Last weekend my wife and kids and I went to visit the National World War Two Memorial that now stands on the Mall in Washington between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. We hadn’t been before, and since both of our grandfathers served in WWII, we though it was kind of appropriate for Memorial Day weekend. I don’t quite know what we were expecting; I’d heard some of the press about the site’s sterility and its nineteenth-century throwback architecture, but if I’d seen a picture of the memorial before I’d managed to flush it from my mind somehow. I know a fair amount about World War Two because of my professional scholarly work, so I was mainly curious to see how the conflict had been memorialized.

My wife, I think, was specifically looking for something that might connect her to her grandfather, who died about ten years ago and was one of the survivors of the 19 March 1945 attack on the U.S.S. Franklin – Big Ben the Flattop – in which 724 people died when the ship was hit by two armor-piercing bombs. Poppa was a gunner, and should have been on deck when the attack happened, but for reasons that he never really explained to us he was below decks doing an extra KP duty shift when the bombs hit. (Presumably he’d gotten in trouble somehow, since people don’t usually volunteer for more KP duty.) Had he been on deck he would almost certainly have been killed. Poppa survived the war, but passed away about ten years ago, and a memorial to the war in which he served might have made a nice symbolic link to his memory.

Both of us were disappointed in the memorial, for reasons that stem from the strategy chosen by the memorial’s designers – a strategy that we might call the “just war” strategy of remembrance. The memorial celebrates a victory rather than calling to mind the sacrifices of those who died in achieving that victory, and as such legitimates the whole operation in decidedly moralistic terms. This is the same legitimation strategy that we see at work in today’s War on Terror, in which a morally “good” goal justifies morally questionable means that involve killing other human beings. And it’s a dangerous strategy, one that we ought to be much more skeptical of than we often seem to be.

The first thing that we found rather disappointing about the memorial was the virtually complete absence of any individual or personal images. There are no statues of soldiers, no images of any specific people at all; instead, there are stark towers inscribed with the names of locations where battles were fought and the twin labels “ATLANTIC” and “PACIFIC,” along with column-like slabs featuring the names of U.S. states and territories. Apparently these are the names of al of the places in the United States that contributed troops to the war effort, but this is not indicated on the memorial anywhere. The overwhelming effect is somewhat daunting; one gets the sense of some kind of massive collective endeavor, but none of the specifics.

The one place in the memorial where individual deaths are directly commemorated is a wall of stars above a reflecting pool. The pool’s border bears the uninformative legend “HERE WE MARK THE PRICE OF FREEDOM,” and apparently each of the 4,000 stars on the wall stands for 100 American deaths. (Again, you’d only know this if you’d read the website of a guide book; the symbolism of the memorial itself is quite opaque unless you have this interpretive key.) But here again, the emphasis is on the collective rather than the individual – the message seems to be that lots of people died, but not that any particular individuals died.

Indeed, the point of the whole installment seems to be that these deaths of nameless, faceless people was justified. The dominant motif of the memorial is the victory wreath; each of the state-and-territories columns bears a wreath, and the two towers each contain sculptures of majestic eagles bringing a wreath as though to crown the winner of the conflict. It’s not a memorial that promotes reflection and remembrance as much as it is a celebratory monument to a good and glorious campaign. People have brought individual remembrances – photographs, letters to dead relatives, etc. – and placed them at various points around the memorial, but they look oddly out of place because there is no obvious location for an individual to fit into. The state from which they came? The name of a battle in which they fought? Although these personal testimonies were to me the most interesting part of the memorial, they seemed overshadowed – both literally and symbolically – by the dominant victory motif.

Now, if there’s a war in the twentieth century that could accurately be classified as a “good war,” the Second World War would probably be it. Fascism bad; fascist Europe and a fascist Pacific Ocean bad; victory for the democracies good. I’m not quarreling with the notion that it’s definitely a better thing that the Allies won; a world dominated by the Third Reich would certainly have been worse than what we in fact got. And I’m not trying to argue that fighting the war was an unwise thing; Hitler wasn’t about to negotiate, and Nazism as an ideology didn’t have much space for peaceful coexistence with liberal democracies. Instead, what I am objecting to is the very notion of a “good war” in the first place. Wars might be tragically necessary, but I’m extremely skeptical of any attempt to legitimate them in terms of some kind of universal morality or “infinite justice” – which, let us not forget, was the name of Operation Enduring Freedom before someone in the Bush Administration finally realized that the original name was almost as offensive to Muslims as calling the War on Terror a “crusade” would have been.

The dangerous part of this “just war” strategy is that it enables precisely the kind of framing that Dan calls attention to in this post: governments around the world keep using notions like “radical Islam” and the transcendentally just character of defending against it as a way to legitimate all manner of repressive tactics. The logic is very simple: because the goal is transcendentally good, virtually anything is justified in pursuit of it. And arguing against such a framing is very difficult, because it puts one into the uncomfortable position of questioning something that is taken to be absolutely good and right.

I’m not sure that there are good wars, or just wars, or wars that are somehow morally right. Any war, even a war undertaken in pursuit of a desirable end, nonetheless involves putting soldiers in harm’s way and causing death, mayhem, and destruction; the “just war” strategy minimizes these inevitable costs by holding up the morally good character of the goal. And that strikes me as problematic – not because we should never fight wars, but because we shouldn’t glorify that fighting, or sanction it in the name of some sort of divine or universal moral imperative. Given the present organization of world politics, wars may well be tragic necessities, but whitewashing them as “good” seems to me as dangerously misleading now as it did to Mark Twain when he wrote “The War Prayer” a century ago.

As for remembering wars, I would argue that we ought to place more emphasis on the sacrifices of individuals than on the presumptive justice of the cause for which they died. I hope that designers of future war memorials take more of a cue from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial than from the WWII Memorial.

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[cross-posted at Progressive Commons]

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