Monuments by Moonlight: Star-struck in wartime Washington


There are few things more beautiful than seeing the National Monuments by moonlight in Washington, D.C. Gigantic ivory marble structures stand illuminated and majestic amongst a nighttime cloud of purple silence. On the National Mall, our national memory is approachable – we can walk up and gaze at it. The glowing marble looks comfortable enough to stretch out and lie down on; this is History as bedfellow.

This is History as ours.

To heighten the romance factor in this citizen swoon-fest, soft breezes caress our awe-struck faces, and the air sings with the loud chirp of contented cicadas.

The monuments by moonlight are sexy.

However, after passing just a few monuments, one cannot help but notice something amiss: almost all of the monuments are related to war in one way or another. While the establishment and maintenance of independence and autonomy is a difficult and admirable feat, the absence of other types of histories along the Mall limits the way we think about ourselves as a country, and undermines our ability to fully appreciate it in all of its varied glory.

The National Mall abounds with the feeling of a large family picnic. The sound of relaxed banter and photo snapshots fill the humid twilit. Flashes of light appear and disappear out of nowhere: everyone is taking pictures.

A little girl whose little tennis shoes have bright, flashing red lights in the back of them emphatically states, “Mommy, all I want to do here is take pictures.” Unlike most family picnics, though, people are posing with larger-than-life, cemented renditions of individuals who bear no relation to them, but have a quite a bearing on the history of the United States.

Due to this, the Mall provides a strong “sentimental education” in what our country values. And judging from the buildings here, it values trauma. Indeed, it posits war as the only way we engage in collective life together.

There are eleven monuments and memorials under care of the National Parks Service along the National Mall. They include the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, the WWII Memorial, the Iwo Jima Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the George Mason Memorial, the District of Colombia’s World War Memorial, and the statue of Ulysses S. Grant. Of these eleven, eight are related to warfare.

At the base of the Iwo Jima Memorial is a verbal banner listing every single armed conflict since the inception of the United States. The list is, to say the least, long. It reads: “Revolutionary War 1775-1783; War of 1812; Mexican War 1846-1848; Spanish-American War, 1896-1898; Philippine Conflict, 1898-1902; World War I, 1917-1918; World War 1941-1945; Korean Conflict, 1951-1953; Vietnam Conflict, 1959-1975; Nicaraguan Conflict, 1982-1989; Panama Conflict, 1989-1990; Operation Desert Storm, 1990-1991; Operation Iraqi Freedom…..”

To some visitors to the National Monuments, the abundance of warfare is not shocking. Andrew Fretwell and Benjamin Perlstein, both participants in the Tel Yehudah camp for young Jewish leaders, say that the ubiquity of war along the Mall doesn’t strike them as strange.

Andrew posited that “Nationalism is a form of tribalism. Tribalism is a means of protection.”

Stemming from that, Benjamin added that national identity itself “stems from the recognition of threat from another.”

Andrew agreed, adding that people are stirred to a heightened sense of community by trauma. Benjamin elaborated, saying “When people think of an example of national trauma, the first thing they think of is war. It’s the most clear-cut example of trauma there is.”

Both men agreed that the psychological geography of the Mall is designed to convey pride in certain social memories, and shame about others. The ‘centrality’ of certain monuments such as the World War II Memorial convey the fact that, as per Benjamin, “World War II was a great experience. We won.” The Vietnam Memorial, however, “understated, because the Vietnam War was built on misconception.”

“We don’t want to remember what Vietnam was like,” he said.

Some people disagree.

Along the Vietnam Memorial, a middle-aged woman from Connecticut named Terry postulates that “I think this is here so that we keep reminding ourselves…so that we remind ourselves how foolish this is.”

“This was such a monumental loss.”

Andrew and Benjamin postulate that Israel does not have National Monuments in the same way that the U.S. government does because of Israel’s millennia of history. As the epicenter of the Desert Religions, or People of the Book (Jews, Muslims, and Christians), a “spiritual mall, as opposed to a National Mall, is already there.”

As a secular society prone to personality worship, the National Monuments are thus the seats of the gods of civil society. This supports what political Hollywood producer Norman Lear calls his “civil religion.” Looking up at a Zeus-size Lincoln lit up in the middle of a Roman-style temple, this is indeed similar to a religious experience.

The one peaceful anomaly among the Mall can found in the FDR Memorial. The Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) Memorial is an attempt to concretize the quotidian joys of American life in such a touching and artful manner. Those monuments are about vision, and aspirations. It is about accomplishment, not about loss.

This is the only monument on the mall that depicts everyday people not engaged in combat – instead, they are standing together, or sitting in their houses listening to the Fireside Chats next to a big, bronze radio.

Around the corner from that section, as a tribute to FDR’s Works Progress Association, images of faces, hands, and figures appear to be pushing through the fabric of memory. Partially protruding through the bronze cover are people who, with and through their government, made something out of nothing.

The architecture of the FDR memorial conveys about a beneficial symbiosis between citizen and president, between the government and the populace. It mirrors the ideological architecture of the FDR administration itself, which was marked by an equal emphasis on the leader and the people that he led.

On it, a group of gregarious high schoolers wanders throughout the FDR memorial cracking adolescent jokes and constantly fussing with their hair. One girl admits that out of all the monuments, “I like this one ‘cus it’s more interactive; there’s more to do. It’s more fun.”

Wandering through, they pose in a cheeky posture in-between the men waiting in the Depression-era bread line.

When asked if she knew what exactly she just posed with, she answered that she didn’t.

“That’s what that was?!?” she exclaimed through an embarrassed laugh.

Turning to her friend, she squeels, “We just took a picture with starving people! Don’t you feel awful?”

The FDR monument is chiefly an educational monument; what it is not is an emotional one. It is the art-house flick among blockbusters, destined to attract less crowds and less memories. According to ancient Greeks scholars, tragedy is an eternal art form because it withstands the test of time; loss, unlike happiness, is automatically “knowable”.

But do we only know what we feel? By way of our bronzing, it appears that we all as a nation have not felt anything else besides fight and flight, belation and exasperation.

And this is Washington in wartime. As said so often in this our hip-hop nation, can you feel it?

The current war in Iraq is the most pressing, and in many ways the most tragic, conflict in our “family history” of wartime. The war is the elephant in the room in all domestic political conversations, that expensive but un-mentionable thing. Over four thousand U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq since the beginning of the war in 2003, and the estimated Iraqi civilian casualties numbers above one million two hundred thousand. The cost of the war soars above five hundred forty three billion (yes, b for billion) dollars.

Due to an executive mandate, the war is also that un-photographable thing. No images of the dead bodies have been allowed to be run in any news media in the U.S.

To use a Richard Rodriguez term, this hunger of memory eats away at me. I know the war is happening; taxes from my paychecks are helping to pay for this. I read about it daily. But where are all these boys sent out from the deserts of Southern California, or the quiet suburbs of Kansas or the sunny streets of El Paso, Texas?

Where can I see them?

The one formally financed “memorial” to the war in Iraq hangs on a wall in the south entrance of the Rayburn office building of the House of Representatives. It is a large bronze plaque honoring those fallen in “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Its circumference looks shorter than I am, and I hover just above 5 feet. People barely notice it amongst their preoccupation with doing more important things, like taking their Blackberries out of their pockets as they go through security. Apparently, checking for Speaker Pelosi’s latest press release about confronting President Bush on the FY09 budget is more important than reading the middle name of a fallen soldier.

The sheer inadequacy of this effort overwhelms me.

To top things off, this is a presidential election year. Both Senator Obama and Senator McCain are intent on proving their competency in matters of international diplomacy and foreign affairs. As the U.S. tries to win back the world’s favor, instead of being known as the flagrant and prideful teenager of the international community, a nation of people almost spiritually predisposed to mimicry and misjudgment, wouldn’t it help to know that as a nation we have psychologically on moved past fighting as our favorite thing to do?

What about honoring people who practice their nationality outside of that most moving – but basic – of acts: the saving or sacrificing of their physical life? This great social experiment called the U.S. has meant much more than lives saved and lives lost. What about what happens after that – isn’t that what makes us a country?

Other nations have slightly different ways of displaying their national histories in their capitol cities. In Brazil, Gandhi and Cuauhtemoc, the king of the Aztec empire, run free on the streets. In France, the Pantheon houses great thinkers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, and Emile Zola. In Chile, one cannot go for a jog in the upper Santiago neighborhood of Las Condes without running into a huge cement head of their Nobel Prize-winning poet Gabriela Mistral resting quietly in the middle of an urban parkway.

In these locales, the people that invented and defined a collective language about what the country stood for - and indeed what it is – are honored in public view.

Aren’t we also defined by our other collective histories – what about our great economists and scientists; what about our artistic traditions and folk traditions? Do we not feel those – are they not fit for bronzing?

Instead of the beautiful but heartbreaking faces of exasperated soldiers, what about a memorial to Alexander Graham Bell, who lit up our homes and indeed our lives with the communications technologies that strengthen the ties that bind? Or to entrepreneurs like Henry Rockefeller or Bill Gates?

What about artistic innovators like Cab Calloway, Tommy Dorsey, and Lalo Guerrero collectively defining the first truly multi-cultural social dance of 20th century America - swing dance? What about social entrepreneurs like Susan B. Anthony and Joan Baez, or the great agrarian poet Walt Whitman and his urban counterpart Langston Hughes as he, too, sings America?

These people, like the apparition of the fireworks in the sky on the 4th of July, made something beautiful out of nothing. They helped defined the way the world understands the U.S. for what it is, not simply for what it defends.

When I look at the statue of the Vietnam Memorial nurses pictured to right, I am transfixed by the look of possibility and hope on this woman’s face. It is something else just beyond the clouds, something grand, and something meaningful. Water in an emotional desert. She is peaceful, and composed, beyond the conflict.

Beyond war, we find ourselves. Indeed, this brave New World has been and meant quite a lot considering its young age. This tiny swamp-town has given birth to some of the defining social movements of the last millennium, perhaps the most important of which is the idea of public life as fundamentally and definitionally pluralistic.

The future building of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial will help with that, but until that happens, all we have here along at Constitution Avenue is the eerie stillness of wartime silence hovering over these grassy expanses.

It’s hard to imagine this all started just 232 years ago down the river in Virginia, where two civilizations meeting each other produced the same accidental awe and the same sense of bewilderment at the incredible responsibility of making something new out of nothing – kind of like starting a statue from scratch.

The architects of this city – and of the National Mall – intended that our buildings clearly display this republic as a participatory one. Our national life is one marked by bravery, but it is also marked by social creativity.

So why can’t we find anything else to glow under the Mid-Atlantic moonlight?

*This article was written in July 2008*