Art Callaham: Monumental contrasts

May 27, 2012|By ART CALLAHAM

I wrote a column last year about Memorial Day and what that day means to Americans. But recently I received a new perspective about the day, as well as memorials in general. A new good friend, Al Salter, a local historian and World War II veteran, commented on my wife’s and my radio show that “the World War II Memorial (in Washington, D.C.) is a memorial to glory, while the Vietnam (Veterans) Memorial is a memorial to grief.” Glory and grief are both heartfelt emotions experienced by those who visit either of these memorial sites.

Al went on to explain that “World War II may be the only war in the history of our country where the vast majority of Americans totally and completely supported the war effort. Once we were in it, everyone got behind it and celebrated the glorious victory.” On the other hand, the Vietnam conflict fractured the American bond. Some supported the war effort and others completely opposed it; the net result, when the conflict finally ended, was a sense of “national grief.”

The World War II Memorial is described this way: “It is here, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where the United States ‘proudly’ proclaims the continuity of our Union and protects the memories of those who have struggled to maintain and perfect it. The World War II Memorial occupies a place of honor along this central vista, and takes its rightful place among some of the great icons of American history. The memorial recognizes a period of ‘unprecedented national unity’ during the defining moment of the 20th century. Further, through its elements of stone, water, bronze and words, the World War II Memorial strives to honor the service of more than 16 million men and women in uniform, the contributions of countless millions on the homefront and the unforgettable sacrifice of 405,399 members of our Armed Forces”— a memorial to glory.

On the other hand, “The Wall,” or more properly the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, reminds us of a war where Americans were divided; a war that ends with no one celebrating a victory. Even the end became a time of grief for many.

Contrasting glory and grief, the World War II Memorial is etched with many great statements spoken by great people; at The Wall, the only thing spoken are the names carved on a black and somber wall. The World War II Memorial is a bright symbol of unity depicting hope and a better future; The Wall is dark, a monument to grief and a reminder of disunity. Such are the contrasts as Americans from “the greatest generation” and from the “counter-culture generation” reflect on the horrors, glory and grief of war.

My good friend, retired Chief Warrent Officer 5 Fred Shinbur, a Vietnam veteran and Maryland’s Veteran of the Year in 2011, also a guest on the radio show, agrees that the emotions of glory and grief differentiate the two memorials.

“I had friends on both sides of the Vietnam War issue. However, I have never met a person, from the time, who believed that the U.S. involvement in World War II was unnecessary or not the right thing to do,” he said.

Like other memorials, such as those dedicated to our American Revolution that speak to “Tories” versus “Patriots;” or the Civil War, north versus south; or World War I, our president, “he kept us out of war” and then led us into it, these memorials portend a victory evolving from disunity. Each of these memorials reminds us that we can revel in the outcome of victory and national unity; even the price of human sacrifice seems to be worth the positive results. Similar to these other memorials, the World War II Memorial elicits many of those same emotions.  

Less than one “klick” from the World War II Memorial is the statue of The Three Servicemen and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial. The faces on the statues are shrouded with vacant stares, longing perhaps for a glorious victory, national unity and a celebration to thank them for their service.  Those statues face The Wall that speaks only to the names of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Yes, Al and Fred, I know that this Memorial Day and the three of us, along with veterans of all wars, will reflect on the glory of victory and the freedom it brings. And many of us will ponder the grief that hangs heavy on our hearts.

God Bless America.

Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.

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