Tuesday, May 27, 2008

More Memorials and a Couple of Nazis

I ended up participating in my own quiet way in some local Memorial Day activity. I was out on my bicycle running an errand and decided to ride by the State Capitol to get in a few extra miles on a pleasant day. I’d read something about an event at the Washington Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Capitol grounds and figured that today would be a good day to locate that site. Capitol Way was decked with flags all the way through town. So were the entry approaches to the Capitol campus. My route took me by the World War Memorial just as two Nazis—brown shirts, red armband with a black swastika in a white circle—crossed the walk way in front of me. They had apparently just left the Vietnam Veterans Memorial just to the south. Beyond onlookers’ stares, they didn’t create much of a commotion as they passed by.

The World War (that's what the inscription reads) Memorial is a pretty classic piece of romantic imagery: a sailor, soldier, Marine and nurse, all striding beneath Winged Victory. Each man carries a rifle on his shoulder; the nurse wears starched cap, great coat and boots. I like that the memorial includes a woman. It’s all too easy to think that women serving in war are a new phenomenon. They have always served. Normally, I’m not taken with this kind of memorial but I make an exception for The Great War (now known as World War I) because the era still had some reason to believe that the world was done with war, however incorrect that conclusion was. After reading about America’s determined amnesia regarding WW I, I was sorry I did not have a flower to place there.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is located about 100 meters south, just to the east of the Capitol Building itself. On this day, most activity was centered there. The memorial is reminiscent the one in the Other Washington: names etched in black granite by year. Like the national memorial, this one is built into the ground, in this case a hillside. The top of the granite undulates with the topography and the wall gently arcs into the hillside, creating a subtle grotto in the shade of large trees that were probably standing when these soldiers went to war. Flowers, wreaths and remembrances lay at the base of the wall. I look at names for 1971 but don’t recognize any. I knew guys from Washington, none of whom died. That changes nothing for the ones who did. The last few years’ names fit on one row; 1967, 1968 and 1969 names spill across multiple panels. Groups of Vietnam veterans, South Vietnamese veterans and others mill around, many in uniform or veteran regalia. I had not thought to wear any regalia for a bike ride; I wish I had a Veterans For Peace t-shirt and Combat Infantry Badge. Instead, I just I stood, reading names. A speaker was playing recorded music. I think it was vaguely anti-war but I pretty much tuned it out along with everything and everybody else. I saluted and walked out of the memorial area.

My bike was lying on the ground beside the sidewalk. A Washington State Patrol bicycle (unlike mine, with kickstand) was parked on the walk and the trooper on foot nearby. A woman was talking to him about the Nazis. He said that the Nazis did not have a permit for any gathering but he could not stop them from being on the premises. He also told her he was the only officer on the grounds as he began walking in the direction the Nazis had taken, speaking into his radio. I asked the woman if she had seen the Nazis. She had not but heard they were there. I suggested they were simply there “to pay their respects”. (*) I’m not sure what kind of reception the Nazis received. They did not appear disheveled or molested when they crossed my path earlier.

Many of the vets wore fatigue shirts or uniforms. A few came in full dress uniform, including and elderly Marine lieutenant and a very, very high ranking Air Force NCO (lots of stripes but I never learned AF enlisted insignia). I saw some cavalry hats in the crowd. One stood next to me at the wall but all I know is he was wearing the hat. As I headed back out to the street, I spotted another cavalry hat on an older gentleman in a blue blazer and tie, wearing black and yellow insignia that turned out to be First Cavalry. I recognized his battalion crest—2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry, my own. He served in Korea. I wished him well and we continued in our different directions.

The woman I spoke with mentioned the World War II memorial on the north side of the Capitol grounds. It was on my route. Turning on to 11th Avenue, I saw a gaggle of police vehicles and the two Nazis. More police were near the WW II memorial, all the more reason to stop in and see what’s going on. Not a great deal. Most of the police--, Olympia and State Patrol—were mostly just watching. A state patrol trooper was standing with the Nazis and some plainclothes officers from an unmarked car were approaching them.

The WW II memorial is two metal sculptures set into a linear perspective that at once conveys a wide scope of the conflict and simplicity, a pretty neat trick. One sculpture is a field of “wheat”: metal stalks with grain-like blossoms, each about four feet tall, maybe 300 in all, mostly rust color. They produce sound when the wind blows not just any wind will do it; they are pretty sturdy. The field is an irregular shaped oblong, landscaped with plants and stones naming the many campaigns of the war. Opposite the field are five metal panels radiating from a central point about six feet in diameter. Each panel is maybe two (three?) inches thick and 10 to 12 feet high. Their profile is a vertical panel, rounded at the top and slightly higher on the inside. The panels are etched, creating silhouettes of soldiers, both indistinct and very real. On closer inspection, the silhouettes are the names of Washington dead. It’s a very well done piece of public art, far better in its simplicity than the one in the Other Washington, yet in no way does it miss anything about WW II.

Washington's World War I memorial is a pretty good reminder of how America did remember that war even as it disappeared from the national consciousness. Cities, towns, counties and states all erected monuments to their dead. Richmond has its Memorial Carillon in Byrd Park. Giles County, Virginia has a monument to its dead in front of the court house. Arizona has a monument to it’s most prominent WW I casualty, Bill Luke. Those are just the few I that I know personally. I can guarantee many more exist. So the nation did not forget entirely. People still remembered their friends and kin who sacrificed but they missed the lesson of modern war’s destruction and futility.

A century later, after embracing and remembering subsequent wars, we still ignore that fundamental lesson.

(*) Today's Olympian reports that members of the American Nazi Party were protesting America's support of "the Zionist occupation of Palestine". The story also refers to "a disturbance" and notes no injuries or arrests.



Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

elwood: I hate nazis

jake: I hate Illinois Nazis

(pacific northwest nazis would be even more odious)

3:13 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home