Commemorating WWII: Back to the Future

My recent tour of about twenty memorials in southern Minnesota (plus one in western Wisconsin) was meant to help immerse me in the era of World War II, which I’ll be teaching next January at Bethel University. But more often than not, what I saw were relics of the 1990s or 2000s, not the 1940s or 1950s.

Indeed, only four of the memorials I visited dated back to those latter decades: Hastings, 1948 (its “Roll of Honor,” redone in 1981, not the more recent veterans memorial placed along the Mississippi River in Levee Park); North Mankato, 1949; Melrose, 1950; Anoka, 1959. (Lake City’s intriguing “Gold Star Mothers Park” goes back to 1961 — more on that in a later post on women and commemoration.)

Hastings WWII Roll of Honor
Hastings (MN) World War II Roll of Honor in Roadside Park. (The stones in the foreground, honoring the different branches of the military, seem to have been added more recently.)

Why so few memorials from near the war itself? As I explained (with substantial help from a 2002 article by art historian Andrew Shanken) on Wednesday, the dominant type of WWII memorial was of the “living” type — including parks, roads, pedestrian zones, and other spaces that almost (and intentionally) blend into present-day life without drawing much attention to the past. My guess is that the index (from the state veterans’ affairs department) that I used to plan my trip didn’t necessarily include living memorials unless they featured a plaque, tablet, stone, or other edifice.

Anoka Memorial Dedication
Dedication to the town of Anoka’s veterans memorial

One example of how the “living memorial” ideal remains in force: only a couple of the memorials I saw were explicitly attached to World War II. Most were dedicated to veterans in general, or — as in the case of the Anoka memorial — a town or county’s “dead of all wars.” Some stretched back to the Spanish-American War, Civil War, or even Revolutionary War — one in Winona nodded to the French and Indian War! — and most incorporated commemoration of wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf. Though not — yet — Afghanistan or Iraq. All of which muddies the meaning of the commemoration, as we may explore in the next post in this series…

But starting in the late Eighties (e.g., the Goodhue County Memorial in Red Wing, MN and its Pierce County neighbor across the river in Ellsworth, WI) and then through the Nineties and early years of the 21st century, more traditional commemorative structures were retroactively added to older parks or became the centerpieces of completely new memorial spaces. Bronze eagles, decommissioned tanks, and flagpoles celebrating not just the nation or POWs and MIAs, but the various armed services, rise above most of the memorial spaces I encountered.

Even where the space was a park or school, it’s hard not to read such choices as a belated rebuff of the living memorial advocates of the 1940s, who derided martial celebrations of heroism and victory and strove to break with a commemorative visual language that they regarded as funerary or indulgent.

Now I don’t want to push this too far. The triumphal arches and victory columns that particularly bothered the modernists in the memorial debates of WWI and WWII are nowhere to be found in newer memorials of southern Minnesota, and the conical spire towering over the veterans memorial in my hometown of Stillwater is the closest I got to an obelisk:

Stillwater (MN) Veterans Memorial
“Can we climb it?”, asked our three year old twins…

But consider statuary. After 1918 bronze, iron, stone, and plaster doughboys proliferated in American towns, as poilus did in French villages. Living memorial advocates sneered at them in the 1940s for being ugly, mass-produced, old-fashioned, and out of step with the mechanization of modern warfare (“What will they do? Make statues of guys in jeeps?”, scoffed one critic in 1945), but such representations have come back in favor in the last twenty-plus years. A few examples from my tour:

In a September 1945 essay for The Atlantic Monthly, Joseph Hudnutt had warned that “the sculptors will fill our parks and squares with faithful presentments of our soldiers, explicit of helmet, bayonet, and button, and no homely circumstance slighted. They will try to bring the grim business to your doorstep in a democratic guise. They will not succeed. The war will hide its head behind the common man quite as easily as behind the trophies of conquerors. Do not ask the monument what is hidden. The monument does not remember.” He was right to worry — it just took another few decades and wars to happen.

Why did it happen? I can only speculate, but perhaps we might look back to one of the few traditionalists making the case against living memorials during WWII, Lewis Mumford:

These useful structures do not bind us to the dead; they do not stir the feelings and rouse the energies that will keep us from being content with such debilitated efforts at cooperation as would merely give us the illusion of “peace in our time.” That higher function and that higher purpose belong to the sphere of art, and such art is essentially of a religious character. (quoted by Shanken, “Planning Memory,” p. 132)

Produced in the glow of 50th and 60th anniversaries of D- and V-days, perhaps traditional structures seemed better suited than parks and roads to sacralize the memory of a war and generation that, at such a distance, increasingly seemed “Good” and “Greatest.”

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