survives. The bad news is that for all its attempted monumentality, the memorial is deeply inadequate – a busy vacuity, hollow to the core.

The World War II Memorial is a parenthesis, quite literally so – two semicircular assemblies of pillars cupping the Rainbow Pool on the invisible axis that connects the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument.

The pool, with its fountains, makes a nice space for tourists and toddlers to dip their feet on a hot summer’s day. But as a remembrance of the most momentous event of the 20th century, it is a disaster.

Where does one start? The memorial’s major feature – 56 granite pillars 17 feet high, adorned with wreaths and marked with the names of the states and U.S. territories – is a conception of staggering banality. One descends the main entry to the monument and the pillar to the left is marked American Samoa; on the right, the Virgin Islands.

What do the states have to do with World War II? What great chapter of that struggle was written by the Virgin Islands (or Kentucky, for that matter)?

The Civil War was very much a war of states. Its battles were defined by state militias that fought and died as units. But World War II was precisely the opposite. Its glory was its transcendence of geography – and class and ethnicity. Its fighting units mixed young men from every corner of America. Your classic World War II movie features the now-cliched platoon of the Polish millworker from Chicago, the Jewish kid from Brooklyn, the Appalachian woodsman and the Iowa farm boy bonding and fighting and dying for each other as a band of brothers.

And yet it is these gigantic soulless pillars, each mutely and meaninglessly representing a state or territory, that define this memorial. What in God’s name were they thinking? Did not one commission that passed on this project ask: “Why states?”

But that is just the beginning of the banality. The monument is strewn with quotations inscribed in stone, meant to inspire. You descend into the parenthesis from street level, and the first large stone panel to greet you on your right reads “Women who stepped up were measured as citizens of the nation, not as women … this was a people’s war, and everyone was in it.”

“Stepped up”? “Everyone was in it”? Is this the best we can do? Are we not embarrassed to put such pedestrian prose hard by the biblical cadences of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural carved in stone at the Lincoln Memorial just a few hundred yards down the Reflecting Pool?

And then, alas, the ultimate banality. The centerpiece of the monument is a low curved wall, closing the top of the parenthesis, as it were, straddling the central axis of the Mall and adorned with 4,000 gold stars.

The gold star, of course, was given to those who had lost a son in the war. Why 4,000 stars? To represent the more than 400,000 American dead: each star represents a hundred.

Why a hundred? Did they die in units of a hundred? Did they fight as centurions? The number is entirely arbitrary, a way to get the stars to fit the wall.

Four thousand stars are both too few and too many. Too few to represent the sheer mass, the unbearable weight of 400,000 dead. And too many – and too abstract – to represent the suffering of the mother of a single fallen hero.

This wall has the feel of a bureaucratic compromise between commemorating every individual (as does the Vietnam Memorial) and representing loss as a whole (as do tombs of the unknown soldier). The solution – take 400,000 and divide it by 100 – is nothing but sheer imaginative laziness.

I feel sorry for the old veterans who came with war bride and grandchildren to make their pilgrimage to the monument’s opening this Memorial Day weekend. They deserve to be celebrated. They deserve their memorial. And they will no doubt celebrate this one because it is all that they have. They will lend it the dignity and power of their own experience. But once again, it is they who will have done the work. They should not have to. They deserve better, far better.

Charles Krauthammer is a Washington Post columnist. Contact him by writing to

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Opinion

Editorial cartoons for Monday, Feb. 26

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

FILE - In this Aug. 21, 2015 file photo, a tanker airplane drops fire retardant on a wildfire burning near Twisp, Wash. Three firefighters were killed battling the blaze. The story was a top Washington state news item in 2015. Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz has proposed a plan to strengthen the ways that Washington can prevent and respond to wildfires. Franz released the 10-year plan last week as part of her $55 million budget request to the Legislature to improve the state's firefighting abilities (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Editorial: Wildfire threat calls for restoring full funding

Lawmakers should restore funding for fighting wildfires and call on one furry firefighter in particular.

Comment: Federal cuts to wildfire crews may hit at worst time

Conditions may increase the threat of wildfires just as the U.S. Forest Service is bracing for budget cuts.

Comment: Founders empowered Congree to support accurate news

The Post Office Act of 1790’s intent was to spread reliable information. The same goes for the media of the day.

Comment: Charity scandal shows Providence ignoring its mission

Ordered to forgive $157 million it charged the poor, the hospital system needs better oversight of officials.

Comment: Presidential primary launches state’s election season

With ballots in the mail, here’s what to know and how to prepare for making your choice for U.S. president.

A leasing sign in visible outside of A’cappella Apartment Homes on Wednesday, March 1, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Editorial: Cap on rent can keep more people in their homes

The legislation balances affordability with the need to encourage growth in the stock of housing.

Jaime Benedict, who works as a substitute teacher, waves to drivers on the corner of Mukilteo Speedway and Harbor Pointe Boulevard while holding a sign in support of the $240 million capital bond proposal for Mukilteo School District on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020 in Mukilteo, Wash. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Editorial: Bar set unfairly high for passage of school bonds

Requiring 60 percent approval denies too many students the schools and facilities they deserve.

Flowers and a photo of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny are placed near the Russian consulate in Frankfurt, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024. Navalny, who crusaded against official corruption and staged massive anti-Kremlin protests as President Vladimir Putin's fiercest foe, died Friday in the Arctic penal colony where he was serving a 19-year sentence, Russia's prison agency said. He was 47. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
Comment: Navalny’s death only deepens resolve of Putin’s foes

Even in losing elections, Navalny and others have shown that opposition to Putin is effective.

Women’s health care supporters have chance to flip Congress seat

When Roe v. Wade was overturned it simply opened the floodgates to… Continue reading

Comment: Wildfire problem is matter of fuel load, not climate

By limiting the harvest of timber in the state we allowed the forests’ fuel load to grow; and then burn.

Editorial cartoons for Sunday, Feb. 25

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.