Friday, May 26, 2006

This Memorial Day weekend, visitors to Washington will honor those who bravely sacrificed their lives in serving our country. They will pay their respects around the pool of the World War II Memorial and the Wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In visiting these stony precincts, however, they will learn little about the wars commemorated by all the inscriptions and names. Apart from a few small, specialized institutions, the city offers no place to discover more about these world-changing events.

Unlike London, where the Imperial War Museum is a popular tourist spot, or Ottawa, home to the Canadian War Museum, Washington is without a national museum of military history. Surprisingly, the capital lacks a central place to honor our wars, from the American Revolution to the Iraq War, despite their enormous influence on our country.

A national museum could portray those conflicts within a larger historical framework rather than through the narrow perspective of a single military branch or veterans group. It could offer common ground for understanding the causes and consequences of wartime actions through the experiences of soldiers and civilians alike.

Yet, efforts to teach the public about recent wars resemble other recent memorial- and museum building on the Mall, catering to specific constituencies without regard to the bigger picture. New museums now being developed by the Army and Marine Corps, for example, tell only part of the story.

Even more selective is the proposed underground visitors center for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on a site next to the Lincoln Memorial. The proposed 25,000-square-foot subterranean structure, approved by Congress in 2003, is meant to be more a museum than a place to buy postcards. It would mostly house space for exhibits aimed at explaining the history of the Vietnam War and the meaning of the memorial’s names.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund wants to build the minimuseum on a triangle of land bordered by Henry Bacon Drive, 23rd Street, Constitution Avenue and the Lincoln Memorial. Hoping to shorten the lengthy public review process required for such Mall projects, the veterans group convinced the House of Representatives to pass a bill in March approving this site. The Senate was to follow suit and vote on a similar bill, but it backed away after holding a hearing last week.

Yet to approve the center’s location next to the Lincoln Memorial is the National Capital Planning Commission, one of the federal agencies responsible for scrutinizing new designs on the Mall. Its reluctance is understandable.

Over the years, the powerfully simple design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a V-shaped granite wall inscribed with the names of the dead, has been incrementally diminished with a flagpole and statuary. The proposed addition of a large underground building would further intrude upon the original design as well as the nearby Lincoln Memorial.

Imagine gazing out at the corner of the Mall from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial only to see skylights, emergency stair hatches and air-conditioning units poking up from the roof of the visitor center. Those required utilitarian features will be hard to hide, even by the talented designers hired by the vets to shape the underground structure. They include New York-based Polshek Partnership Architects and exhibit designer Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the team responsible for the Newseum now rising on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest.

The visitors center will not only detract from the experience of existing memorials, but will set a dangerous precedent on the Mall. Similar buildings were previously nixed at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt, World War II and Martin Luther King memorials. If the Mall location receives final approval, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial center may spawn other structures at memorials already bloated with outdoor rooms, gift shops, information kiosks and restrooms.

These added functions diminish the very purpose of a memorial, to keep alive remembrance of the dead. They testify to the current failure to create commemorative symbols with strong emotional resonance. The fussy, overblown World War II memorial is mute compared to the simple obelisk of the Washington Monument.

It is admirable that the Vietnam veterans want to create an educational facility to explain one of our most divisive wars. They can’t tell the story through the memorial alone. Nor can they do it in isolation, within a bunker next to the Lincoln Memorial.

The history of the Vietnam War deserves to be told in the light of day, within the broader context of other military campaigns. It requires a spacious setting for research and reflection that doesn’t detract from the memorials on the Mall.

The need for such a national military history museum has never been greater. Americans too young to remember World War II and subsequent wars in Korea and Vietnam are growing in number, while veterans from those battles are passing on, taking their oral histories with them.

What are we waiting for?

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