- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 26, 2007

Memorial Day gives veterans a special occasion for gathering, politicians an occasion for orating and every casualty’s survivors a time for commemorating: Remembering, honoring, reflecting. On 364 other days of the year, war memorials give us all reason to pause a moment, inevitably to murmur “Rest in peace,” and then to wonder “What might have been?” Is there a higher purpose for a memorial than to prompt that blessing and then question?

At their best, memorials in general and war memorials in particular are at once glorifying, tragic and restorative, even healing. At their worst they do something more, by blunting a visitor’s emotions with bombast or trite vulgarity. As “The Mighty Fallen” illustrates, war memorials are enduring manifestations in stone and bronze of memories of lives now lost, of goals once sought and now reconsidered.

Honoring the memorials themselves might have been the motive for this book, a notion that itself seems to resonate President Lincoln’s great apercu, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here.” We may not remember what “The Mighty Fallen” says and shows, yet prompted by its content, one’s own mental images and memories can eclipse the pictures and text that describes them.

The viewer — it is a picture book after all — can winkle out meaning and messages from these pages. For example, dates gleaned here suggest that Americans got along without war memorials until the late 19th century. (In earlier eras they certainly erected memorials to individuals; cemeteries throughout the 13 original states preserve colonial gravestones bearing epitaphs of astonishing individuality and eloquence. But that’s another story.)

Here, of the 23 memorials to American Revolution battles, just one was erected as early as 1799, while eight appeared in the 19th century and the heavy majority, 14, were dedicated in the 20th century.

War memorials were apparently rare before the Civil War; then battlefields and town squares both North and South sprouted them like milkweeds, and these reminders nearly fill one of the book’s three chronological sections.

The death rate was no higher seven score years ago than now; it was and remains 100 percent among humankind. But then, in peacetime and war, the grim reaper came sooner, faster and in shorter intervals — so in our times death is less familiar, a less intimate part of daily life, which may be one reason we raise statues to its harvest. (That fact notwithstanding, I doubt the people of earlier times loved life any more or less than we moderns do. I do think they addressed death with a sounder sense of reality.)

Did our forebears honor the dead, especially war dead, any less or any better than we do? Or do we simply create more occasions to reflect on our causes, especially the causes of our wars? That notion resonates another thought from the great eulogy at Gettysburg, “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”

Isn’t that what we most commonly affirm, hope against hope, in erecting and visiting a war memorial? Isn’t that the message — let no death be in vain — behind the ineffable eloquence of the Vietnam Memorial, with all its millions of letters spelling out not sentiments but only names, lest the fallen become anonymous and be forgotten?

We remember who died at the nation’s behest; we grieve and honor them without reference to the reasons for their going to war. (Perhaps the book’s most trenchant observation is that in our Civil War, “With both sides American, every battle was a victory and a defeat, and in the end all the losses were ours.” Will divided Iraq’s posterity ever be able to think like that — to acknowledge their commonality in nationhood? One hopes that some day they can make peace with each other and reconcile themselves, but hope springs eternal.)

Isn’t Lincoln’s hope also the message that echoes through the bombastic architecture of the World War II Memorial, the one that requires the presence of living veterans to evoke meaning for younger visitors? Isn’t that the source of much of our anguish today regarding our kids, our neighbors and utter strangers whose dying in Baghdad and Kandahar will soon prompt us to erect memorials bearing new inscriptions in stone, and our recurrent tears?

That is why the ranks of ordered headstones in our national cemeteries — from Arlington to Annapolis and Normandy and wherever else our battle dead are buried — command respect and silence whenever we move among them. War memorials bespeak tragedies wrought by the nation for whatever cause, whether a just purpose, unavoidable fight or folly, as they prove our infinite and mortal ability to survive them all, and in surviving to remember, mourn and resolve.

The dustjacket boasts the Smithsonian sunburst colophon like a trophy, but its new corporate owner, HarperCollins, seems aloof to Smithsonian’s great legacy in some repects, truth in subtitling for starters. “Our Nation’s Greatest Memorials” would better have read “North America’s Greatest …” because the book omits such icons as the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, while it includes several Canadian monuments.

Call the slip a casual choice of words, or perhaps it reflects the author’s and the photographer’s individualistic approaches to their contributions. Theirs is not an orthodox selection of memorials, nor a conventional way of depicting them.

For example, the famous and widely heralded name-bearing panels of the Vietnam Memorial get less space than Frederick Hart’s sculptures, which were added a year after the dedication of “The Wall” to settle a contretemps between hawks and doves. (Still, one of the three figures, which resembles my friend the late Vietnam correspondent Wallace Terry, reminds me of the brave armies of journalists who deserve to be remembered, having witnessed every war for the rest of us.)

Conventional sharp-focus photographs of war memorials typically stress their monumentality and resonate their solemnity in close-ups or details. Here the photographer f-stop Fitzgerald chose a more interpretive, artier approach. He shows the eerie triumph of the Korean War Veterans Memorial in a fragmentary view in the raking light of a gray dusk, and “the most famous memorial in America,” the Iwo Jima, only in a detail across a two-page spread.

In his text, military thriller author Larry Bond has written a short paragraph to sketch the history of each pictured memorial, and a one-page introduction to each of the book’s century-by-century sections. Though the pages are oversized, they provide only enough space for a kind of pensee by Tom Clancy’s erstwhile collaborator, who asserts, “Americans have always had a special relationship with their fighting men and women.” And “Everyone who served [in the Civil War] was a hero.” And “Memories of war or battle are unpleasant, but few veterans would want them erased.”

Many would argue with his views but that’s only fitting, because while in situ every memorial rightly serves us all and we all respect it, each encourages our sober reflection away from the hallowed ground to find our own truths for ourselves.

So it is that this slender volume, through its glimpses of selected war memorials, may prompt its perusers to whisper the hopeful prayer, “Rest in peace” and then the sad reflections “What might have been? … What yet might be?” Those thoughts remain right for tomorrow, and every Memorial Day.

Philip Kopper, who writes frequently about history and culture in these pages, is the author of the out-of-print “The Smithsonian Book of North American Indians.”

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