Monumental Failure

On the Centennial of United States Entry Into World War I, the  Proposal for a Pending National Memorial in Washington, D. C. Falls Short

The Korean conflict of the 1950s is often referred to as the nation’s “forgotten war,” yet how many Americans recall the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War or the four-year Philippine-American War?

World War I is another momentous historical event whose details and impact are lost in the mists of history. Today marks the centennial of the declaration of war against Germany, a decision that President Woodrow Wilson rightly predicted would unleash “days that are to try men’s souls.”

Helping consign the conflict to the cobwebs of memory, there is no fitting national monument to the crusade in Washington, D. C., which is a disgrace.

In 1931, dignitaries in D. C. dedicated a modest marble structure on the National Mall to honor local veterans (situated in a grove of trees 500 feet southwest of the massive national World War II Memorial).

Pershing Square, which opened in 1981 a block from the White House and honors Gen. John J. Pershing, who turned the tide against Germany, is the capital’s de facto national World War I memorial.

Citing a lack of real estate on the Mall for a proper edifice – even though they found room for the Korean War Veterans Memorial – Congress created the United States World War One Centennial Commission in 2014, which held a design competition to re-imagine the Pershing Square space.

The commission chose a finalist in 2016 and the project is slated for completion by November 2018, the 100th anniversary of the war’s end. The goal is contingent on the ability to raise $30 to $35 million in private funds, however, and there is no construction or completion timeline on the commission’s website.

Almost anything to gussy up the forlorn square would be welcome. The pool basin is dry, a kiosk is shuttered and the only references to the war, including a statue of Gen. Pershing and a large wall filled with text and maps outlining the progress of United States forces in the battle theater, occupy a small portion of the property. Yet the winning design selected by the commission lacks a suitable sense of marbled grandeur.

The War to End All Wars helped shape the modern world. After European combatants began slugging it out in 1914, the United States attempted to avoid entangling alliances. Fighting in the muddy trenches of France, belligerents unleashed tanks, air power, heavy artillery and poison gas.

But as the land battle in France locked into a stalemate and Germany continued to terrorize shipping lanes in the north Atlantic by blowing up passenger, merchant and military vessels, the United States got pulled into the fray.

Once Congress declared war, the federal government embarked on the largest project in its history. Nearly from scratch, Washington mobilized to fight a Total War at home and abroad, leading to an expanded federal bureaucracy that has continued to balloon over time.

In all, 116,000 Americans died, a tally exceeded only by the Civil War (750,000) and World War II (400,000). Proving the adage “out of sight, out of mind,” almost three quarters of the deceased are interred in military cemeteries overseas.

No one should be surprised that those who fought in World War I received terrible treatment from the federal government. In addition to a major corruption scandal that roiled the Veterans Bureau during the mid-1920s, in 1932 Gen. Douglas MacArthur led a violent assault on the Bonus March camps in Washington, D. C., dispersing several thousand unarmed Great War veterans seeking an early payout of their promised war bonuses as the Great Depression deepened.

Over time, the war has faded into a blur. With its nebulous origins, entrenched battle lines that barely moved and dearth of charismatic figures (Gen. Pershing excepted), the storyline lacks the dramatic arc and memorable events of the American Revolution, the Civil War and World War II.

The main legacy of the war in the United States is Veterans Day, commemorated on November 11 every year, the date combatants signed the peace treaty in 1918. By contrast, Memorial Day is observed on the last Monday in May.

Though a monumental event, the “war to make the world safe for democracy,” as President Wilson called it, is treated like an orphan, especially after the last American veteran of the conflict died in 2011.

With limited political will to dedicate a memorial on the National Mall, where it belongs, Pershing Square represents the next best site, yet there is no guarantee that the Centennial Commission can complete a suitable monument before the conflict’s anniversary expires.

Kansas City will always be home to the nation’s largest memorial to the Great War, built in 1926. Still, the federal government owes it to all veterans to highlight such a seminal, though obscure, episode in the country’s history. It is deplorable that the first World War has received such second-rate treatment in the nation’s capital.

Marc Ferris earned an M.A. in history from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsday, Time Out New York, Spin, Vibe, and elsewhere.  His latest book is entitled, Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem.