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“As Having Life”: Reflections on the Gem of the Mall

The monument’s an object, yet those decorations,
Carelessly nailed, looking like nothing at all,
Give it away as having life, and wishing;
Wanting to be a monument, to cherish something.

—Elizabeth Bishop, “The Monument”

If you are walking east from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, along the walkway bordering either side of the Reflecting Pool, you will cross paths with the World War II Veterans Memorial that abuts the pool at its southernmost edge. In fact, you cannot stroll along the historic pool’s perimeter without intersecting the broad configuration of fountains, pillars, and pavilions, known somewhat popularly as the “Gem of the Mall.”

If you find it, as I did, wandering southeast from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, you will pass through a tall, granite archway into a pavilion marked by the inscription “,” designating the Western theater of the war. Looking out and across, past the memorial’s mechanized fountains and oval Rainbow Pool, you will see an identical pavilion, the Pacific theater. In two semi-circles that extend from either side of both pavilions stand fifty-six pillars, each named for a U.S. state or territory and adorned with a bronze wreath. Toward the top of each pavilion, where the arches meet, another larger wreath hangs from the beaks of four bronze American eagles suspended there, as if eternally descending.

The Gem

“So extensive a composition, and one containing such important elements, does not exist elsewhere; and it is essential that the plan for its treatment shall combine simplicity with dignity.”
—from The McMillan Commission Plan for Washington

In 1902, the approved plan for Washington proposed a Mall system resembling, from a bird’s eye, a Latin cross. At the end of the right arm stood the White House. At the end of the left, beyond the Tidal Basin, a large plot was set aside that in 1938 became the building site of the Jefferson Memorial. At the head of the cross, on the banks of the Potomac, the Lincoln Memorial was to sit, overlooking it all.[1]

The phrase “Gem of the Mall” was coined for the Washington Monument and its surrounding gardens, which, according to the plan, made up the center of the cross. The gardens that were to encircle the obelisk were never built; they would have required the removal of the hill that continues to provide a necessary foundation for the 555-foot structure. One can imagine, though, how such a landscape—flowering trees and greenery bordering the base of a grand, precious monument—would, from above, appear gem-like.  Or, perhaps not like a single gem, but like the jewel-encrusted center of an elaborate cross.

Today the phrase is applied a bit more loosely. Completed in 2004, the World War II Memorial, set almost directly between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, on the vertical axis of the cross structure, carries this distinction. Those who embrace Friedrich St. Florian’s design are likely to understand “gem” as an aesthetic designation. But its critics, who have scrutinized the memorial, looking beyond its monikers and inscriptions, have come to another conclusion: that what distinguishes this gem is not its design but its setting.

Building History

“[T]here is no point in having a conversation about war that is not completely honest.”
—Sebastian Junger

“Keep mum chum.”
—WPA Art Project poster, 1943


As its etymology suggests, a memorial is built for the purpose of reminding. A useful memorial embodies a collective memory of the people or events it aims to memorialize. Perhaps the most pertinent criticism of the World War II Memorial is its inability to tell a story that we can commit to memory. In fact, some feel that it functions to de-memorialize the war—that, by denying a narrative or an emotional experience to visitors, it erases the war from our collective consciousness.

Like the government-sponsored posters of that period, the memorial seems to read: “I pledge allegiance and silence about the war,” or even “Careless talk costs lives.”[2] Its vague inscriptions, perplexing pillars, and garish fountains whitewash recollections of the war—a sad fact made sadder by the growing loss of WWII veterans, whose memories began fading long before the monument was built, and whose numbers dwindle by close to 800 men and women each day. Indeed, from this perspective, some have argued that the memorial’s silence is downright careless.

In 2000, shortly after the design for the memorial was made public, the National Coalition to Save Our Mall was founded with the intent to protect the historic and future vision of the Mall through campaigns for public advocacy.  Members of the coalition wrote letters and lobbied against the new memorial’s location, which, they believed, would impose on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial and its Reflecting Pool; significantly lower the water table, jeopardizing the foundations of the nearby monuments, including the Washington monument; and obstruct the grounds that have historically served as a gathering place for political demonstrations. They have also commented that the design does too little to enshrine the spirit of those who served, to teach younger generations what the war was about, and to provide a contemplative space where visitors can reflect on that moment in their nation’s history.[3]

Defenders of the memorial vindicate its neoclassical design by relating it back to the period to which it pays tribute. Time Magazine’s 2004 review of the memorial implied a similar relationship to that era, surmising, “Il Duce would have loved it.”[4] If it does anything to capture a style relevant to the period of the so-called Greatest Generation, it badly fumbles.

Just before this year’s Memorial Day, Sebastian Junger published an article in the opinion pages of the Washington Post, urging citizens to “share the moral burden of war.” Junger proposed that on those days we set aside to pay tribute to our veterans, “‘I support the troops’ would mean spending hours listening to our vets. We would hear a lot of anger and pain. We would also hear a lot of pride.” With more veterans of today’s wars returning to a world that does not understand, nor sufficiently treat the physical and psychological injuries they face, and more dying at home—by their own hands—than in combat in Afghanistan,[5] Junger’s appeal to honesty holds great potential.

Some of what would be said would make you uncomfortable, whether you are liberal or conservative, military or nonmilitary, young or old. But there is no point in having a conversation about war that is not completely honest.[6]


The northern and southern balustrades of the ceremonial entrance walls are decorated with twenty-four bas-relief sculpture panels. Each panel is based on an historical photo that details an event in the U.S. war effort. Together they illustrate the experience of enlistment, training, and battle (in images of paratroopers, the Normandy beach landing, and V-J Day) as well as the industrial and agricultural achievements of those on the home front (with Rosie the Riveter and the bond drive).

So expressive are these figures—their faces and actions—that they seem to emerge, as if by their own efforts, from the reliefs in which they’re set. Peeking out from the wall, the principle figures have life; they cast shadows and reflect light. Though diminutive—dwarfed by the towering pillars and fountains—they demonstrate the human scale of war. After encountering the monument from its entrance, where one takes in, all at once, its inhuman dimensions, the bas-reliefs introduce a visual pun: I am relieved to find them here.

Pillars: the same and the same
“Public silence indeed is nothing”
        —George Oppen, “Monument”
According to the National Parks Service page for frequently asked questions,[7] the memorial’s pillars are situated like heads of state in a formal dining room. The central position is reserved for the honorable guest: in this case, for the war dead, represented by a wall of gold stars. Delaware, seated immediately to the right, follows in rank for having been the first state to ratify the Constitution; to the left, Pennsylvania follows for being the second, and so on.
The situation of these pillars introduces some strange justifications. Despite a vague nod to the Constitution in the bureaucratic arrangement of the states and territories contemporaneous to the war’s efforts, the pillars seem to tell a parallel story of political interests, or of national power and pride. But what has statehood to do with the events of World War II?, James and I wonder. The inscriptions of each state’s name is not sufficient to remind us of the contributions of the soldiers who called those states home, nor of those they left behind. One after the other, they stand, stolid, like headstones in a military cemetery.

In his book on the poetry of World War II, Bomber County, Daniel Swift describes the cemeteries proposed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission during the First World War.  Studying the public’s reactions to them, Swift read the letters submitted to the London Times by relatives of the deceased. “[T]hese rigorously uniform cemeteries, the same and the same and the same,” Swift writes, “were greeted with horror when the designs were first made public in 1919.” Their sameness, he explains, was at odds with the needs of those in mourning. “Not only do we mourn for individuals […] we mourn also as individuals, and how we act at the grave may be as much about our own desires as it is about the body in the ground before us.”[8]

We can learn much about the emotional impact of the World War II Memorial’s pillars by simply observing visitors’ interactions with them. Families line up and take turns snapping photos of one another with the pillar that, presumably, represents their home state. A man in a Pittsburgh hoodie stands smiling beneath “Pennsylvania.” A young girl in a pink tank top and matching cap faces a camera and points proudly to “Massachusetts.” Visitors are not wrong to do this. The pillars call up as much emotion and memory as a team mascot. As the Great War mourners warned in the London Times, there is a trade-off to “well-drilled, patterned uniformity.”[9] What is lost is the potential for consolation and, for younger generations, for understanding.


Independent of the Reflecting Pool, the distinctive designs of the neighboring war memorials encourage reflection. In the highly polished stone of Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial, visitors can see their own images cast back over the names of the thousands of Americans lost. The smooth surface of the wall at the Korean War Memorial reflects the nineteen stainless-steel statues that hike through low-growing juniper just opposite, as well as the visitors who walk the path between the two elements. In place of names, the faces of GIs, rendered from photos, are etched into the polished granite. As with Lin’s design, visitors who did not experience the war firsthand see their humanity reflected on the same plane as those who did.

A two-year restoration of the historic Reflecting Pool, which shares an edge with the World War II Memorial, was completed in August of 2012. But on the day that James and I visit, a recurring algae problem has closed the pool once again, and below-grade construction has resumed. With camera and notebook, we turn to the oval Rainbow Pool. But the splashing water muddles our reflections and the noise of its gushing stifles conversation and thought.

At the top of each pavilion, an instrument measures the wind—on gustier days, a programmed computer lowers the height of the fountains, ensuring that visitors don’t get sprayed. Today’s forecast is scattered thundershowers and the air is thick and warm.  The fountains are at their peak, and a sudden breeze is welcome.

At dusk, a group of middle school-aged students mingle along the edges of the pool. Set against the spouting, splashing water, the group resembles a field trip to a water park.

The Field of Stars

Like the parapet of a deserted trench, stacks of sandbags staunch the flow of water between the Reflecting Pool and the smaller reservoir below the “Field of Stars.” In place of names, the World War II Memorial features 448 gold stars meant to represent the 405,399 Americans who lost their lives in service. A nearby inscription explains: “” The stars, like the pillars, lack meaningful specificity.

It was her research into the memorials built for past wars that inspired Lin to conceive of the list of the names of Americans lost in Vietnam on her memorial. While she found that most memorials highlighted the accomplishments and victories of one or several great men, few paid specific tribute to the lives lost by many others. The memorials built for World War I, on the other hand, demonstrated an important exception. They served a practical purpose—to list the names of those whose bodies were not found. According to Lin, the effect was “extremely moving. They captured emotionally what I felt memorials should be: honest about the reality of war, about the loss of life in war, and about remembering those who served and especially those who died.”[10]

Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post called the stars on the World War II Memorial “a bureaucratic compromise,”[11] in that they neither commemorate individuals nor speak to their loss as a whole.  The high price of that compromise is evident in the expectations of visiting veterans. “It’s wonderful to be here,” one man told me. “I’ve been looking for a list of names. Can’t find one.”

Kilroy Was Here

Retired Air Force captain Earl Morse strains his voice to be heard over the surging fountains. His audience, a group of seventy-odd veterans in matching yellow t-shirts, gathers around him at the far end of the pool by the Pacific theater. Most sit in wheelchairs, their bright caps and colorful pins glittering in contrast to the gray walls and white water. They bring life to the scene—as does Morse, whose message is animated if inaudible against the falling water. James and I huddle in to listen.

Morse is the founder of Honor Flight Network, a nonprofit organization that charters flights and sponsors tours for America’s surviving veterans of World War II. The organization arranges travel, gathers volunteers (including EMT officers), and provides wheelchair access and oxygen equipment for those who need it, at no cost.

Today’s group arrived from Tallahassee this morning and will return later tonight aboard the same chartered plane. It has been a long, busy day, but the attendees, many of whom are well into their eighties, seem energized by the communal spirit of the day’s events, if not also by their veneration in the memorial, and by the attention being paid to them. They are there to be with one another, but also to honor their friends and comrades who did not return from the war.

A volunteer for Honor Flight takes me around to the back of the monument, where the equipment for the renovation of the Reflecting Pool blocks our path.  Through the chain-link fence and behind a second locked gate, he points out one of two Kilroy engravings I had read about. Kilroy—the comic graffiti character that soldiers drew on walls, tattooed on arms—peeks back at us, his nose, forehead, and fingers appearing over the drawn line that is his imaginary wall.

Together with the Honor Flight attendees, James and I exit the memorial through the Pacific Pavilion, following the steady flow of wheelchairs and the sounds of canned big band music. The music plays on a small stereo outside the information center, serenading the Honor Flight veterans and volunteers as they get their bearings and file toward the appropriate tour buses.

In the center of the gathering, another veteran of the Second World War, and one of the two principle fundraisers of the memorial, Bob Dole, greets the day’s visiting veterans from his own wheelchair. Among his aging comrades, the former Senator blends in. His head rests to one side as he converses with the veterans who are wheeled up to him. Talking with each visitor, he holds that man’s hand, as if to better hear him.

James Wrona is a portrait, travel, and landscape photographer based in New York City. A previous photo essay, “Perpetual Meadowlands: Among the Reedbeds of the Hackensack,” appeared in our summer2012 issue. His website is

[1] Report of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia on the Improvement of the Park System of the District of Columbia, U.S. Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, Senate Report No. 166, 57th Congress, 1st Session. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1902. Available at

[2] “‘Censored’ Let’s censor our conversation about the war,” (poster, Federal Art Project [between 1941 and 1943], Louisiana: WPA War Services of LA),; Al Doria, “Careless talk costs lives,” (poster, Federal Art Project [between 1941 and 1943], Louisiana: WPA War Services of LA),

[3] “The World War II Memorial Defaces a National Treasure,” The National Coalition to Save Our Mall, January 2001.

[4] Richard Lacayo, “A Monument to Blah,” Time Magazine, May 3, 2004.

[5] Ray Suarez, “More U.S. Troops Died by Suicide Than in Afghanistan” (Interview with Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis), PBS NewsHour, January 15, 2013

[6] Sebastian Junger, “Veterans need to share the moral burden of war,” Washington Post, May 24, 2013.

[7] “Frequently Asked Questions,” National Parks Service, accessed May 30, 2013.

[8] Daniel Swift, Bomber County: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot’s War. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010. xiii.

[9] Ibid. xiii-xiv.

[10] Maya Lin, “Making the Memorial,” New York Review of Books, November 2, 2000.

[11] Charles Krauthammer, “Parenthesis to History,” Washington Post, May 28, 2004, pA23.

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