WASHINGTON — By 1982, when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial opened on the National Mall, something had shifted in the way we remember our wars. A national memorial, prominently placed on the nation’s most symbolically significant public space, came to seem like an essential dignity offered to veterans, and the families and memory of those who gave their lives.
But there is an exception: Even today, a century after it began, there is no national World War I memorial on the Mall.
There is a national World War I museum in Kansas City (which has a powerful and very grandly scaled memorial as well), and there is a memorial to the dead who came from the District of Columbia not far from the national memorial to World War II. But despite the transformative power of the First World War on American culture, identity and ambition, despite the more than 115,000 Americans who died, and despite periodic efforts by advocacy groups to spur momentum for a memorial, World War I is the only major 20th-century conflict let without a national marker in Washington.
Yet, surprisingly, World War I is very well memorialized throughout the nation’s capital and surroundings, in a style that is less grand, more local and more connected to the people and organizations who fought the war. Rather than a large, single memorial that distills the loss and meaning of the war down to something general — and often generic — the First World War is memorialized in specific markers devoted to military units, to battles, to leaders and to the men who gave their lives. Finding and engaging with these monuments not only connects visitors to the city in a more meaningful way, it creates encounters with the specifics of history. There is no one-stop shopping, no simple, quick way to “pay respects” and move on; but there is a rich history lesson, not just about the war itself, but about how memory and monuments have changed over the past century.
In the years after the First World War, there was a rush toward memorialization, spurred not just by a sense of loss, but also by a booming industry in the memorial trade. The early 20th century was an age of joining, belonging and participating, which meant there was a huge demand for plaques, honor roles, dedication markers and monuments small and large, and there was a busy industry that catered to this broad interest in making civic statements.
We also buried our dead and visited graveyards, and there was thus greater familiarity with the eclectic language of funerary art. Artists and stone masons, quarries and foundries, graveyards and the mortuary business, formed a powerful voice — and significant political force — encouraging the country to indulge in a flurry of local memorialization efforts.
Often it seemed there was little organization or coordination of these effort. In a 1919 issue of a magazine that catered to the memorial business trade, we see evidence from two counties in Georgia of how independent many memorialization plans were: “Members of the 151st machine gun battalion auxiliary are to erect a monument to the memory of the men in that battalion who sacrificed their lives, regardless of any action on the part of Macon or Bibb county to honor the soldier dead.”
They were also fighting a philosophical idea that threatened their livelihood: The long tradition of belief in “living memorials,” which honored the dead not with monuments, but with schools, libraries, bridges and other public infrastructure that were designed to be both useful and symbolic at the same time. Kirk Savage, the author of the study “Monument Wars,” has traced the long and vibrant history of this line of thought back to early efforts to memorialize George Washington. In the months and years after the First World War ended, there was a great efflorescence of the living monument ideal and as great a reaction from its opponents.
The living memorial advocates argued it better honored the dead to create things that were of benefit to the society, to invest in institutions that represented the ideals for which the soldiers had fought and died. Opponents of the living memorial thought this was a ruse to avoid paying for a real monument. They also believed that memorial libraries or bridges eventually lost their memorial character and simply existed as libraries and bridges, and that only monuments built specifically to serve as memorials would last in an ephemeral age of commerce, progress and frequent destruction and rebuilding of the urban landscape.
Washington’s small, elegant and poetically placed memorial to local war dead is, perhaps, a reminder of this bygone era. It was designed to serve as a bandstand, and as it went through the design review process, its advocates were admonished that it be functional as a place for music. The marine band did indeed play there (on Thursdays during the summer) for about decade after it opened in 1931. It no longer does, and no one quite knows why. And with time, the functionality of the bandstand — and its connection to the living memorial tradition — has been forgotten.
Other memorials, including the Tomb of the Unknown soldier, marked innovations in how we remember our dead. And yet others, including the controversial column that honors the dead of the Army’s First Division, emerged as the tail end of traditions that were fading. Taken together, the monuments of World War I bear witness to a more complex, nuanced and dynamic relation to memory than the great, overscaled, grandiose memorials we tend to build today.