Memorials to US Tragedies Often Reinforce a Self-Serving Narrative

The memorial to the 9/11 attack on the world trade tower in New York City, in a photo taken on December 3, 2011. (Photo: Slgckgc; Edited: LW / TO)The memorial to the 9/11 attack on the world trade tower in New York City, in a photo taken on December 3, 2011. (Photo: Slgckgc; Edited: LW / TO)

In the wake of tragedy, it has become common in the United States to create memorials that focus on the mass loss of human life — from the Vietnam War to the Oklahoma City Bombing, from the Columbine Shootings to 9/11. In her new book, Harriet F. Senie argues that these national memorials have had the effect of obscuring the real causes and victims of events they claim to mark. Click here to order a copy of Memorials to Shattered Myths from Truthout!

Senie, utilizing a nuanced analysis combining keen insight and scrupulous research, draws many lessons from some of the most notable national memorials to US wars and mass violence. What is perhaps most notable is her finding that many of them become embedded in a national narrative that combines a profound sense of victimhood with a lack of historical context. In many cases, we learn very little from these public artistic “tombstones” about what might prevent such loss of life in the future.

The following is taken from the introduction to Harriet F. Senie’s book, Memorials to Shattered Myths: Vietnam to 9/11.

National memorials typically celebrate political rulers, military leaders, and victories in war, concretizing a collective identity that constitutes a form of civic religion. From the start this genre was problematic in the United States, a new nation with no precedents for commemoration. Who should be honored by the new democracy, and what should their monuments look like? European models celebrating monarchs or popes were not deemed appropriate; presidents, it was felt, required something different. There were, however, no trained US artists capable of envisioning or realizing new paradigms. It took years to finalize the form of a national memorial even for such an obvious subject as George Washington. There were many design iterations for the Washington Monument before it was finally built on the National Mall in 1885 as a result of the efforts of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Casey of the Army Corps of Engineers. That now-famous obelisk (an ancient Egyptian form), interestingly, offers no clue as to the identity of its subject.

Memorials to famous wars were no less problematic. To date the American Revolution lacks an official national memorial, while the Civil War’s most famous commemorative complex is a cemetery. The Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, Massachusetts, was built to commemorate the first major battle of the American Revolution, which actually took place on nearby Breed’s Hill on June 17, 1775, but was not realized for another five decades. Although the Americans did not actually win this battle, the relatively unprepared soldiers managed to repel two major assaults and the encounter was seen as “a symbol of American military perseverance and heroism.” Like the Washington Monument, it took the form of an obelisk, although there was much debate over whether a column would be more appropriate. The winning design was by Horatio Greenough (1805-1852); the Marquis de Lafayette laid the cornerstone in 1825, the fiftieth anniversary of the battle. Well-known statesmen, including Daniel Webster, spoke at significant anniversaries. Eventually the monument became part of the Boston National Historical Park and the end point of the city’s Freedom Trail. As the surrounding area became economically depressed and plagued by crime, contemporary perspectives challenged the local meaning of the memorial. In 1998 the artist Krzysztof Wodiczko (b. 1943) created a temporary public artwork using the memorial as a backdrop for a video projection. Images of faces and hands of local residents appeared on the Bunker Hill Monument, accompanied by individual voices, playing over a loudspeaker, which reminisced about murdered children or siblings.4 The once-heroic national monument now valorized local victims.

While the American Revolution created the United States, the Civil War almost ended the Union. It took decades to realize the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall, finally built to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of the sixteenth President (February 12, 1909). The work of sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) and architect Henry Bacon (1866-1924), erected opposite the Washington Monument, emphasized Lincoln’s role as the savior of the nation rather than the emancipator of the slaves. The inscription above the statue of Lincoln reads: “In This Temple as in the Hearts of the People for Whom He Saved the Union the Memory of Abraham Lincoln Is Enshrined Forever.” Over time as the site was variously used to commemorate significant moments in the civil rights movement, the emphasis of the memorial shifted. The concert by contralto Marian Anderson in 1939 was followed by the famous “I Have a Dream” speech delivered on the steps of the site in 1963 by Martin Luther King Jr.

More recently, Barack Obama visited the memorial a few days prior to his inauguration in 2009 as the first African American President of the United States. The meaning of memorials is never fixed. Initially both the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, linchpins of national identity, might be said to embody strategies of diversion. The Washington Monument avoided a heroic depiction of the first President, who was dubbed the American Cincinnatus in reference to the Roman patriot known for his reluctance to lead except in critical times. The Lincoln Memorial, by deliberately eschewing any reference to the contentious issue of slavery and the racial problems that continued to beset the country even after its abolition, demonstrated that memorials are at least as much about trying to forget as they are about remembering.

Drew Gilpin Faust in This Republic of Suffering (2008) defined the burial of the Civil War dead as the central legacy of that nationally defining war. Gettysburg, one of several soldier cemeteries dedicated in 1863 after the turning point of the war, contained the bodies ofmore than 3,500 Union soldiers. Arlington National Cemetery, dedicated a year later, eventually included those who died in subsequent wars, with distinct sections demarcated for confederate soldiers, former slaves, and nurses. These cemeteries constitute a significant memorial legacy. Although post-Civil War history was anything but conflict-free, many US citizens prospered in this period of new industrialization and the development of railroads.

According to historian Susan-Mary Grant, by the middle of the twentieth century (also known as the “American Century”) the country emerged from World War II with “economic and, arguably, cultural global dominance.” This status was seriously shaken during the 1950s by the House on Un-American Activities Committee’s so-called McCarthy Hearings, which turned Americans against each other by mandating that they report on alleged Communist activities of their friends and acquaintances. When the Cold War (which dated from roughly after World War II through 1990) ended, it resulted in the loss of the unifying effects of a common enemy (the Soviet Union) to an already divided nation. It was the Vietnam War, however, that split the country more sharply than anything since the Civil War. The quagmire of this undeclared war, which ended in 1975, continues to influence US presidents and key elements of their foreign policy to the present day.

How could the United States commemorate this contentious conflict? Obviously the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (VVM) on the National Mall, commissioned by the veterans who fought in the war, could not be triumphal in any traditional sense. The memorial competition eliminated any political statement about the war, insisting only on the listing of the names of the war dead. Accordingly, Maya Lin’s reflective wall reads like a symbolic cemetery — and people respond to it as such. Although her memorial prompted controversy when it was installed in 1982, eventually it became a focal point where all could gather to mourn, regardless of their view of the war. The political rift prompted by opposing views on the conflict, however, did not heal. Many could not reconcile their faith in this country, which they considered the most powerful on earth, with the fact that the United States lost an undeclared war against a small nation in Southeast Asia.

More recently, similar memorial subjects of a non-military nature also called into question assumptions about national identity: terrorist attacks on the federal building in Oklahoma City, the World Trade Center in New York, and the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia, as well as the rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. The Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building in 1995, a little more than a decade after the VVM was dedicated, rocked another myth of national identity in a country that had not yet reunited after the Vietnam War. Suddenly the American heartland no longer seemed safe, attacked by an American-trained, decorated US soldier. The built memorial in Oklahoma City, too, refrained from referring directlyto the cause of death of the victims; rather it simply noted the times before and after the explosion on its framing gates. A complex of many elements, it included a symbolic cemetery defined by 168 chairs, one for each person who died.

A scant four years later, the Columbine High School shootings in a well-to-do suburb of Denver, Colorado, challenged the widely mediated myth of the American high school experience as an idyllic part of growing up. The shooting of children by children within the confines of their school challenged the accepted idealized cultural fantasies about adolescence. Although a local event, it took on national significance through widespread media coverage, the presence of President Bill Clinton at key anniversaries, and the subsequent cultural codification of Columbine as a symbol of a specific and especially toxic kind of homegrown violence. The built memorial in Littleton also created a kind of symbolic cemetery, a partially enclosed space with a waist-high structure at its center, engraved with the names of each of the deceased, with each name accompanied by a quote submitted by a family member. Enclosed by a semi-circular wall punctuated with comments by those immediately affected by the tragedy as well as a quote by President Clinton, it omitted the names of the young shooters and the nature of their crime.

The bombing of the World Trade Center in September 2001 (soon after referred to as 9/11) sent shock waves through the entire world, suddenly revealing the United States to be vulnerable to outside attack at its center of economic power. It occurred following a time of deep political divisiveness that was prompted by the decision of the US Supreme Court to allow the hotly debated 2000 presidential election results in the state of Florida to stand, thereby awarding the presidency to George W. Bush rather than to Vice President Al Gore. The national memorial to 9/11, strongly influenced by Maya Lin’s VVM, also included a symbolic cemetery. Designed by Michael Arad, two sunken voids within the footprints of the destroyed Twin Towers are each surrounded by a ledge inscribed with the names of the dead at which visitors leave tributes, much as they do at the symbolic cemeteries of all the memorials discussed here.

Each of these events challenged long-held cultural myths of an already frayed sense of national identity, and each corresponding memorial solution conflated the concept of a public memorial with that of a private cemetery. Although this conjunction was not new, its formal expression in permanent, national memorial structures was. Previously the London Cenotaph (1920), literally an empty tomb, was a place where “commemoration and mourning were inextricably entwined,” as Jay Winter demonstrated. Initially meant to be a temporary structure, it served as the centerpiece for a Victory March in London, thereby keeping the focus on both the war dead and the war that was won at great cost. The dates of the First World War are inscribed above the sculpted wreaths at each end and the words “The Glorious Dead” beneaththem symbolically cloak the war’s victims (neither named nor buried here) in a mantle of triumph. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, the Cenotaph is a single structure adapted to commemoration and mourning practices by a population that needed both. Lutyens’s Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme (1928-1932) is dedicated to the 72,191 missing British and South African men who died in these battles (1915-1918) and have no known grave. A major influence on Maya Lin, it takes the form of a monumental complex arch with the names of the missing inscribed on its interior walls, organized by the division in which they fought. The memorial also includes sixteen stone laurel wreaths inscribed with the names of the battles, thus closely linking the names with the war in which they died. A symbolic cemetery of white crosses located behind the imposing arch that defines the memorial is a distinct and separate element.

By contrast, the multi-part structures discussed here integrate dominant spaces for mourning into their conceptual essence and the actual centers of their primary memorial spaces, while barely referencing the cause of the commemorated deaths. Adjacent education centers and museums focus prominently on the victims in a context of reinterpretation (Vietnam) or survival, courage, and recovery (Oklahoma City and 9/11). Their formal elements, together with the spaces they create, distinguish these later memorials from the World War I examples that Winter discusses. While the later memorials display what he calls “an extraordinary statement in abstract language about mass death and the impossibility of triumphalism,” the American structures focus on individuals lost and the triumph of hope. They also create communities of mourners, individuals who are suddenly linked by grievous loss, as happened after the Civil War as well.

The design of the VVM evokes a giant tombstone, thus conflating the function of cemeteries with the purpose of memorials, focusing on the private losses of individuals while excluding any reference to the larger national significance of this traumatic war. Memorials to the subsequent events valorized victims and granted a dominant role to their families in the commissioning process. As a result, strategies of diversion and denial prevailed, not an unusual approach when it comes to memorials. What was new was this emerging paradigm of the memorial/cemetery hybrid.

In the twentieth century there was no greater challenge of building memorials to victims than the Holocaust. The location of the United States National Holocaust Memorial Museum (USNHMM), a block from the National Mall in Washington, DC, implicitly framed the Holocaust as somehow critical to American national identity and/or national memory. How this Americanized version of the Holocaust came to be institutionalized is a complicated story….

This museum, defined as being primarily about knowledge, was not charged (as are the memorial institutions discussed here) to “offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity.” Rather, the USNHMM was intended to provide “a powerful lesson in the fragility of freedom, the myth of progress, the need for vigilance in preserving democratic values.” It confronted difficult national issues: “a shameful policy of [American] do-nothingness and, worse, of restrictive immigration laws that blocked the escape of great numbers of European Jews.” Furthermore, it acknowledged the critical failure of the United States to bomb the railroad lines that led to the death camps. These aspects complicate the celebratory theme of the US military’s liberation of the Jews and other prisoners at the camps. The USNHMM stands in sharp contrast to the memorial museums or education centers dedicated to Vietnam, Oklahoma City, and 9/11 that focus overwhelmingly on hope, if not triumph.

The Holocaust, nevertheless, is directly or indirectly associated with the memorials discussed here. The USNHMM is linked to the VVM by its national site and date of official approval; both were chartered in 1980. One scholar, Edward Linenthal, wrote books on both the history of the Holocaust Museum and the Oklahoma City National Memorial, one immediately after the other. Thus he was ideally positioned to convey ideas about the former project to those in charge of the latter; indeed Linenthal stated that the Oklahoma City Museum was “consciously modeled after the Holocaust Museum.” The Columbine shootings were apparently planned to take place on the 110th birthday of Adolf Hitler. The director of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, Alice M. Greenwald, previously held the position of director of the USNHMM. Several writers have cited the Holocaust museum model as an obvious but inappropriate source for the September 11 Memorial Museum. As Adam Gopnik commented, “Every photograph of a Jewish child is a memory recovered from oblivion,” while 9/11 was “already as well documented as any incident in history.” The Holocaust continues to exert a powerful, if often diffused influence.

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Memorials to Shattered Myths: Vietnam to 9/11

National memorials have had the effect of obscuring the real causes and victims of events they claim to mark.

Click here now to get the book!


To date, memorials have failed to acknowledge that there are distinctions among groups of victims. Notably there are those who fight in wars (whether by choice or draft), who are by definition at risk and also may be victims of misguided policy; those who die as targeted victims of genocide, such as victims of the Holocaust; and those who are killed in terrorist attacks while they are going about their daily lives. All have been valorized — but it is this last category that is the most problematic. As Kirk Savage observed, “[T]he question of which category of victim deserves a monument is fundamentally political, and the answer depends on the meanings that society assigns to their trauma. The severity of the trauma is not the crucial factor, but rather its collective significance.”

Mass civilian deaths at Oklahoma City, Columbine, and the World Trade Center occurred in a safe environment rendered suddenly lethal by a rampage or terrorist attack. They were all in a sense collateral damage, valorized as heroes while their families were granted a related special status in determining their built memorials. This conflation of heroes and victims forms the assumptive basis of the memorials discussed here. So, too, does the diversionary narrative of hope that emphasizes the triumphal communal spirit prompted by the respective heinous crimes, which projected war-like destruction into our civic midst….

While it is debatable that those who fought in Vietnam were victims, the casualties of Oklahoma City, Columbine, and 9/11 cannot be framed in any other terms. By focusing primarily on the victims, memorials to these events succeed in separating them from the event that caused their death. That was always the intent of the VVM, a critical strategy at the time because the war was so highly controversial. Subsequently, however, the attempt to individualize the deceased has merged the function of cemeteries, where death and mourning are personal, with remembering and grieving in public, where actual and symbolic losses are communal. The present work traces the evolution and consequences of this new hybrid paradigm and its accompanying diversionary triumphal narratives.

Copyright (2016) of Oxford University Press. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher.