When did it start? With Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial? Let’s say it did. I know many of us are long-ish in the tooth here, and will remember how that design was greeted when it was revealed as the winner of the competition. It was “a black gash of shame,” a “ditch,” a slap in the face of veterans who survived that most complicated conflict, not to mention those who died there. And by a woman (!) with an Asian name (!!), no less. Splutter, splutter.
And then it was built, and opened, and the bitching stopped, replaced by sniffling. Who could look at the Vietnam memorial and not be moved? And what made it so? The names.
I’ve seen individual names before on monuments, but only on local ones. Had a national monument ever made the attempt to note every single soul lost in a conflict like this? And the design was perfectly suited for it — the shorter panels capturing the lost in the early years, and as you walked along, the panels got larger, the toll higher, peaking around 1968 or so, and then petering off as we lost our will to throw fresh bodies into that particular grinder, and drew down forces.
You’d think the memorial’s first year would have been enough to shut the critics up, but no — we started tarting it up immediately, so as to silence the various constituencies involved. First, a bunch of flags. Then, the bronze of the three soldiers (I guess for those who couldn’t read?). Then, the bronze of the nurses, so women weren’t forgotten. At the end, they couldn’t diminish the wall’s power. Because of the names. Because here, finally, you could see the final toll of our southeast Asian misadventure: That guy, that guy, that guy. Your brother, his dad, her cousin.
(Was this about the same time we stopped commemorating the prematurely or abruptly deceased with flowers on their headstones, and started doing so with flowers, and teddy bears, and other stuff, at the place where they died? I seem to remember it that way.)
After that, even after all the bitching and the retrofitting, it seemed unthinkable to erect another memorial without the names. Give Maya Lin that, along with all her other honors: She demolished the heroic tradition in war memorials. We’ll see no more bronze generals riding horses for a good long while.
The memorial for the Oklahoma City memorial went up with almost dismaying speed after that tragedy. I read a critical piece — by which I mean “criticism,” because “review” just sounds weird in this context — about it in one of the New York papers around the time it opened. The critic didn’t like it, and was very lucid in laying out his reasons, the biggest one being that you can go through the whole thing and never get any real sense of why this event happened. Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols are in there, but the context in which they made their attack — the paranoid right wing politics that were floating around talk radio at the time — is nowhere to be found. The critic made a strong case that a certain amount of time needs to pass before we can fully understand these things, and that the people with the most fraught emotions should not be too involved. They have crazy ideas — like that the very mention of the perpetrators of tragedies shouldn’t have their photos anywhere in the building.
But come on — if you can’t keep a plot in Oklahoma City empty for a few years, how are you going to do the same thing in lower Manhattan? And the events of September 11, 2001 dwarf OKC. There was no way a 9/11 memorial wasn’t being built in our lifetimes, but it was equally certain that getting it done would be a monster.
The memorial, by itself, was the easy part. The museum, now, that’s another matter:
It seemed self-evident at the time: A museum devoted to documenting the events of Sept. 11, 2001, would have to include photographs of the hijackers who turned four passenger jets into missiles. Then two and a half years ago, plans to use the pictures were made public.
New York City’s fire chief protested that such a display would “honor” the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center. A New York Post editorial called the idea “appalling.” Groups representing rescuers, survivors and victims’ families asked how anyone could even think of showing the faces of the men who killed their relatives, colleagues and friends.
The anger took some museum officials by surprise.
“You don’t create a museum about the Holocaust and not say that it was the Nazis who did it,” said Joseph Daniels, chief executive of the memorial and museum foundation.
It’s happening all over again. Maybe this is why we put up all those bronze generals — unanimity. But now we have this culture of memorializing where everybody gets named, and everybody gets a voice and a vote, and an implicit promise that they’ll see the finished product before too many years pass. We’ve also learned that designs are only literally set in stone, but they’re always able to change something.
I’m not sure what I’m groping for here, except maybe that the critic of the OKC memorial was onto something — it’s too soon. We won’t know what we need to say about 9/11 for another generation at least. But this is Manhattan real estate we’re talking about here, and you don’t leave that vacant for long.
Or maybe it’s just the Nyquil talking.
Looks like Scott Walker will live to fight another day. Disappointing, but not surprising.
Have a good Wednesday, all. It’s the middle of the week. I hope my ears unplug by then.