In our Spring Break trip to D.C., my wife and I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial, my first time to see both. I've heard and read about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, so my expectations were high--and strangely enough, the experience still moved me in ways I couldn't have predicted. I didn't know that, to enter the memorial, you walk down a declining path as the wall rises, so you're overtaken by the memorial.
The wall didn't reflect as fully as I'd read it would, but the blurred reflection had a bigger impact than a clear reflection would have. Also, the mass of names both gives each dead soldier an eternal dignity--family can always go and touch the name, trace it on paper--but each soldier becomes weirdly anonymous as well. I don't know anyone who died in the Vietnam War, so my visit was simply out of an awareness that the memorial matters. I felt similarly burdened and distant as I do when I see photos of American soldiers kidnapped in Iraq. On the news, they tell us the name, they show us the photo, family members tell us the bare biography. Once the yellow ribbons come down, how will we memorialize those lives?
At both the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial, my wife and I were annoyed by the kids running around, ignoring signs asking for quiet and reverence, their backpack-saddled parents oblivious to the noise. Like the time I saw a toddler place his hand on a Velazquez painting, I felt like something had been lost. I'm not sure if what's been lost is reverence or the curiosity that necessarily precedes it and pushes us beyond our concerns with ourselves. They yelled, slapped their loud shoes against the marble, brayed to have their pictures taken with Abe. "Make sure you get his head in."
And I didn't even like the Lincoln Memorial. Its scale--Lincoln seems like a stoic demigod--seems distorted from the man who freed the slaves but suffered from a horrible depression. The texts on the side walls even suggest that the memorial isn't right. From the Gettysburg Address:
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
Instead, we've forgotten the men and deeds, and we've etched the words in stone. They've become even more anonymous than the fallen of Vietnam. On the facing wall, the closing words of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Read the above aloud; listen to its reverence, its humility, its intelligence. Then read the following, spoken today by President Bush:
"I want the Iraqi people to hear I've got great confidence in their capacity to self govern," Bush said. "I also want the Iraqi people to hear — it's about time you get a unity government going. In other words, Americans understand you're newcomers to the political arena. But pretty soon its time to shut her down and get governing."
Hear the lack of nuance, the failures of imagination and sympathy, the false folksy tone he sets in speaking to an uneasy people almost half the world away. How rarely Bush mourns the more than 2,300 American casualties since the war began; and even worse, he almost never mentions the more than 33,300 Iraqi civilians dead or the 30,000 Iraqis displaced in the past month due to sectarian violence. He wants the Iraqi people to hear a vague, thinly-veiled threat, but he can't even imagine what they want and need not only to hear, but to have happen--safety, security, certainty.
Unfortunately, if Bush has any sense of history or the world, he sees only the marble columns, the demigods he imagines himself among. If he actually believed in a culture of life, he'd acknowledge the ground consecrated by blood and loss, he'd shy from the photo-ops and surround himself with people of conscience who would challenge him and not allow him to exist in a protective bubble. But if that were the case, he'd be a different man.