Walking Through History

I spent my first day walking around Washington D.C. I spent pretty much all of my time around the National Mall area. I saw the following monuments / memorials:

  • Lincoln Memorial
  • Washington Monument
  • White House
  • Vietnam Memorial
  • Jefferson Memorial
  • Martin Luther King Jr Memorial
  • Franklin Roosevelt Memorial
  • Korean War Memorial
  • WWI Memorial
  • WWII Memorial

That’s a lot! However, they are all pretty close together and they are memorials, not museums, so you don’t have to spend hours looking at exhibits or something like that.

A couple of things that I noticed:

WWI is sadly ignored. It’s basically just a little pavilion set up in a corner. Technically, it’s in commemoration from the city of D.C (not even a national memorial). I know that it was a long time ago, but over 100,000 Americans died in it (11 million total). I might have written about it a while ago, but WWI is the dividing point between the 19th century and the 20th century. France is physically, emotionally, and psychologically destroyed (as will soon be evident when the Nazis invade it). The Russian empire ceases to exist. The Ottoman empire ceases to exist. The Austria-Hungarian empire ceases to exist. The German empire ceases to exist. If the 20th century is the century of America (and really, who else?), then you’d think that the war that really set the stage for this emergence would get a better billing.

On the other hand, the WWII memorial is prominent and huge. It’s very impressive, if slightly imperial if not actually Speer-like fascist (which, given how the US came out of WWII, might be appropriate). It’s actually a fairly recent memorial. It was dedicated in 2004. I remember when it was first proposed sometime in the late 1980’s. The fact that there was no WWII memorial on the Mall struck some as scandalous. How could it be that we hadn’t recognized our Greatest Generation and their sacrifices before then?

I remember at the time thinking, really? I’ve read my share of history and I certainly understand the huge role that the US played in WWII and the cost in lives (somewhere around 400,000 but let’s not forget the ten million lives lost of the Soviet Union), but is anyone really going to forget our role in WWII? Is history on the verge of forgetting Hitler and our role in fighting back fascism?

With the possible exception of the Revolutionary War itself, WWII might really be the only unambiguously ‘good’ war that the US has ever fought. Especially when you consider the military interventions of the last 70 years: Korean War, Vietnam War, First Gulf War, Second Gulf War, Afghanistan, Beirut, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Balkans, and probably others that I’ve forgotten. Notice that in all cases, either the bad guy wasn’t that bad, or the US didn’t get a clear military victory (no unconditional surrenders here), or it’s just small potatoes. Maybe that’s why it’s front and center. It fits our country’s personal narrative that we are the force of good and the beacon of democracy. Perhaps WWII is the high mark in our history, at least according to how we think of ourselves. Therefore, this prominent grandiose is a perfect monument for the event.

On the frieze of the Lincoln Memorial is a list of states. I find it quite humorous that the state that is closest to being in the center of the front entrance is South Carolina. Keep in mind that South Carolina was the first state to secede from the United States immediately after Lincoln’s election. They were the hotheads of the secession movement (known as the Fire-Eaters), advocating for secession way back in the 1850’s. In fact, after Sherman completed his march to the sea, he turned and headed up North and ravaged South Carolina for her part in the secession movement. Given the still occasionally not so latent hatred of the Yankee down South, how much does it gall a proud citizen of the state (whose capital until July of fucking 2015 still flew the confederate flag) to see its name prominently emblazoned on the memorial of someone who did more than anyone else to remove them of their ‘peculiar institution’?

The Martin Luther King Jr memorial was new to me. I found it (maybe because it is so relatively historically close to me) to be particularly inspiring. Along the wall behind his statue is enshrined a number of his quotes. His messages of peace and love are truly inspiring. His statue, left unfinished, seems to show him struggling to emerge out of unformed rock.

I also found it interesting that his memorial is directly across from Thomas Jefferson’s. I have no idea if it’s intentional, but King’s arms are crossed and he seems to be looking away from Jefferson’s memorial. At some level, is this some judgment of King upon Jefferson? After all, although he was a great defender of liberty and understood that slavery was a fundamental wrong, the fact remains that Jefferson was a slave owner. He owned over a hundred slaves. He had a slave mistress and fathered several children with her, all of whom were treated as slaves. Upon his death he freed them, but the rest of his slaves were sold off and dispersed to pay off his debts. As was typical at slave auctions, families were broken up, possibly never to see each again. Given the fact that Jefferson knew it was wrong makes this all the worse. King could very well be looking away in disappointment.

More to come, but those are just some preliminary thoughts as I wandered around and was soaked in my nation’s history.

 

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