Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality

The War to Remember World War II

By David G. Young

WASHINGTON, July 1, 1997—

  When hundreds of thousands of people descend on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to celebrate Independence Day, they will be treading on a future battleground. This battle, like the war for independence, will pit American against American, and one generation against the next. It will be a battle for the memory of the most destructive war in history.

  A plan by the American Battle Monuments Commission to place a giant World War II memorial on the Mall has resulted in universal praise for the concept, and nearly universal condemnation for the design and location. "Great cause. Wrong spot," says Time Magazine. Although USA Today calls World War II "the century's greatest event," it complains that "the plan is deeply flawed."

  Deeply flawed, indeed. But the flaw is not in the memorial's design or location, but in the idealization of an incredibly destructive and hollow war. The plan calls for 50 doric columns 40 feet high as part of a 7.4 acre complex. The sparkling white columns would stand in severe contrast to the nearby Vietnam Veterans Memorial— a depressingly endless black wall listing the names of Americans who were killed. Unlike Vietnam, World War II is still viewed as a great cause, a war where "we knew what we were fighting for."

  But what were "we" fighting for? Before the Nazi invasion of Poland, a small minority of the world's population suffered under totalitarian systems that threatened much of Europe and Asia. Before the world stabilized ten years later, 40 million people had been killed. By this time, however, over a third of the world's population lived under totalitarian socialism. That is the legacy of World War II— 40 million people paid with their lives to see hundreds of millions more be repressed.The Nazis were defeated, but the Soviets took the spoils. Communist death squads replaced Fascist death squads. Maoist concentration camps in China and Cambodia replaced Nazi concentration camps in Poland. The only thing that changed for many people after the war was the uniform of their oppressors. That's not exactly something worth fighting for.

  Of course, the outcome of the War did have tremendous impact on the lives of the people lucky enough to live in the liberated enclaves of Western Europe and Japan. Americans and Western Europeans fighting the Nazis had good cause to be proud of their struggle. This pride can be seen in the design for the memorial on the Mall. But more than 50 years has passed since the end of the war, and our historic interpretation of World War II must go beyond the nostalgic idealizations of the older generation.

  A reassessment of the War is possible now, more than ever before. The number of Americans who were adults during the time of World War II has now dropped below 10 percent of the U.S. population.1 As this generation slowly shrinks, romanticism will be replaced by reason, and the war will be remembered for what it was: an incredible waste of lives and resources— a conflict that was little more than a civil war between equally repressive socialist systems.

  The discussion about a plan to erect a World War II memorial on the Mall marks the beginning of this long overdue historical reassessment. The final conclusion may be a bitter irony for a memorial; other than a terrible loss of lives, there is very little worth remembering.

Click to View a Quicktime Movie of the Proposed Memorial

1. U.S. Census Bureau, 1997 estimate