James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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TWE Celebrates Memorial Day

by James M. Lindsay
May 25, 2012

The African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, DC. (Courtesy Reuters) The African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, DC. (Courtesy Reuters)

Monday marks Memorial Day here in the United States. Cities and towns across the country will hold parades and ceremonies to honor the men and women who served and died in the U.S. armed forces. If you happen to be in Washington, DC, you can choose from dozens of monuments and memorials to visit. Some of them are well-known: the World War II Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, the Marine Corps War Memorial, and Arlington National Cemetery all spring readily to mind. But if you have already visited those memorials or simply want to pay your respects at sites that are likely to be less crowded, here are seven lesser-known memorials in DC worth a visit.

African American Civil War Memorial. Shortly after Robert E. Lee surrendered in 1865, some 200,000 Union soldiers were invited to parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. Not a single black regiment was invited to participate. The African American Civil War Memorial, which stands at the intersection of U and Vermont streets NW, was dedicated in 1998 to recognize the contributions of the more than 185,000 members of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) made during the Civil War. The memorial’s centerpiece is a sculpture that depicts several soldiers and a sailor on one side, with a family standing on the other side. The nearby African American Civil War Museum tells the story of African American involvement in the American Civil War.

Vietnam Women’s Memorial. More than 10,000 U.S. servicewomen served in Vietnam during the war. The Vietnam Women’s Memorial, which sits just south of the famous Vietnam Memorial wall, commemorates those women who did not return home. Dedicated on November 11, 1993, the sculpture depicts three women with a wounded American soldier. Every Memorial Day (and Veterans Day) women who served in Vietnam or knew those who did tell their stories or the stories of their loved ones at the memorial.

National Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War IIJust northwest of the U.S. Capitol and the Russell Senate Office Building you can find a memorial that honors those who fought as well as those who stayed behind. The National Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II, which was dedicated in 2000, bears the names of the more than 800 Japanese Americans who died fighting for the United States in World War II. It also bears the names of ten relocation camps where the U.S. government interned more than 100,000 Japanese Americans because of suspicions about their loyalty after the Pearl Harbor attacks. The five boulders in the monument represent the “five generations of persons of Japanese ancestry who were living” in 1988 when the U.S. government officially apologized for the internment policy. Viewing the memorial provides a powerful reminder that sometimes the effects of war aren’t limited to the battlefield.

Peace Monument. If you have visited the U.S. Capitol, you may have already walked by the Peace Monument. It stands just west of the Capitol, facing the National Mall. Completed in 1878, it commemorates “the officers, seamen and marines of the United States Navy who fell in defense of the Union and liberty of their country, 1861-1865.” The statue should appeal to anyone who likes classical imagery. Near its base are two infants representing the god of war, Mars, and the god of the sea, Neptune. Just above them stands a female figure representing Victory. Two figures, representing Grief and History, top the forty-four-foot-tall monument. History holds a tablet inscribed with a simple but memorable phrase: “They died that their country might live.”

District of Columbia War Memorial. If you walk south of the reflecting pool that runs between the Lincoln Memorial and the National World War II Memorial, you will come upon a simple dome sitting atop ten pillars. It may look unremarkable in a city full of marble edifices. But it is the District of Columbia War Memorial. It honors the service of the more than 26,000 DC residents who fought in World War I. Its base bears the names of the 499 Washingtonians who died doing so. The memorial was renovated in 2011, unintentionally sparking a tussle over its purpose. On one side are those who want it to remain a memorial celebrating local sacrifices. On the other side are those who would like it to honor national sacrifices. Although 116,516 American troops died in World War I, no memorial in Washington commemorates all the troops who made the supreme sacrifice at places like Belleau Wood and St. Mihiel. The modest District of Columbia War Memorial is all that represents those who fought to make the world “safe for democracy.”

First Division Monument. Just south of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building and just southwest of the White House you will find a tall column topped by a winged female figure. That is the First Division Monument, which was dedicated on October 4, 1924 in honor of the soldiers from the U.S. Army’s First Division who fought in World War I. In the intervening years, the monument has been expanded to commemorate the First Division’s valor in other wars, including World War II, Vietnam, and Desert Storm. First Division troops were not only the first U.S. troops to reach France in 1917, they were also the last troops to leave two years later. General John J. Pershing said that the division had “a special pride of service and a high state of morale never broken by hardship nor battle.” (A word to the wise, the Secret Service currently has the First Division Monument cordoned off for security reasons. So if you want to see any of its details, bring binoculars.)

Second Division Memorial. The First Division isn’t the only U.S. Army division to honor its members with a monument in Washington. Just slightly south of the First Division Monument near the Ellipse you can find the Second Division Memorial. Dedicated in 1936, it commemorates the 17,660 men who died while serving in the U.S. Army’s Second Division. The monument’s centerpiece is a sculpture of an eighteen-foot-tall flaming sword, placed upright in front of a granite doorway. That juxtaposition symbolizes the Second Division’s effort to block the German advance on Paris during World War I. Two wings were added to the memorial in 1962, one to commemorate the Second Division’s losses during World War II and the other to commemorate its losses during the Korean War.

Of course, these seven memorials don’t begin to exhaust the list of memorials around DC that honor America’s fallen heroes. If you have a favorite memorial or monument that I haven’t mentioned, please use the comments section to tell me what it is.

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