Remembering Conflict: Making Sense of War Memorials

Maya Lin, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington DC.

Wikipedia
Maya Lin, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington DC.
How Early American WWI Monuments Made Meaning of Distant Yet Horrific Violence

How do we give form to war fought overseas?

Flickr

Liberty Memorial, Kansas City MO, Begun 1920.

A monument holds symbolic power, both on an individual and group level, less for what it looks like and more for the events, people, and ideas it stands for.

 

In 1918, much of the world was still in the throes of the First World War, the largest and deadliest conflict that planet had seen to-date. And yet, 1918 was also the year that the first US memorial to the war was built, in rural southern Washington State, along the steep banks of the Columbia River. Here, railroad tycoon Sam Hill decided to recreate Stonehenge as a monument to commemorate the fourteen local young men recently killed overseas.

The Stonehenge Memorial’s dramatic surroundings add to the somber weight of the site. When Hill enlisted the help of local astronomers to design this re-creation of Stonehenge, he (falsely) believed that the original Neolithic structure in southern England marked a site of human sacrifice, making it an appropriate and poetic ode to the local men who had died in the war.

Hill’s unique project aimed to connect modern events in Europe to their impact on American soil while drawing on historical design and ritual precedents. The monument has much in common with subsequent American war memorial efforts for how it requires visitors to spend time contemplating it; this modern Stonehenge does not seem immediately connected to the First World War, but like the other American memorials that followed it, its scale, location, and reliance on viewer engagement makes for a powerful memorial experience.

What is a monument? Is it the same thing as a memorial? We might think of a monument as something accessible with which we can interact in a way that suits our need to process traumatic past events. A monument holds symbolic power, both on an individual and group level, less for what it looks like and more for the events, people, and ideas it stands for. Monuments are physical, tangible vehicles upon which we can direct our memorial efforts.

Pixabay

Vimy Ridge Monument, Arras, Normandy.

The official American response to the war’s human impact was slow compared to local initiatives and European efforts to honor the dead. And so, individual American communities quickly negotiated ways to honor their families and friends, recognizing that often, the immediacy of their needs had to circumvent official efforts. Following the Stonehenge Memorial, one of the earliest American memorials was the result of an early 1920s grassroots initiative in Kansas City, Missouri.

The city had lost 441 of its citizens in the war. The community opted to honor them with an imposing, monolithic structure reminiscent of a skyscraper without any utilitarian purpose. Unlike the private, isolated Stonehenge Monument in Washington State, the Liberty Memorial was the result of many local people’s efforts and was a high-profile, public gesture that claimed a prominent place in the urban center.

It was not until 1923 that the American federal government recognized the need for a more concerted, national response to the people’s demand for war commemoration. The American Battle Monuments Commission took charge that year of building chapels to honor American service people at military cemeteries in the US and at other significant war sites in Europe. These were structures with which visitors were familiar, and which provided predictable forms of comfort. Here, visitors could commune with the spaces that held remains or objects associated with their loved ones.

Unlike the US, France hosted many of the war’s deadliest battles. The nation itself had lost physical territories and each region suffered the death of local people. French military cemeteries were reimagined as distinct memorial sites, where families could gather individually and in small groups. For those for whom it was possible, it seemed meaningful to connect the act of remembering to a physical site where remains were held. And very soon after fighting ended, French communities consecrated specific battle sites—something that was never possible stateside. Places such as Vimy Ridge, managed by Veterans Affairs Canada, that had witnessed so many horrors, were from then on areas where the living could go to enact remembrance. These sites joined cemeteries as meaningful places whose histories helped turn them into open-air monuments.

Beyond specific sites, many French monuments relied on some commonly-understood symbolism that helped viewers quickly connect with them. Memorial designers imagined France itself as a woman, often reminiscent of the Virgin Mary just after she had lost her son. She became a legible sign of a nation mourning the loss of hundreds of thousands of young men and women. This imagery did not need to be physically connected to a battlefield or cemetery in order to carry its message clearly, and many local, regional, and national memorial efforts relied upon symbolism that clearly called to mind maternal loss and human suffering as a reminder of the war and those it claimed.

Stonehenge Memorial
Pixabay

Stonehenge Memorial, Maryhill, Washington. Begun 1918.

Stonehenge Memorial
Flickr

Stonehenge Memorial, Maryhill, Washington. Begun 1918.

National WWI Museum and Liberty Memorial
National WW1 Museum

National WWI Museum and Liberty Memorial, Kansas City, MO.

World War I Military Cemetery in Verdun-Bevaux.
Duvda, Creative Commons

World War I Military Cemetery in Verdun-Bevaux.

Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge
Max Pixel

Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge, Arras, Normandy.

Beyond specific sites, many French monuments relied on some commonly-understood symbolism that helped viewers quickly connect with them. Memorial designers imagined France itself as a woman, often reminiscent of the Virgin Mary just after she had lost her son. She became a legible sign of a nation mourning the loss of hundreds of thousands of young men and women. This imagery did not need to be physically connected to a battlefield or cemetery in order to carry its message clearly, and many local, regional, and national memorial efforts relied upon symbolism that clearly called to mind maternal loss and human suffering as a reminder of the war and those it claimed.

Regardless of where we are in the world, as visitors, we want to feel an emotional charge and to learn about the conflict in question when we approach a war memorial. This is a difficult task for a designer, because we demand that memorials encapsulate some tangible element of something as huge and incomprehensible as war.

And so, memorial designers have to take creative risks, forcing visual and experiential connections for visitors who cannot all share the same associations between what they see and what they know or remember. It is perhaps not surprising then that in France and in the US, memorial efforts have never been met with widespread praise.

We need only look at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC, for an example of how difficult the task of trying to capture and reflect so much horror and loss into a tangible form really is. Commemorating over 58,000 Americans who died during the Vietnam War, Maya Lin’s design recalls plinth-like Neolithic monuments, somewhat like Hill’s Stonehenge in Washington State. The “Wall,” as the Vietnam Memorial is often referred, does not depict any recognizable thing. Its placement is crucial to how it functions, forging a connection between the Washington and Lincoln Memorials that flank it. The Wall inserts itself into conversation with these other physical testaments to American history. But, because it is aniconic, viewers often struggle to connect with it.

Hill’s Stonehenge works by assuming we know something about the Neolithic site it emulates, and the Wall does not even award us this kind of reference. We are so often used to attaching our commemoration practices to a legible symbol or tangible idea—like the figure of a mourning mother or actual war battlefields in France—and Lin’s design defies these attempts. The Memorial strips away all referential signs in favor of a structure that requires us to actively participate in its meaning-making.

About the Author

Rachel Ozerkevich

Rachel Ozerkevich holds a PhD in Art History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She's an art historian, writer, educator, and researcher currently based in eastern Washington State. Her areas of expertise lie in early illustrated magazines, sports subjects, interdisciplinary arts practices, contemporary indigenous art, and European and Canadian modernism.

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