"It's like a textbook come to life," museum spokeswoman Melinda Machado said of "The Price of Freedom: Americans at War," which will present more than 850 artifacts and graphic images, many newly on display, drawn from 16 conflicts. Computer kiosks will relate personal stories by video.
The biggest object is a UH-1H Huey helicopter that was deployed to Vietnam in 1966, shot down the next year and later repaired in the United States. The aircraft was transported from a museum in Fort Worth, Texas, to the Smithsonian this year, dismantled and reassembled inside the sprawling Kenneth E. Behring Hall of Military History.
Visitors will also see George Washington's sword and scabbard; the chairs that Civil War Gens. Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant used at the surrender ceremony in Appomattox, Va.; George Custer's buckskin coat; a uniform worn by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, during Operation Desert Storm; and more.
The military hall, where smaller war-related exhibits have been mounted over the years, was shut down for a year while being expanded to 18,200 square feet for the upcoming permanent exhibit.
Some museum standards, such as Winchester, Civil War Gen. Philip H. Sheridan's horse, preserved by taxidermy, will reappear in the new show.
"The Price of Freedom" also deals with the social and political aspects of military conflicts.
"We had a whole debate on how do you name a war," spokeswoman Machado said.
To label the current Iraq conflict, the museum switched from "Operation Iraqi Freedom," the Bush administration's moniker, to the more neutral "War in Iraq," Machado said.
"In all our sections, we try to balance the various points of view," she said. Panels in the Iraq exhibit, for instance, feature opposing quotations from national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and former Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean about the U.S. decision to act in Iraq.
The exhibit is to open Thursday, Veterans Day. On Saturday, special activities will include costumed re-enactors.
The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily except Christmas. Admission is free. (202) 633-1000, www.americanhistory.si.edu.