Veterans Memorials

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VETERANS MEMORIALS: HISTORICAL & AESTHETIC PERSPECTIVES
By Victoria Chick, Artist and 19th & 20th Century Print Collector



Memorials honoring soldiers who fought in war were a relatively new idea beginning in the 19th century. Up to that time, as far back as ancient history, memorials celebrated victories or were erected to honor victorious kings and generals.

The classical triumphal arch from Roman times was based on an earlier custom that the ruler or general returning after winning a war would be greeted by an archway of palm branches for him to pass under as he entered his city. Columns or obelisks were often erected later inscribed with the leader’s name and victory. These constructions were often the inspiration for more modern Monuments.

The shift of focus to honoring soldiers who had given their lives was largely a result of democratic societal changes. This was especially true in the United States which had never had a king.

The Revolutionary War was mostly commemorated by setting aside battle sites such as Valley Forge which became a National Park, or preserving old forts. One reason may be the lack of artists able to do sculpture in the early years of the country. Some monuments to individuals were erected, but these were done many decades after 1783, when the war was over.  The most recent Revolutionary War Monument was done late in the 20th century! The most well-known monument to a Revolutionary War hero is the George Washington Monument in Washington D.C., began in 1848. The design of it is inspired by ancient obelisks and its form is related to Egyptian mythology held in reverence by the Freemasons of which Washington was a member. In the early 19th century some of the states that were original colonies commissioned sculptures of Revolutionary heroes from their respective states. Often, public monuments were commissioned by individuals.  

Civil War memorials were rare until the 20th century when historical distance did not rub so heavily on raw feelings that persisted after the war-between-the-states. Many memorials were erected in both northern and southern cemeteries as long as 40 years after the Civil War. Commonly, they were sculptures representing the “Unknown Soldier”.  National Cemeteries were created after the Civil War. Congress passed a law authorizing their creation and maintenance.  The number and uniformity of gravestones in National Cemeteries is, perhaps, the most sobering of all memorials to veterans.

Armistice Day marked Germany’s surrender to the Allies of WWI on November 11, 1918.
WWI was the first “modern” war with weapons that were able to kill on a vast scale. This was the first war fought by army, navy, and air corps with tremendous loss of military and civilian life. The Armistice was not the official end of the war. That occurred the next year with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.  But, it did end the fighting and servicemen began to be sent home. To commemorate, thousands of monuments were erected both in the United States and in Europe. People in many of the allied countries remembered the Armistice by keeping two or three minutes of national silence on the 11th day of the eleventh month (November), beginning at 11:00, the time of the official surrender. In the United States, groundbreaking took place in 1921 in Kansas City, Missouri for a memorial to the soldiers who died in WWI. The Liberty Memorial, as it is known, took five years to complete. Like many public buildings of the time, it was designed in a somewhat classical style with Egyptian overtones that included two sphinx sculptures. Made of quarried stone sitting on a 143’ high hill overlooking Kansas City, the design is a 218’ high torch with two museum wings on either side of the base.  The effect of height is impressive. Clouds of steam vented at the top of the torch are illuminated by orange electric lights at night, making the torch appear to burn.  This monument was envisioned and funded by a grass roots effort. No government money supported its construction. But its scope eventually led to its being dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge. Also at the dedication ceremony were:  Lt. Gen. Baron Jacques of Belgium, Admiral Beatty of Great Britain, General Diaz of Italy, Marshall Foch of France, and General Pershing of the United States. Today, it has been renovated and expanded with the 32,000 sq. ft. National WWI Museum built underneath it. Visitors enter it across a glass bridge above a field of 9,000 red poppies, each poppy representing a thousand WWI combatant deaths. The reference to the poppies has to do with a WWI poem, In Flanders Fields, written by a Canadian officer about the places where soldiers lost their lives. The National World War I Museum was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006.

Many World War II memorials tended to be useful facilities rather than monuments or sculptures.
Many hospitals, libraries, and sports arenas were dedicated to WWII veterans just after the war. One reason for this may have been practical in that as WWII helped lift the economy of the Great Depression, so construction was one way to provide jobs for returning servicemen doing projects that honored their fallen comrades and, in a way, themselves, as veterans. Again, individuals and communities made the decisions to honor veterans by dedicating buildings to them.

WWII memorial sculptures were commissioned. Probably the most iconic is the bronze group of Marines raising the United States flag on Iwo Jima. The 78’ tall statue is the world’s largest bronze sculpture. The photo in the newspapers of the raising of the flag caused a spontaneous outpouring of emotion from the public and Congress. Within two days, senators introduced a bill for a monument based on the photo to be built; and 72 hours later a sculptor named Felix DeWeldon came forth with a clay model based on the photo. Human models for the sculpture were 3 of the actual survivors. Photos and body measurements of those that were killed were used to complete the grouping. It took DeWeldon, hundreds of craftsmen, and knowledgeable bronze casters 8 years to complete the Memorial. It was placed near Arlington National Cemetery and dedicated by President Eisenhower in 1954. All costs were born by public donations.

Two WWII memorials were constructed decades after the 1944 end of the war.  In 1987, Roger Durban, a WWII veteran, asked his Congressional Representative, Marcy Kaptur, to sponsor the introduction of a bill to construct a WWII Memorial. Kaptur introduced bills to this effect in 1987, 1989, and 1991 but time always ran out before they could be voted on. Finally, in late1993 the bill passed in both the House and Senate.  President Clinton appointed a 12 member commission to select a location, design, and to raise funds to build the Memorial.  Individuals, veterans’ groups, and corporate sponsors raised most of the 197 million dollars with the government funding 16 million of that amount. The National WWII Memorial is located between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument. It consists of 56 stone pillars representing states, territories, and possessions at the time of the war in an oval arrangement around a large pool with fountains.  The pillars are equally divided by two arches and interrupted by a wall of 4,048 gold stars each representing 100 Americans who gave their lives in this war and another wall with part of General Eisenhower’s D- Day speech chiseled into it.

The World War II Museum is the second, overdue tribute to the veterans of the “Great War” and is located in New Orleans, La. It was dedicated in 2000 as The D- Day Museum.  The person spearheading the Museum, Stephan Ambrose, wanted to honor  the the designer and builder of the Higgens Boat as well as the 25,000 New Orleans workers that built it. The Higgens Boat was the amphibious craft that made the D-Day landing at Normandy possible. After renovation from Hurricane Katrina damage, the Museum was expanded and is now the National WWII Museum. It is housed in two-story contemporary pavilions, each dealing with a different aspect of WWII. Its many visitors are provided with a historical perspective to WWII, a greater understanding and respect for the veterans of that war, and a reminder of the part national mobilization played in providing food and material for the armed forces.

To represent the seriousness of sacrifice that war demands, design preferences have usually been formally arranged in symmetrical balance and, if sculpture, done in a Classical or Hellenistic figure style.  
Monuments generally use height as a design element to express lofty endeavor. Whether edifice or sculpture, the materials are of the most beautiful and lasting variety- marble, granite, and bronze.  Departures from this norm cause uneasiness or a feeling that the monument or sculpture is not showing the proper respect.  The most notable example of reaction to non- traditional design is the Viet Nam Memorial.  Politically, the Viet Nam war produced strong opinions. It never had the popular support that the country expressed during WWII.  The design for the Viet Nam Memorial by Maya Lin was two intersecting walls with the high point being where the walls met in a shallow obtuse angle. The arrangement formed a retaining wall for the hill behind it. From the back of the monument, you might not even be aware of its location since all that was visible was grass but, from the front, the wall was surfaced with black marble into which were carved the names of each serviceman and servicewoman who lost their lives. A sidewalk along the wall provided a path for people to use to find the names.  The design was radical and caused a lot of public debate before it was built. Although the Federal Government gave the land for the Viet Nam Memorial, funds for it were raised entirely from private donations.  Some groups, feeling the design was impersonal, raised money for alternative sculptural monuments that were traditional. One sculptural group honors women who served and another honors Viet Nam servicemen of all branches.

The Korean War Memorial is also unusual.
Located in a triangular piece of land with trees across the Washington, D.C. reflecting pool from the Viet Nam Memorial, 19 stainless steel soldiers appear to move in patrol formation. The sculptor, Frank Gaylord, made the figures over 7’ tall with each figure walking with wariness. The coldness of North Korea is well expressed in their clothing as well as the stainless steel material. At night, white light illuminates the memorial and the reflective surface of the stainless steel gives the figures a ghostlike effect. The figures represent all the military branches as well as an ethnic cross section of Americans. Three black granite walls of the triangular memorial have different treatments. A simple statement in silver on one wall has the words, FREEDOM   IS  NOT  FREE.  Another wall has 2500 photographic images of military personnel sandblasted into the shiny granite. The third wall lists the 22 U.N. member countries that contributed troops and medical support.

In looking back, we see the majority of Memorials honoring those who have given their lives for their country, have been conceived by and financed by private citizens or local communities. The loss of family members and friends to war created an emotional need to memorialize those who died and to honor the sacrifice of all who served. Historically, there almost always seemed to be a delay between the end of a war and the decision to erect a monument.  Perhaps grief needed time to heal or perhaps the cooperative effort needed for a monument or memorial included steps that required a lot of consideration.

Regardless of when monuments or memorials honoring veterans were built, when we visit them today we pause to recognize the sacrifices and the bravery U.S. Veterans have exhibited over the past 237 years.

In Flanders Fields
By: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918), Canadian Army
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.


Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico. She received a B.A. in Art from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and awarded an M.F.A. in Painting from Kent State University in Ohio. Visit her website at www.ArtistVictoriaChick.com

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