Washington, D.C. – city of monuments and people who think they are.
And, while largeness of size and scope comes with this package – in the sense of “monumental” – so does the use of “monument” as another way of referring to a tombstone. From the hallowed dead of Arlington National Cemetery, just a short hop from one far end of the Mall, to the brain dead of the Capitol at the other, Washington is like one big graveyard – a place that, while making arguing noises and sounds of life in the political present while determining the potholes and detours of the future, wallows in the deceased past like no other spot and, in all ways, capitalizes on it. In America, one may visit Philadelphia or Boston and see sites emblematic of the country’s history, but Washington is the reliquary: fields of marble markers, buildings full of the collected detritus of important moments in the nation’s development and the self-important tchotchkes of vested interests.
While strolling and, ultimately, stumbling among these monumental memes, as we did recently, one is struck by two realizations; the first being just how influential Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial has been to the reshaping and rethinking of what a monument/memorial can and/or should do and be. Once – when monuments meant obelisks, or men in suits or uniforms in poses or on horseback, or rectangular areas with marble Greek columns – the Vietnam memorial was shocking and so unfamiliar a statement, and yet so symbolically perfect: A dark scar gashed in the earth into which one descended and found shiny black walls coated with the names of those who died in the conflict. So simple as to be immensely profound, and emotional. It feels hellish and heavenly, and friends and families ran their hands over the names of their lost ones, as if touching those letters also caressed those faces.
Of course, there were the narrow-minded, the literal-minded and the conservative-minded who reviled this artistic statement of national bereavement, anger and betrayal and felt that the place needed traditional statuary, and so plunked down The Three Soldiers, a bit of Hollywood-ized heroic shlock, at the entrance. If the Lin portion weren’t so strong, this statue could have ruined everything; as it is, this standard sculpture is the thing that suffers and is negligible, and says so little for trying to say it in so pat a manner.
Now, 30 years after its installation, with the cause of the controversy and the heat of the moment long past, the form of the monument has become the “industry standard.” New monuments, in D.C. and elsewhere, now take the form of long walls with names and places carved in them, and little more. None has the same power as the Lin work, but they acknowledge it as a (no pun intended) groundbreaking work that resonates with honesty and that eliminates the schmaltzy distractions to cut to the chase: the purpose of the piece and nothing more. The monument to Japanese-Americans who were held in detention camps during World War II, the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial (notwithstanding its giant representation of the man), the Flight 93 National Memorial, in Western Pennsylvania – each of these, and so many others, attempt to channel the placeness of the Lin by simulating it. None has succeeded so well. It is not just because hers was first – although that helps – but because it is the essential expression, and dovetails with its mission so seamlessly.
The other thing one notices when one strolls among the monuments of Washington is how we have gone from a nation of action to one of reaction, from pride to explanation. Our memorials used to honor – now they are, it seems, apologies. The internment monument, though perhaps thought of by its creators as honoring those who went through the experience and as a warning to future generations, is in actuality an apology for our having done the deed or having stood by and letting it happen. The more recent war memorials seem less honorific sites than massive “sorry” places or, as in the case of the Korean War Memorial, just plain creepy. Museums, like the one dedicated to the “preservation, study, and exhibition” of all things American Indian, seem as much defensive as illustrative. The King memorial seems thick with atonement and the larger society’s desire to be forgiven for what it did to the man (and to his followers, and ideals) as it does honoring the man and his dream. We seem to be, even in our oversized attempts at defining our greatness, an apologetic nation … perhaps because we have so much to apologize for. One can only imagine what the inevitable Iraq and Afghanistan monuments will be like.