The Rise of the War Memorials

On the news last evening a report on the present conflicts in which this country is fighting caught my attention, though not because of casualty numbers or speeches by policy makers.  The curators of the visitor’s center being built near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are planning to set aside part of their exhibition space, in order to mingle the story of U.S. involvement in Vietnam with that in Afghanistan and Iraq.  The same report explained that a formal memorial on the National Mall dedicated to those who fought in the latter two countries may take longer to approve.

The juxtaposition of the two present conflicts with that of Vietnam is interesting.  One wonders whether those in charge of this project will also include arguably more successful American military engagements, such as the Persian Gulf War in 1990.  Yet it begs the question, and admittedly many of my readers may find it an unpalatable one, as to why this is being done.

The birth of this country may have formally begun on paper, but it was ultimately achieved through bellicose means.  The United States  has participated in many armed conflicts over the course of its history, and will no doubt continue to do so.  If the American military has a well-deserved reputation for know-how and experience on the battlefield, it is because it has had plenty of practice.

Without listing every major military involvement in which the United States has participated since 1776, let me propose a list of some of the more important ones, at least in terms of numbers, parenthetically mentioning the approximate number of American military personnel killed. This is not meant to be viewed with scientific accuracy, but simply to give the reader an idea of the relative size of some of these conflicts:

The Revolutionary War (25,000)
The War of 1812 (20,000)
The Mexican-American War (13,283)
The Civil War (625,000)
The Spanish-American War (2,246)
World War I (116,516)
World War II (405,399)
The Korean War (36,516)
The Vietnam War (58,209)
The Afghan War (1,803)
The Iraq War (4,800)

This is by no means an exhaustive accounting of all armed involvement of this country in battles at home and abroad.  However, if you are familiar with the Nation’s Capital, you will notice a rather curious fact when examining this list: there are no national war memorials on The National Mall to those who fought and died in the first six wars on the above list. Why is this the case?

In order of appearance, the current group of national war memorials on The Mall began to appear in 1982, with the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, i.e. “The Wall”. This was further expanded in 1984 with the “Three Soldiers” sculpture, and will now include the aforementioned visitor’s center nearby. The construction of this memorial was followed by the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in 1993; the Korean War Veterans Memorial in 1995; and the World War II Memorial in 2004.

Prior to the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, many monuments to historically prominent individuals were erected around the Capital, though very few on or around The Mall itself. For example, by now most of my readers are very familiar with the monument to General McPherson, which sits in the now-infamous square that bears his name, and there are monuments to figures as diverse as Chief Justice Marshall or Samuel Gompers spread all over the city.  Yet memorials to wars themselves were something of a rarity.

As to how America usually honors its military dead on a national level here in the Capital, from the time of the Civil War to today the practice has been formal interment at Arlington National Cemetery. While prominent individuals such as McPherson might get their own monument in the city, the ordinary soldier who did his duty would not have expected the same level of individual recognition.  However, he still knew that he would have a place set aside by his country close to the heart of its capital city, where he would be remembered, along with his comrades.

Times have certainly changed, for there can be no question that over the past thirty years there has been a demonstrable, unprecedented shift in attitude toward the purpose of having a national memorial on The National Mall, and the increasing popularity of the construction of war memorials to the veterans of such conflicts being placed along it. I do not have any answers as to why this change has occurred. Yet considering the report which started off this blog post, we ought to ask some questions about this increasingly common practice.

For example, how are we to establish the criteria by which wars are to be memorialized on The National Mall? Is it a question of numbers, so that World War I merits a national memorial on The Mall, because of the large number of casualties involved, but not Grenada, because the losses there were much smaller?  Are we only to memorialize those conflicts where there are still veterans left alive who fought in them, or are we to go back even further into our history when looking for subject matter for these memorials?  What about civilians such as government contractors who are killed in foreign conflicts – should they also be included in such memorials?

As unpopular as it may be to ask these types of questions, they need to be asked. My readers will draw their own conclusions as to the merits of continuing the practice of building memorials to veterans of specific wars along The National Mall.  However, I would put all in mind of the inescapable fact that The Mall is a finite space, and in order to preserve its character we need to act judiciously, adopting a high level of discernment about what is going to be placed on or around it.

While it will no doubt make me decidedly unpopular in some quarters for saying so, it would seem to me that building a memorial to the veterans of each and every conflict in which the United States is involved along the National Mall will soon turn the place into a kind of quasi-military cemetery. This seems rather superfluous, when we already have a magnificent, unifying memorial to American servicemen and women directly across the river. As much as I honor their contributions to aid their country, perhaps they would be better served by preserving and expanding Arlington, rather than continuing to expand a somewhat disjointed presence on The National Mall.

View of The National Mall in Washington, D.C.

2 thoughts on “The Rise of the War Memorials

  1. Your numbers are far off. You are giving lists of casualties for all the wars from SpanAm onwards. Casualties are the total number of killed plus the total number if wounded.

    For instance, 4,500 US servicemen and women were killed in the most recent Iraq War, not 31,000.


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