The National World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C.

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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.

Sculpture of men engaged in warfare during World War I

Artist Sabin Howard’s sixty-foot-long frieze is scheduled for installation in 2024. Photo credit: World War I Commission.

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.

Circular monument made of metal on top of grass and a concrete walkway. Two people walk under the monument.

Artist Phillipe Prost’s “The Ring of Remembrance.” Photo credit: Carolin Hahnemann CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikipedia Commons

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).

  1. Edwin Fountain says:

    As a member of the World War I Centennial Commission who was closely involved in the development of the new World War I Memorial, I read this post with interest, and would like to make a few responses.
    I start with the mission defined by Congress when it authorized the memorial, which was “to honor the service of members of the United States Armed Forces in World War I.” From the outset, this took the memorial design out of the realm of funereal or mournful sites like Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, or Sir Edwin Lutyens’s monument to the missing at Thiepval. The Congressional charter also called for a focus on American forces and their service, rather than on issues of race or “militarized nationalism.”
    Thus, inevitably, based on Congressional mandate alone, this memorial was never going to satisfy Professor Brown’s desire that the memorial focus on “historical complexity” or “pointless human suffering”. And it was perhaps inevitable that a memorial form that most see as honoring the troops would be seen by others as glorifying war.
    Taking the legislative purpose as our guiding principle, we determined that objectives of the memorial were (1) to properly honor the accomplishments and sacrifice of American armed forces in the war, (2) to do so on a scale and with a gravity commensurate with the memorials on the Mall to the other major wars of the 20th century, and (3) to convey the profound significance of the war as an event in American and world history. In the design competition undertaken by the Commission, the independent jury determined that a design concept focused on a significant work of figurative sculpture would best meet these objectives. The sculptor, Sabin Howard, and the Commission then collaboratively developed the narrative and imagery of the sculpture.
    Significantly, the memorial design went through an extensive design review process involving other federal and D.C. agencies. Throughout an extensive review process involving multiple submissions to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and other design review agencies, and multiple opportunities for public comment, the sculptural theme chosen by the Commission was uniformly endorsed, and no one ever voiced any of the objections put by Professor Brown.
    Professor Brown appears not to realize that the sculpture is only one (albeit the principal one) of several commemorative features that make up the entire memorial. Most significantly, on the reverse of the sculpture wall is the “Peace Fountain”, consisting of lines from Archibald MacLeish’s poem “The Young Dead Soldiers Do Not Speak” in front of a cascade of water, which creates a somber, contemplative precinct it the memorial. MacLeish’s call to the reader – “Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say; it is you who must say this.” — directly expresses the aspiration for peace that Professor Brown wishes for. Indeed, alone among the war memorials in Washington, D.C., the World War I Memorial explicitly pairs the homage to the troops with a powerful message of peace and redemption.
    The memorial belvedere, which includes nine interpretive panels discussing various aspects of the war, also addresses many of the themes that Professor Brown thinks are absent, notably the racial legacy of the war and the tragic consequences of the war over the century that followed. The panels also single out the contributions not only of African Americans, but women, Native and Hispanic Americans, and immigrants – all groups of Americans that were denied the freedoms at home that they were ostensibly defending abroad. (These same groups are also directly represented among the 38 figures in the sculpture itself, which includes seven female figures and three Black soldiers, among others.)
    Professor Brown also overlooks Howard’s approach to addressing the segregation of American troops. It was necessarily a challenge to reflect both the fact that Black soldiers served in the AEF, with courage and distinction, and the fact that they were segregated from White troops, many of them serving under French command because White officers did not want lead them. And so while they appear in the sculpture symbolically side by side with White soldiers, Howard depicts them wearing the distinctive French “Adrien” helmet that they wore under French command, in contrast to the familiar British pie-tin helmet worn by the doughboys. In this way the sculpture honors the service of Black troops, while calling out their separate treatment.
    Finally, Professor Brown misreads the meaning of the figure who looks out toward the viewer. Rather than “highlight[ing] the forward momentum of the composition,” this figure is the one figure that breaks the left to right movement of the sculpture, the one figure that turns and confronts the viewer, inviting the viewer likewise to stop, pause, and reflect. The empty helmets piled at the figure’s feet, along with the haunted expression on the figure’s face – the thousand-yard stare — call the viewer to contemplate the cost of the war, and to remember of the dead. No less than four other images in the composition reflect the physical and psychic toll of the battle, and it is up to the viewer to consider whether the achievement was worth the sacrifice.
    The themes Professor Brown raises are important ones, and contrary to his understanding, they are in fact addressed at the memorial. But the central purpose of the memorial, echoing the mission of the Commission itself, was to fill a lacuna in the memorial landscape of the nation’s capital, and to educate generations of Americans with no first- or even second-hand memory of the war that World War I was as or more significant in American history than the wars commemorated on the Mall, that the scale of American sacrifice was as great or greater than in those later wars, and that the valor of its troops was as profound. If this is glorifying war, then so be it.
    I appreciate this opportunity to participate in ongoing dialogue as visitors to the memorials find their own meaning in the sculpture and other commemorative features of the site.

    1. Mark Facknitz says:

      Good response, Edwin. A model of thoroughness and civility. I finally visited the memorial, just yesterday (4 August 2021), and was deeply moved. I was also struck with how the expansion not only was more inclusive but also with the subtlety and intelligence with which it offered an implied critique of the ‘great-man’ approach to history.

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