Memorials and monuments

Memorials and monuments

: I took some time away yesterday and finally went to the Holocaust Museum and to the Vietnam Memorial and then wandered the streets of the Capital. And I came away with thoughts about memorials and monuments and the future of the World Trade Center.

The Holocaust Museum is phenomenal: beautifully expressed, eloquently informative, devastatingly human. I have read about the museum from its opening and have seen pictures of the exhibits. But there is nothing like the experience of walking through and coming to the room that extends up and down beyond focus with pictures of the people of the shtetl Eishishok: It makes every life real, it makes every loss painful. And when I came to the room with shoes, nothing but empty shoes, I broke down.

It wasn’t the facts and videos and words and knowledge that made this so immediate and heartfelt. It was the artifacts of lives.

And I went to the Vietnam Memorial: the wall. I no doubt see it through a different prism today than I would have a few years ago. I protested against the Vietnam War and would again today. I fear those lives were lost without need or meaning. I fear one of those lives could have been mine. But today I’m also aware that some are saying the same thing about the deaths in Iraq. And so I better understand the sacrifice then and now.

The differences between these two memorial are clear: One expresses its enormity by listing every life lost; the other expresses enormity with details of the lives of a few. One is about victims; the other is about soldiers; and we’re free to call them heroes. It occurred to me that we often end up with a choice when facing an evil or an enemy: Do we lose the lives of the innocents or of the soldiers?

I don’t mean to put either tragedy, the Holocaust or Vietnam, on the same scale as the other or as September 11th; I refuse to play the which-is-bigger, which-is-worse game. But I do see the parallels in both: September 11th was about innocents lost to the evil of our generation’s fanatical evil; September 11th was about the sacrifice of soldiers — including the fire fighters and ambulance angels — who tried to save lives.

And then I wandered around the White House and the Capital and at first grimaced at the scale, the fauxness of everything in Washington: Every building tries to be a massive imitation of something old and revered but also cold and inhuman. The night before, I had wondered whether it wouldn’t be better to be like England or France or Germany (again) and have our capital in a city with life instead of government, where you can look at people going to work without thinking of the tax dollars that pay them all. But this night, after seeing those memorials, after watching tourists in their American-flag T-shirts oggling the sight for its own sake, I decided I was wrong. We were smart to build Washington as a monument to democracy and freedom.

And so I thought about the World Trade Center through this lense. (And to those who are new here, I have a special interest in that, having both been there that day and having submitted my own memorial proposal not to see it built but to see my wounds heal). I wished that what appears at the World Trade Center — the memorial and the museum and the buildings that grow — have elements of all these three things: I want the enormity expressed in the names as the solemn though sterile memorial will. I want the enormity expressed in the lives, as I hope the museum will. And I want the hope and determination expressed in the buildings, which should rise as monuments and tributes to choice and freedom and democracy and opportunity and America.

  • Jeff – what a beautiful, moving post! Thank you.

  • KMK

    I love your critiques Jeff. “the artifacts of lives” is one powerful sentence. I share your hopes for the WTC memorial.

  • Thanks Jeff.

  • Amen. Since you don’t have trackback, here’s a link to my blog appreciation of your moving essay:
    “The city upon a hill shines through”

  • erik

    I enjoy reading your posts, but I want to protest your characterization of Washington DC. I have lived near or in DC more than anywhere else in my 40 years, and the area you describe is only a fraction of the actual city. You said “… fauxness of everything in Washington: Every building tries to be a massive imitation of something old and revered but also cold and inhuman.” I’m not going to knock your aesthetic judgement, but rather point out that the vast, vast majority of buildings in DC are private residential homes. It would be like dismissing Athens, Greece by describing the Acropolis as the sum total of the place, or likewise, characterizing Los Angeles by Beverly Hills, or Boston by Beacon Hill.

  • Jeff-
    My apologies for being blunt but…
    precisely how was our campaign against the socialist and murderous thugs of North Viet Nam less valid than our campaign against the socialist, murderous Ba’athist thugs of Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq.
    Viet Nam was poorly managed by Washington and poorly covered by a media that could only count bodies and portray every battle as a loss for the US. We’ve yet to see whether Washington has learned from that experience. The media certainly hasn’t changed much.

  • Trump

    “I protested against the Vietnam War and would again today. I fear those lives were lost without need or meaning”
    The only people whos lives were lost without meaning were those who were slaughtered by the communists AFTER people like you forced our disgraceful retreat,throwing someone we convinced was our ally to the wolves.
    And you would protest again today. Have you learned nothing?

  • Ebb Tide

    Excellent post, Jeff, you are a great blogger but you are an even better writer. Thanks for posting your essay.
    I hope there were still a few cherry blossoms lingering around, nothing like DC in spring on a warm day.
    My favorite memory of DC and the memorials was a trip I made, as an adult, just because…. not because of work or school. I walked around some and then stood at the bottom of the steps to the Lincoln Memorial looking up towards Lincoln when a sudden rush of giggling, running 3rd graders bounced past me racing up the steps to the top. I’ll never forget it, it made me cry… and I can’t articulate why exactly. It meant joyous freedom or unbounded energy or generation upon generation… i don’t know, it was one of those perfect moments when you see something familiar and suddenly you see it with new, fresh eyes and it comes alive with meaning.
    Thanks for writing.

  • If you haven’t left DC yet, go to the Lincoln Memorial and read the two speeches that are chiseled into the walls. Not only is it an incredibly moving place, to stand there with dozens or hundreds of fellow citizens of the world doing the same thing is very special. And then consider, not once during the Gettysburg Address or Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address is there a single reference to partisan politics.

  • jr

    I fail to see how it was Jeff or my fault for that matter as I to would continue the protests if necessary. I feel for everone everywhere that dies an untimely death, especially those who died because of greed, religion, or refusal to understand another human being. Tonight I understand Jeff Jarvis a little better, and I am thankfull that he does what he does, and feels the way he feels.

  • Er, no. Let me lodge a huge protest against this statement of yours, Jeff: “And then I wandered around the White House and the Capital and at first grimaced at the scale, the fauxness of everything in Washington: Every building tries to be a massive imitation of something old and revered but also cold and inhuman.” What the hell? I have read many opinions on the Washington DC, but yours is the first I have read that describes the White House and the Capitol Building as “scale” (implying huge), “fauxness,” “inhuman.” What, would you have rathered the designers of the city built quaint little cottages and teepees?

  • Ebb Tide

    And if you are in the neighborhood of Dc go see the FDR memorial, too…. very nice, it’s like a garden.

  • smits

    Aren’t you glad that there are people like Tim Swanson in this world? He signs up for the military a few months before 9/11, and then all of a sudden becomes a ‘conscientious objector’ when he is called to do what he signed up for. And then he craps all over a thread dedicated to a dead soldier willing to do what his pussy self wouldn’t.
    It muse be great to be Tim Swanson.