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A wave of war memorials is coming to D.C.

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A wave of war memorials is coming to D.C. Are we all at peace with that?

 

Twenty-seven years after his war ended, and seven years after his crusade to memorialize it began, Scott Stump stood before a presidentially appointed panel of architects and designers in June to advocate for his dream. This was the former Marine’s fourth visit to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which is charged with protecting the grace and dignity of public space in the nation’s capital from clutter and kitsch.

 

Stump, from North Carolina, had discovered just how hard it can be to build anything on some of America’s most soulful ground — anything at all, let alone a memorial to Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, those often-overlooked missions in which 700,000 Americans served and 383 were killed. Early designs featured a rightward curving wall the color of desert sand, meant to embody the “left hook” battlefield maneuver that vanquished the Iraqi army on the ground in 100 hours. Counting the initial aerial bombardment, the combat phase lasted all of six weeks.

 

I knew from conversations with Stump before the hearing that he is a passionate encyclopedia of all the slights he has heard from panel members and others about the relative importance of that Gulf War. It was launched in January 1991, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Skeptics call it a bloodless “video-game war,” a mere prologue to the nation’s wars following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, too short to be historically significant. “That’s like a boxer saying, ‘Man, I really regret knocking him out in 30 seconds. We should have strung it out for 15 rounds!’ ” Stump told me. “This was a really big deal. ... It validated that America was back in business.”

 

Legislation approving the National Desert Storm and Desert Shield Memorial had already been signed by President Trump; the question now was where to put it. “Visitability is by far the most important to us and millions of our future visitors,” Stump told the panel. That’s why he favored the prominent southwest corner of Constitution Avenue and 23rd Street NW. It’s across a patch of grass from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and a short walk from the Lincoln Memorial. But the fine arts commission had been urging another site that is a quarter-mile from the Mall, across a tangle of traffic lanes, on the shore of the Potomac River.

 

Stump, who is the president of the National Desert Storm War Memorial Association, let his big

guns do most of the talking at the hearing. They included the bipartisan duo of Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, who complained that the river site “is not contiguous with other war memorials,” and Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), who said, “Our nations’ monuments share the story of our country. It can’t fully be told without a National Desert Storm War Memorial.” Skip Graffam, a partner in the landscape design firm that is working on the memorial, code-talked expertly in the gnomic language of grass and stone symbology that is music to the commission’s ears; he suggested how the left hook could be embedded in a quarter-acre of land and form an elegant thematic connection to nearby monuments.

 

As the commissioners deliberated, I felt the tide turning toward Stump. One by one, most members of the panel said they were coming around to the idea that the site close by Lincoln and Vietnam might be just the place to remember Desert Storm — and in short order the commission handed victory to Stump and his allies.

 

Before the vote, however, the lone dissenter, vice chairman Elizabeth K. Meyer, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, spoke up in a quiet voice. The daughter and sister of career military officers chose her words carefully, because a vote against even the site of a veterans memorial can be interpreted as a vote against veterans, and the commission had already received angry messages along those lines. Meyer said she didn’t think Desert Storm was “historically significant enough” to merit such a prized location. Then she raised a deeper and more unsettling question that I had been thinking about as well — one that gets at the nation’s relationship with war and remembrance in the heart of Washington.

 

“I’m also concerned about the proliferation of war memorials on the National Mall,” she said. “The Mall is a public space that symbolizes our collective national identity, and we’re more than wars. We’re more than commemorating the dead. ... What is the threshold when the Mall becomes essentially a cemetery? A war memorial zone, with no space for anything else, for the way in which we gather together and construct our national identity through the kinds of things we do together on the Mall?”

 

A wave of war memorials is coming to D.C. Are we all at peace with that?


"FAKE 45 #illegitimate" read a sign at the Woman's March in Washington DC, January 21, 2017.
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