On the Changing Nature of Memorials: Vietnam, Oklahoma City, 9-11

Posted on Sep 15 2011 - 1:00am by Harrison

New York City's 9-11 Memorial

Anybody who has ever visited Europe has seen the many memorials located in squares and forgotten alcoves dedicated to won battles and proud generals.  Even Washington, D.C. (perhaps because it was designed by a Frenchman) has numerous tall statues in the center of its many traffic circles.

As many who watched the September 11th ceremonies over the weekend noticed, the memorials to that day continue a trend begun with the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial in 1982: the commemoration of the individual.

Having grown up in Washington, D.C. I was at the dedication ceremony for the Vietnam Memorial though I more remember chasing pigeons and the crappy November weather.  But that memorial, designed by Maya Lin (with much controversy), was the first major monument to be dedicated to those who died.

This style of memorial has now become the norm as politics have become more important and death tolls smaller.

According to Wikipedia:

A stated goal of the memorial fund was to avoid commentary on the war itself, serving solely as a memorial to those who served.

The Oklahoma City Memorial features 168 empty chairs to symbolize those who died.  The September 11th memorial in New York City features, like the Vietnam Memorial, the names of those who died in the towers inscribed in stone as do the memorials in Pennsylvania and in Virginia.

Taking this approach allows the reasons for those memorials’ existence to be swept under the rug.  There is no commentary save for a list of those who died.  Thus the Oklahoma City Memorial, the result of Timothy McVeigh’s anti-Government fervor, contains no pledges as to why Government is good and the September 11th memorials, the result of Islamic militancy makes no mention of the religious nature of the event (perhaps the museum in New York City will?).

In a time of divided politics among a people who can’t even agree on the nature of conflict, these were the safest choices.

The speeches and events in New York City (and particularly Shanksville, PA) more resembled a private memorial service than a national day of remembrance.

Because of how contentious things have become socially in the United States, the scope of memorials needs to be filtered down to the smallest degree possible: those who died.  How can anyone argue with that?

We cannot speak publicly of why something happened and must, instead, only list the consequences: those who died.

The fact that only names (or empty chairs) are present means how we relate to events has changed.  Go to Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square in London (or the Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington, VA) and what you will take away from them is that a single individual (or an organization acting as one) accomplished what is being honored.  But in the cases of the Vietnam, Oklahoma City, and the September 11th memorials it is not what was created (victory) but what was done (defeat, loss, death, destruction).

Looking at these memorials makes one sad and left feeling somewhat victimized, not triumphant.

Hot Air ran an article on the September 11th Memorial in Shanksville, PA titled Our last funeral:

That’s how Mark Bingham’s father described tomorrow’s ceremony in Shanksville laying to rest the remains of the passengers on Flight 93. He’s spent 10 years attending memorial services for his son but this will be, at long last, the final goodbye. I’ve been straining to find something to say that would be equal to the moment but Bingham’s already done it, so let me stand on that instead. This is our last funeral.

Memorials like the one commemorating the botched Vietnam War reinforce the idea, not always wrong, that Governments only create problems for their citizens: they get them involved in conflicts (economic, religious, etc…) which get people killed.  What other lesson could one take away from the list of 58,272 names on Maya Lin’s memorial?

Those people are all either dead or missing and presumed dead.

The soldiers didn’t fly halfway around the world on their own to meet new and interesting cultures and kill them – our Government – sent them there.

We must contrast this school of thought with the fact that there are still plenty of governments and organizations (al Qaeda for one) who wouldn’t mind sending 58,272 of their people to death if it would accomplish their goals.

The fact that there will be plenty of opportunities for foreign leaders or commanders to send tens of thousands more to their deaths betting the house on their ideas of victory while Americans wish to sacrifice few, if any, for our side to “win” sets the stage for plenty more social conflict in the future and plenty more memorials filled with names.

7 Comments so far. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. Steve Dennis September 15, 2011 at 3:25 AM -

    A very interesting article Harrison, I hadn’t thought about it but I think you are right. These memorials are a tribute to the people who died, but there is nothing on them to tell us about the event. Is this done purposely? I wouldn’t doubt it.
    Steve Dennis recently posted..The Obama campaign starts a website urging people to report their neighbors

  2. Jack Camwell September 15, 2011 at 5:57 AM -

    Very thought provoking Harrison. When you look at the whole of human history, and the billions that have been killed in the past 7,000 years, how much does it really matter why they were killed?

    We should never forget the lessons of history, to be sure. We should always remember why they were killed so we can hopefully avoid incurring that fate on others in the future. But the fact is that they all died for the same reason: they died because human beings can be extremely violent, and they often feel as though the only solution to their problems is to spill blood.

    There’s only names anymore because, in the end, the reasons for their deaths are somewhat meaningless considering the fact that they will be repeated anyway. The only thing that is truly meaningful is the fact that human lives were extinguished simply because someone thought it’d be a good idea.
    Jack Camwell recently posted..Why do something that’s immoral?

    • Harrison September 15, 2011 at 9:03 AM -

      Where would Camus have been had he never asked “why”?

  3. eots September 15, 2011 at 8:25 AM -

    Great post. In general our public art is abstract lest we offend anyone.
    Also worth noting, the Flight 93 memorial will be in a shape of crescent facing Mecca. I don’t think the architects did it on purpose, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a crescent pointing to Mecca. Public art is abstract to avoid controversies like this one, but, apparently, Islam is exempt from controversies.
    eots recently posted..Turner Wins NY9!

    • Harrison September 15, 2011 at 9:03 AM -

      I did not know that about the crescent. I will have to look into this.