Commemorating WWII: Meaning, Power, and Worship

What do war and veterans memorials mean? What should we think or feel when we visit them? And who decides the answers to those questions?

Not long after leaving Highway 61 (the famous road that follows the Mississippi River) and entering the southeastern Minnesota town of Wabasha, you’ll arrive at its small Veteran’s Memorial Park. Or drive past it, if you don’t pay close attention…

There are just a few elements: the green space of the park itself (that a reminder that I shouldn’t go overboard in proclaiming the death of the “living memorial” ideal); a flagpole flying the Stars and Stripes, with a rather abstract granite triptych at its base; and a wooden statue of a grieving soldier.

Unless I missed something in my notes, there are only a few words to be seen: the name of the park; a simple inscription on the central section of the granite memorial (“Dedicated to those who Served and Sacrificed”); and on the statue, the artist’s name and date (J. Smith, 1995). The town’s website adds that the soldier is a veteran of the Vietnam War, but the rendering is so abstract that you could visit the park and reasonably assume he served in World War II, the Korean War, or perhaps an even more recent conflict.

Indeed, the entire space serves as something of a blank canvas: it could conjure the memory of almost any war or no specific war at all, and there’s little (though what’s there is not neutral — see below) to shape your understanding of the Service and Sacrifice being honored. (Such a tabula rasa is an old idea in American commemorative theory: see my February 2012 post on the Federalist-Republican debate over how to commemorate the life of George Washington.) To my taste, something like the Wabasha memorial is probably closest to how a democracy that ostensibly cherishes plural opinions ought to commemorate its wars.

* * * * *

Then there’s a second example of the craftsmanship of Anderson Memorials, Inc. that — in size and tone — couldn’t be much more different from the one in Wabasha: the grand Soldiers Field Veterans Memorial in Rochester, the state’s largest city outside of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. (And due to grow much larger if our governor, land-grant university, and the Mayo Clinic get their way.) I’ve previously noted Soldiers Field as an early, interwar example of the living memorial: it was purchased by the American Legion in 1927, then transferred to the city to use for youth sports; a statue of an eagle at the park’s entrance was added in 1951.

Soldiers Field still includes a golf course, playground, athletic fields, and trails for biking, jogging, and walking, but in 1995 a committee with members representing the city and private organizations like the Jaycees, VFW, and local businesses was charged with developing a new all-veterans memorial. Work began in 1998, and the memorial was dedicated two years later. Additional engravings and sculptures were added later. It’s a large space with a variety of elements — the following gallery is a mere sampler. (Visit the memorial’s website for more images and a project history and timeline.)

Much of the memorial is meant to serve as a work of public history, which is going to be the topic of the next post in this series. So here I’ll simply focus on the memorial’s central sculpture, dedicated in 2004:

"Widow and Child" statue at Rochester (MN) Soldiers Field Veterans Memorial

At first glance, this statue is a welcome addition to the memorial: an unexpected centerpiece for a veterans memorial at a field remembering soldiers that reminds us that the cost of war is also born by those who never come near a field of battle. And that war is not experienced solely by men, or by adults.

But if you walk around the statue, you find an inscription (“The Grief and Tragedy of War”) that makes things more problematic:

The devastating moment when families first learn their loved one was killed defending our freedom.

The closing three-word phrase is in keeping with the central theme of a memorial that repeatedly proclaims that “Freedom isn’t free” and neighbors a “Freedom Shrine” sponsored by the local Exchange Club.

Now, I’m sure that that many who lost their spouses and parents over the course of America’s wars took solace or pride in the conviction that these soldiers, marines, sailors, etc. died in defense of freedom. But if I’d experienced such a profound loss I’m not sure I’d want someone — the sculptor? the memorial committee? the city of Rochester? — to speak for me in this way. In that devastating moment something so abstract as the defense of freedom might be cold comfort, utterly disconnected from the concrete experiences of loss and bereavement, dislocation and hardship. Perhaps that would change with time, but perhaps not…

What if I actually believed that my loved one’s life had been wasted in a pointless war fought for an unjust cause? This is the problem, certainly, of having a memorial space fold in numerous conflicts that were fought differently, for differing reasons, and with divergent outcomes. Is the wife of a draftee killed in Vietnam certain that he died “defending our freedom”? Will that phrase ring true for the child of a National Guardsman who perished in Iraq?

But this is a series about the commemoration of World War II, and I suspect (given the fact that the woman in the statue is holding a Western Union telegram) that thatthe Good War we’re meant to think of here. Surely the Army Ranger who died at Pointe du Hoc or the sailor who went down with his ship in the Coral Sea was defending freedom, no?

* * * * *

I’ll delve more deeply into the moral ambiguities of the Second World War as this series continues. Here, suffice it to say that while I basically believe in the justness, or at least necessity, of the Allied cause in WWII, I also think that it’s important that we understand how Americans tend to construct a gauzy, feel-good memory of the war that obscures the complexity of views at the time.

Even though the vast majority of Americans supported the war effort, they didn’t have blind trust in their government. Particularly in the last year of the war, they did not accept terrible casualty figures with a stoic understanding that “freedom isn’t free.” And among those who actually fought, it’s even less clear that such slogans sustained them through the terror, boredom, frustration, and privations of war.

Black POWs in December 1944, at the Battle of the Bulge
Black soldiers taken prisoner at the Battle of the Bulge, December 1944 – Bundesarchiv

First, I don’t think I need to explain why many African- and Japanese-Americans in 1941-1945 had little certainty that they were fighting or sending loved ones off to fight “for freedom.” Here’s how John Fousek summarizes the response of the former group to the end of the war:

…African Americans generally seem to have interpreted the nation’s final victory in World War II with an ambivalence seldom expressed by their white compatriots, let alone by the mass media or spokesmen of officialdom. During the war, this ambivalence was most widely expressed through the symbol and slogan of the “Double V” — victory over fascism abroad and victory over racial injustice at home. The spirit expressed in this slogan remained vital long after fascism’s defeat abroad….

The end of the war actually widened the gap between the nation’s achievements abroad and the frustration of its Negro citizens at home. (Fousek, To Lead the Free World, p. 32)

But even white troops were conflicted or ambivalent about why they fought. Consider the work of Shirley A. Star, a researcher with the War Department who studied soldiers’ attitudes during the war. In “The Orientation of Soldiers toward the War,” her contribution to the 1949 collection The American Soldier, Star found no real consensus among soldiers as to the reasons they were fighting — beyond the conviction that Pearl Harbor left their country no other option than war:

Beyond acceptance of the war as a necessity forced upon the United States by the aggressor, there was little support of attempts to give the war meaning in terms of principles and causes involved, and little apparent desire for such formulations.

While many did cite “Freedom” and other “one-word, slogan-like concepts,” she was struck how few elaborated on this rationale, and concluded that “it is impossible to conclude what lay behind [such responses], that is whether they were used to conceal a lack of thought or to summarize a real orientation with respect to the war.” In any event, only 15% of the soldiers she studied actually “attempted to define the war for themselves in terms of the moral principles involved.” (She added that a 1943 survey of American men found that only 13% could name three or more of FDR’s “Four Freedoms” — widely publicized by American propaganda during the war — and more than one-third said that they hadn’t heard of them at all.) And the longer the war wore on, the more distant even the sense of national danger became: any sense of protecting freedom from imminent distress gave way to “get it over with.”

“But didn’t veterans help design this memorial?”, someone has surely objected. To some extent, yes, but historian John Bodnar would suggest that we need to think more critically about how “public memory” is created. In particular, Bodnar wants us to pay attention to the role played by those seeking to strengthen their own power:

John Bodnar
John Bodnar – Indiana University

Whether in positions of prominence in small towns, ethnic communities, or in educational, government, or military bureaucracies, these leaders share a common interest in social unity, the continuing of existing institutions, and loyalty to the status quo. They attempt to advance these concerns by promoting interpretations of the past and present reality that reduce the power of competing interests that threaten the attainment of their goals. Official culture relies on “dogmatic formalism” and the restatement of reality in ideal rather than complex or ambiguous terms. It presents the past on an abstract basis of timelessness and sacredness. (Bodnar, Remaking America, pp. 13-14)

I suspect that Bodnar would look at the composition of the Rochester memorial committee and say that its membership aligns with his description of American cultural leaders, who tend to

come from a broad group of middle-class professionals—government officials, editors, lawyers, clerics, teachers, military officers, and small businessmen. They are “self-conscious purveyors” of loyalty to larger political structures and existing institutions. Their careers and social positions usually depend upon the survival of the very institutions that are celebrated in commemorative activities. (p. 15)

Outside of — and sometimes in opposition to — that group, Bodnar posits “ordinary people,” who produce “vernacular expressions” that generally “convey what social reality feels like rather than what it should be like.” (See also his book on how Americans contested the meaning of WWII during the war itself.) However, this group is much more diverse, with its members responding to the more ideal constructions of “official” commemoration in multiple ways:

At time they accept official interpretations of reality. Sometimes this can be seen when an individual declares that a son died in defense of his country or an immigrant ancestor emigrated to build a new nation. Individuals also express alternative renditions of reality when they feel a war death was needless or an immigrant ancestor moved simply to support his family. (p. 15)

Whether or not you accept Bodnar’s official-vs.-vernacular schema, I think we should at least be aware that memorials are not politically neutral spaces. (I’ve yet to see a memorial that had a statue of a conscientious objector or anti-war activist, for example, though they were surely exercising freedom at some cost to themselves.)

* * * * *

More than that, memorials are spaces of worship.

As a Christian, I need to be aware that entering a war or veterans memorial is like entering a secular sanctum sanctorum. It is meant to be holy ground, set apart from ordinary space and time. It exalts a certain vision of the good. And it seeks to mold me into a certain kind of person, to shape what I love and value. The memorial at Rochester is like a cathedral, bursting at the seams with meaning: everywhere I look I’m being told to think and — more importantly — feel that “freedom isn’t free,” that I should be willing to sacrifice my life or the loss of a loved one for that value. The veterans park at Wabasha is more austere, but even as it leaves room for a greater range of individual responses, its central memorial makes sacred (check out the first definition of “Dedicate” in Webster’s) the values of Service and Sacrifice, and fuses them with a symbol of the imagined community that we’re to serve and sacrifice for.

Not that freedom and nation don’t, to some extent, deserve my service or sacrifice. But the freedom of a Christian is not the freedom of the modern age. And the love of nation is both a lesser love and a jealous one, intolerant of rival affections.

<<Read the previous post in this series                    Read the final post in this series>>

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