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Fathers, War and a Walk in the City

There is virtually no stench of war in this capital city, only talk and more talk. We are a nation at war, and on the streets of Washington, only those whose job it is to wage that war know its sounds, smells and terrors.

Bill Clinton was the great compartmentalizer, but it is George Bush who has succeeded in separating much of American society from the war in Iraq. That achievement rings particularly false in Washington, a city that was designed to be a collection of reminders, stone temples built to provoke reflection and to summon pride, pain and perhaps a thought or two about who we are and why we act as we do.

Does that design still work? Today's Random Friday Questions: What will the memorials to the fallen in Iraq look like and how will they speak to a people who, except for the small but dedicated class of military families, knew the war more through the movies than through personal and neighborhood experiences?

Jeff Gates, a D.C. blogger who thinks a lot about the city's history and its ability to deliver the reminders we need, tells a story about his late father coming to Washington to visit. Jeff and his father were walking toward the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and as they passed by the Holocaust Memorial Museum, Jeff's father turned to him and "Without any warning, he suddenly declared: 'You know, Jeffrey, I was one of the first to liberate Dachau.'"

"I knew little of his time during World War II," Jeff writes. "I had always found it easier to query John Wayne than my dad. So I was shocked." In his blog, Jeff gets into what he was later able to learn about his father's experience (not a lot, sadly), and tells us how important it's been for him to watch Ken Burns' public TV film, The War, to see and hear men like his father telling their stories.

Growing up, I always felt our country was suffused with stories about World War II. While individual fathers may have had trouble telling their families about what they saw and what they knew, the country as a whole worked hard to remember that enormous, searing, molding experience. In the pop culture, in the history books, in personal stories, World War II loomed over the country for decades after the fighting ended. Even now, in its last moments as a story told by those who lived it, it is the dominant historical passage of our culture.

My colleague and friend Rick Atkinson's new book, The Day of Battle, the second in his trilogy on the war, is packed with densely-reported scenes that take the reader into combat in a way that seems so much more real than most of what we hear or see from Iraq. Here's a moment from 1943, as American troops invade Sicily on the march toward liberation:

The first Americans waded onto the beaches at 3:35 a.m. on Saturday, July 10, fifty minutes behind Patton's schedule. With a vicious pop, a mine tore open the chest of a Ranger company commander. "I could see his heart beating," said his first sergeant, Randall Harris. "He turned to me and said, 'I've had it, Harry,' then collapsed and died." Harris dashed forward only to have another mine shred his abdomen and legs; after flicking grenades into a line of pillboxes, he sprinkled sulfa powder on his protruding intestines, cinched his web belt to keep the innards in, and wandered down to the beach to find a medic. Harris would win a battlefield commission and the Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry.

If stunned by the Allied invasion, the defenders appeared unsurprised. With a great roar and a shower of masonry, Italian demolitionists blew up a long segment of the thousand-foot Gela pier. Italian gunners trained their fire on the 26th Infantry as the first wave closed to within a hundred yards of shore. "The water jumped and heaved" under the lashing bullets. Soldiers sheltered behind the LCT splinter plates and anchor winches, narrowing their shoulders and elbowing one another as rounds sang overhead or pinged off the hull. A barrage balloon torn free in the storm abruptly drifted overhead, weird and stately. "I've been wounded but there's so much blood I can't tell exactly where," one soldier muttered. As another boat dropped its ramp, a 16th Infantry rifleman felt a weight slump against his leg. "Somebody left his pack," he called out, then saw that the inert bundle was a sergeant who had been shot in the head.

Throughout Atkinson's work, and threaded through most of what we know about World War II, is the sense of collective movement, of people coming together from all walks and all places in common action. No one could possibly make that statement about the war in Iraq. And that is by design. The administration has sought to tuck away any view of the returning war dead, to manage the flow of information so as to tamp down the sense that we are a nation at war. I don't think that strategy is working very well.

In this city, where we ask all Americans to come and consider our common purpose, the buildings we set aside to aid in that process are meant to create moments like the one Jeff Gates and his father experienced. Architects and designers are asked to confront us with our past and our present. But how will architects of the future handle that job when the task is to create memorials about this war, this intentionally separate reality? What will the buildings look like that are meant to honor those who died in Iraq, and what message will those memorials be able to send to those of us who knew only the debate about the war, and not the people who fought it?

Will we even be able to stroll by those memorials as Jeff and his father wandered by the Holocaust Museum? Or will the memorials of the next generation be cordoned off, separated by security barriers, bollarded from the people who are supposedly beneficiaries of all that sacrifice?

By Marc Fisher |  October 12, 2007; 7:32 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Americans are obsessed with safety, with not dying. They drive timidly, they live timidly, worrying about the safety of themselves and children. Like the stupid behaviors we saw during the sniper shootings.

Posted by: Stick | October 12, 2007 7:57 AM

Maybe the memorials to the fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan can be placed at the Pentagon and Ground Zero in NYC. After all, that is where this war started.

Posted by: SoMD | October 12, 2007 8:21 AM

Actually, SoMD, the war started as soon as W. was elected by the Supreme Court in late 2000. His administration was scheming to invade Iraq well before the 9/11 attacks.

Posted by: SSMD | October 12, 2007 9:13 AM

I'm trying to think of a good spot for an Iraq War memorial. East Potomac park, out where Awakening is being pulled from, might be a good site. It would get people going out there alot more. I just can't begin to think about what it might look like.

Posted by: EricS | October 12, 2007 10:52 AM

Maybe the memorials to the fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan can be placed at the Pentagon and Ground Zero in NYC. After all, that is where this war started.

Posted by: SoMD | October 12, 2007 08:21 AM

SoMD, thank you for confirming that the Iraq war started when they attacked the Pentagon and New York. For some crazy reason I was beginning to understand it was Afghanis sponsored by the Saudi Royal family.

If we do a memorial to the Iraq war with any connection to 9/11 it would be an embarrassment to the United States.

Posted by: Southeasterner | October 12, 2007 10:59 AM

By the way,

The memorial for the Iraq war should be built out at the ExxonMobil HQ in Fairfax so they can remember all the soldiers who died to keep oil prices high and oil profits at record levels.

Posted by: Southeasterner | October 12, 2007 11:02 AM

Actually SSMD, the war started at least 10 years before W. was elected by the people, despite the frantic attempts but pathetic liberals to steal the election, but don't let the facts get in the way of your liberal hissy fit. Oh, and have a nice day.

Posted by: Regularguy | October 12, 2007 11:48 AM

Remember that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was initiated by the veterans, not any government officials. Perhaps the Iraq veterans will do the same.

Posted by: tigerfan | October 12, 2007 12:42 PM

Ironic that liberals tried to "steal the election" in RegularGuy's world, when it's the current President who is only in office because of an unprecedented and legally indefensible SCOTUS ruling.

So much for stealing. Activist courts are good when they help Republicans and bad when they don't. How 'bout some consistency?

Posted by: Eric in Houston, TX | October 12, 2007 12:48 PM

Inscription will be from Tennesee Williams, "... the terrible stink of mendacity..."

Posted by: Big Daddy | October 12, 2007 3:21 PM

The Iraq war memorial should be near the Vietnam memorial - both will memorialize the lives of ordinary men who were cut down in the prime of life due to the extraordinary hubris and stupidity of our country's misleaders.

Posted by: amy_e | October 12, 2007 4:17 PM

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