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At an Iraq War Memorial, Will We Weep or Cheer?

Michael Takiff is the author of "Brave Men, Gentle Heroes: American Fathers and Sons in World War II and Vietnam" (William Morrow, 2003).

On each end of Washington’s new World War II memorial stands a 43-foot arch -- one to signify the war’s Pacific Theater, the other the Atlantic. Inlaid in the ground are the words “Victory on Land,” “Victory at Sea” and “Victory in the Air.”

Fifty-six granite pillars -- one for each state at the time of the war, plus territories and the District of Columbia -- “celebrate,” according to the American Battle Monuments Commission, “the unprecedented unity of the nation during WWII.” A “commemorative area” recognizes “the sacrifices of America’s WWII generation, the contribution of our allies, and the suffering of all humankind.” A “Freedom Wall” displays 4,048 gold stars -- one for every 100 Americans who perished in the war.

Now walk a few hundred yards and you will come upon the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This structure celebrates nothing -- not victory, not unity. No words appear aside from 58,000 names -- Americans who died in Vietnam. Nothing rises from the ground -- no arches, no pillars. Instead, from each end of The Wall, the visitor walks down into the earth, as if into a mass grave. Even the names of the two memorials are instructive: The National World War II Memorial commemorates an event. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial commemorates no event, only people. The Vietnam wall is not a Freedom Wall; it signifies lost lives and lost futures. It makes no reference to what those lives and futures were lost for.

World War II and Vietnam -- the Good War and the Bad War, the purposeful war and the futile war, the just war and the mistake -- continue to serve as the dual lenses through which we view our nation’s conflicts. Before the Iraq war, supporters compared Saddam Hussein to Hitler, and the prospect of inaction to the fecklessness of the French and British at Munich. The war’s opponents saw in Iraq the makings of another Vietnam -- a costly, deadly quagmire.

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When a memorial is built to the Iraq war, will it, like the new World War II memorial, celebrate a grand national triumph and a lasting contribution to the world’s well-being? Will it mark the work our dead “so nobly advanced,” as Lincoln said at Gettysburg? Or will it, like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, be a place of mourning? Will it be a place where we will be unable to “highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain”?


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