The Man Needs a Manly Monument

One sign of the health of a culture is the way in which it remembers its heroes, particularly in artistic ventures such as civic monuments. The appropriateness or inappropriateness of such a piece can tell us a great deal about how that culture sees itself and wants future generations to look at not only the subject of the memorial but also at those who erected it. Whether grandiose and pharaonic or intimate and reflective, these efforts ultimately serve as bellwethers for historians as much as they serve as gathering places for those who want to ponder the life and works of a particular person or recall a significant event.

The popular architect Frank Gehry recently won a competition to design a memorial to General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, and subsequently the two-term 34th President of the United States. It is a dismal effort, as I have obliquely commented on in a previous post, and does not do justice either to Eisenhower or his service to his country. It is a wimpy, flimsy thing, just as inappropriate to the man and his ideas as the martial, almost Stalinist memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King – a man whose life was spent advocating peace, non-violence, and equality in the face of terrible oppression- and which is nearing completion not far away from the proposed site for Eisenhower’s monument.

Why was Mr. Gehry selected to design this? It is a difficult question to answer, for Washington is not a city known for the pursuit of trendy architecture. Mr. Gehry has had a crack at the D.C. market before, in his appallingly trite design for an extension to the beaux-arts splendor of the Corcoran which, mercifully, never came to pass due to funding issues. Crumpled bits of titanium are, I suppose, all very well if you are building them in places which lack any significant architectural fabric, but plunking down one of these things in one of the most historic neighborhoods of the capital would have been a disaster.

It has been brought to my attention that the National Civic Arts Society, an organization here in Washington which seeks to improve the nation’s civic art and architecture, is sponsoring a competition to design a counter-proposal to Mr. Gehry’s design. If you or someone you know is of an architectural or artistic persuasion, entries are being accepted through April 15th, and the Society provides some guidelines for those considering the project both in terms of the life and achievements of President Eisenhower himself, as well as the urban landscape in which the monument will be located. Whether the powers that be will consider the counter-proposal is, of course, an entirely separate question, but I suspect that by bringing attention to the issue it is hoped that what seems to be a fait accompli will in fact be sent back to the drawing board.

Eisenhower is admittedly not one of my favorite presidents, for various reasons which are not the proper subject of this post. However as one of the most important American figures of the 20th century in his efforts to defeat the Nazis, liberate and reconstruct Europe, and establish a bulwark against the spread of Communism during the Cold War, he is a man well-deserving of a fitting monument in the nation’s capital. That his nation cannot come up with something better than a giant folding screen to honor his memory is a sad commentary on how the confidence of the country he once led has fallen. What is about to be built is more appropriate, if indeed it could be found appropriate at all, to celebrate the memory of a romantic poet, not a man of action and decision, who changed the course of world history.

To be sure, one hopes that the counter-proposal does not go in the opposite direction, in favor of something overly harsh like the World War II Memorial, which looks like an Albert Speyer construction or Leni Riefenstahl film set. Yet there are already memorials to Eisenhower which ought to be looked to for inspiration. For example, consider the monument to Eisenhower in Grosvenor Square in London, in front of the commanding American Embassy designed by Eero Saarinen, commemorating that this was where Ike had his headquarters during the war. So much was he associated with the spot that the square came to be referred to as “Eisenhower Platz”, though sadly the American presence here is about to end as the embassy is being moved elsewhere for security reasons.

Robert Lee Dean, a graduate of West Point who subsequently became a sculptor, created a very simple, but commanding piece, evoking the confidence of Eisenhower and his generation. Copies of it have been placed at West Point and in other locations. The monument itself, a simple vote of thanks to the man who helped to secure the freedom of Britain, is a combination of sculpture, plinth, inlaid floor design, and surrounding wall, that is very effective.

Surely in the country of his birth, and in the city where he served as President for eight years, we can do something just as good if not better, that not only pays fitting tribute to General Eisenhower but also enhances, rather than clashes with, the city landscape.

Monument to Eisenhower by Robert Lee Dean
Grosvenor Square, London.

>On Equatorial Hobbits

>As The Courtier has rather a busy day today, I wanted to just briefly commend to you an excellent and absolutely fascinating documentary I caught on PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead” series last night, entitled “The Airmen and the Headhunters”, which originally premiered back in November (the full episode is available here.) Based on the book of the same name by historian Judith Heimann, the film tells the story of U.S. airmen downed over Japanese-occupied Borneo during World War II. The local tribes, despite their fierce reputation, not only kept the men safe by hiding them deeper and deeper in the jungle, but with the help of British special forces, eventually formed themselves into guerrilla units to attack the Japanese troops who were in occupation of the island.

Among the tactics used by the Dayak people to take back their island and to defend the Allies, one of the most effective was the shooting of a poisoned dart from a blow gun. As one of the warriors explained, if you shoot an enemy with a handgun or a rifle, they might survive. On the other hand, if you even pricked the little finger of an enemy combatant with a shot from a poisoned dart blow gun, the fellow was sure to die.

As part of their efforts, the Dayaks brought back the abandoned custom of taking the heads of enemies killed in combat, smoking them over an open fire to cure them, and then distributing them among the villages. This was not done for the purpose of cannibalism, but rather as part of their cultural rituals. Dan Illerich, the only one of the airmen still with us today, was asked about what he thought of the practice; his very reasoned response was that as he was a guest in their country, and as the Dayak people were going to great lengths to protect and care for him and his fellow airmen, he was hardly in a position to criticize their practices. One of the tribesmen, who had been horribly tortured by the Japanese and permanently scarred, was pleased in 1945 to accept from his fellow tribesmen the head of the chief of the Japanese police force, who had been responsible for ordering his torture.

Despite the element of gruesomeness, the film does not dwell in any particularly gory detail on this part of the story. There are photographs of heads, yes, but not so as to be offensive to any but the most sensitive and ladylike of temperaments. Although wartime documentaries are not, in general, films which I usually find interesting, there is something very inspiring and Tolkien-esque about this relatively unknown bit of history, as the reader will readily appreciate. The supposedly unsophisticated but generous and kind-hearted Dayaks rising up for themselves, despite the overwhelming military advantage of the Japanese, cannot help but put one in mind, if even slightly, of the Hobbits.

The American B-24 Airmen who crashed in Borneo in 1944,
seven of whom survived thanks to the efforts of the Dayak tribes

>Please Don’t Hug the Houdon

>This past week Lafayette Elementary School in the Chevy Chase neighborhood of Washington, celebrated the return of its namesake to the school’s Great Hall. Named for the Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution, in 1932 the school was presented by a copy of Jean-Antoine Houdon’s bust of Lafayette by the French government. The bust stood for decades in the school’s hallway, but periodically would be taken into the classrooms for teaching purposes when the children were studying American history.

The original sculpture was commissioned by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1786, and Houdon, the pre-eminent French sculptor of the 18th century, executed two of these busts in marble. One was placed in the State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia, and the other in Paris’ City Hall. The latter was destroyed by the Leftists during the French Revolution, along with a number of other sculptures by Houdon.

The Georgetown Current reports [N.B.: see PDF file of the April 28th issue] that recently, an over-enthusiastic Kindergartner wanted to give the Marquis a hug, and upon doing so the bust fell and was damaged. Parents of another student at the school took it upon themselves to pay for the restoration of the bust. In a ceremony this past week the city’s mayor and the French Ambassador, along with the students and faculty, marked the return of the statue to a more secure location, so that hopefully it will not be knocked over again.

One wonders what the future will hold for this young person, who was so struck by the image of Lafayette. Will he or she become a military officer? An historian? A diplomat? Regardless, the Courtier wholeheartedly encourages this child to continue to embrace art and history – albeit metaphorically speaking – from now on.