The National World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C.
08 July 2021 – Thomas J. Brown
Public monuments chart development within a cultural form at the same time they commemorate historical events. Maya Lin found inspiration in British architect Edwin Lutyens’s enduring World War I monuments when she designed her brilliant Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1981-82). In contrast, the World War I Memorial recently inaugurated with the raising of its first flag in Pershing Park on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D. C., renews the longstanding American tendency to base commemoration of that conflict on a vocabulary forged in the making of Civil War monuments that glorified war rather than promoting a just peace. This formulaic thinking presents an ironic remembrance of what the World War I Memorial Commission rightly calls “the war that changed the world” and misses an opportunity to participate in an extraordinary period in the history of public monuments.
The projected focal point of the new memorial, Sabin Howard’s sixty-foot-long frieze “A Soldier’s Journey,” tells a stock tale about warfare as maturation. The sequence of thirty-eight larger-than-life-sized figures scheduled for installation in 2024 begins with a soldier taking leave of his family. Most figures appear in scenes of combat, imagined as a dramatic charge into a tumultuous battlefield where some doughboys fall dead or wounded. A sculpture in which the hero stands upright and looks directly outward in the aftermath of the ordeal highlights the forward momentum of the composition. Triumphant soldiers marching beneath the American flag separate the war zone from home, to which the protagonist returns at the end of the frieze. The narrative proposes a parallel between the individual and the nation both “coming of age through the conflict.”
Hundreds of Civil War monuments told similar stories in the quarter-century before World War I, and American remembrance of the Great War was remarkable for the extent to which the country stuck to its established patterns rather than sharing in Allied responses to the unprecedented event. Jennifer Wingate’s Sculpting Doughboys: Memory, Gender, and Taste in America’s World War I Memorials (2013) reports that more than 60% of American soldier statues depicted combat scenes. The centerpiece of Howard’s frieze follows directly from E. M. Viquesney’s best-selling Spirit of the American Doughboy (1920) and Karl Illava’s 107th Infantry Memorial in Central Park (1924-27). British and French monuments generally did not exalt danger and aggressive energy. Within the figurative tradition endorsed by the American centennial commission, for example, veteran Charles Sargeant Jagger’s Royal Artillery Memorial in Hyde Park (1922-25) demonstrated the potential for innovation in designing a monument as a powerful, sensitive witness. The most widely adopted British stock statues featured soldiers in a mourning pose with weapon inverted rather than modeling the belligerence common in US Civil War monuments since the 1890s.
Persistence in pre-World War I commemorative convention is especially disappointing in a monument commissioned a century after the event, when the passage of time and a vast scholarship have further illuminated its significance. Philippe Prost’s The Ring of Remembrance in Ablain-Saint-Nazaire, France (2011-14), shows that a thoughtful memorial might animate a past that no longer draws on the force of living memory. This variation on monumental listing of names honors 579,606 soldiers from forty different countries who died in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region. The monument recognizes the tragic results of militarized nationalism in World War I and underscores that European cooperation since the 1950s, especially the partnership of France and Germany, is one of the central achievements of modern history. The emphasis of the Washington centennial project on American emergence as a world power is a less timely theme and disregards the disastrous World War I consequences for which the United States shared responsibility.
Centennial commemoration of World War I coincided with a racial reconsideration of the American civic landscape that resumed more fervently in the year before the Washington opening. Howard’s approach to this issue is to ignore the segregation of the American Expeditionary Force and depict an integrated fighting force, even though Black soldiers’ combat opportunities came through assignment to French units. The sculptor argues that his frieze describes a higher truth in the war’s impact on Black veterans’ demand for equality. As this decision indicates, a monument is not a monograph and might use artistic license to reconcile conflicting elements of a story. Surely, however, a project of this scale could have achieved more nuance. The recent anniversary of the Tulsa massacre of 1921 is a reminder that Black veterans of World War I determined to exercise their citizenship met with shockingly violent white resistance. Howard’s sentimentality affords no space for the historical complexity that the public is increasingly eager to acknowledge.
The centennial commission has tried to dub World War I “the forgotten war” and lamented that Washington lacks a comprehensive monument to soldiers who fought in the conflict, though the latter point is also true of the American Revolution and the Civil War. The capital features several high-profile World War I monuments. Their most striking feature is the extent to which the country has collapsed them into institutional tributes to the military. The First Division Memorial (1919-24) foreshadowed this pattern in the sponsors’ insistence on imitation of the Battle Monument at West Point (1890-97). Subsequent modifications have transformed remembrance of American intervention in Europe into an ongoing homage to a US Army unit. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery (1920-32), part of a multinational effort to recognize the toll of World War I, has followed a similar trajectory. The calendrical equivalent is the 1954 conversion of Armistice Day to Veterans Day. Nobody who spends November 11 in Canada can think of World War I as a forgotten war.
Like the right-wing ascendancy in postwar diplomacy and race relations, the increased political power of the military is a World War I legacy hidden by “A Soldier’s Journey.” Ironically, the Washington ceremony took place in the same month as the first broadcast of a monumental television documentary about the most canonical American commentator on the experience of the war, Ernest Hemingway. He famously denounced efforts to reshape pointless human suffering into narratives of honor or courage or maturation in A Farewell to Arms (1929). The gulf between the beloved novel and the official war memorial measures the challenge that confronts public historians engaged in the work of commemoration. A large constituency is interested in interpretations of the past that do not reduce the relations between the individual and the nation—or the specific experiences of Black Americans or the relations between the United States and the world—to simplistic mythmaking. To create monuments that offer more thoughtful artistic representations, historians must achieve fuller representation in sponsors’ decision-making processes.
~Thomas J. Brown is a professor of history at the University of South Carolina. He specializes in the Civil War and Reconstruction with a particular focus on cultural history and commemorative landscapes. His most recent book, Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America (University of North Carolina Press, 2019) received the 2020 Tom Watson Brown Book Award of the Society of Civil War Historians. He is also the author of Civil War Canon: Sites of Confederate Memory in South Carolina (University of North Carolina Press, 2015) and Dorthea Dix, New England Reformer (Harvard University Press, 1998).