The World War II Memorial

Richard Lacayo, writing for TIME, doesn’t like the new World War II Memorial. (The url leads to the full text of his article, which is no longer available for free on TIME’s website.) He describes it as “purest banality, an inert plaza dressed with off-the-shelf symbols of grief and glory.” But that’s just warming up. In what must be a violation of some offshoot of Godwin’s Law, he invokes the f-word:

It doesn’t help that [the architect’s] modernized neoclassicism—his wind-sheared surfaces and axial symmetry—instantly brings to mind Fascist architecture of the 1930s and ‘40s. It’s true that in those same years neoclassicism was also the chosen style for government buildings all over Washington. But [his] clean-lined take on neoclassicism more closely resembles the Art Deco-flavored Moderne favored by Mussolini. That colonnade? Il Duce would have loved it.

Now granted, I’m no architecture maven, but I didn’t exactly get the fascist vibe when I saw the thing last weekend. You can judge for yourself. It’s done with the same august neoclassical flair of the rest of old monuments. Maybe it’s a bit stodgy, but far from being an eyesore or wrecking the sightlines of the Mall, it fits in seamlessly. Besides, there’s nothing inherently evil about Moderne Art Deco or neoclassicism, so if people see it now and think “Washington DC” instead of “Mussolini,” then we’ve reclaimed some art that was co-opted by dead fascists, and that’s a good thing.

The World War II Memorial is brilliant in all sorts of ways that Lacayo fails to realize. Stand anywhere around it or in it, and you’re able to keep the whole thing in view—and that can be true for literally hundreds of people at a time, whether they’re peering over the outer rim or strolling in the wide plaza below. I’m certain the marble benches that line most of the plaza were put there with a thought for the many senior citizens who would be visiting. There were upwards of a thousand people milling around last weekend, but no shortage of places to sit, and it didn’t feel particuarly cramped. It’s cool how the reflecting pool now flows into the Memorial, eventually feeding the beautiful fountain. The total effect is not somber, or pompous, but stately and, if anything, understated. The colonnades are not there to call attention to themselves, but to frame a gathering space. What you notice first are the people around you.

Last weekend, a highly disproportionate number of those people were middle-aged women wearing white pants or skirts and bright red, white, and blue knit sweaters. I was rolling my eyes at their tacky patriotism, right up until the point when I saw what they were doing: four of them were gathered around a veteran in a wheelchair, and were singing one old battle hymn or another in beautiful four-part harmony. He sat perfectly still, smiling, with tears streaming down his face. Elsewhere other women were performing similar impromptu serenades. I wasn’t rolling my eyes after that.

Suanna had the idea to get Ella’s picture taken with some WWII veterans, so she approached a couple of them and struck up a conversation. Normally being so forward would seem odd, but a baby is the ultimate icebreaker. They warmed to Ella instantly—once one vet was holding her, some of their friends came by, and soon they were all talking up a storm. One of them was both a mechanic in the Air Force and a medic in the Army. Another was a crew leader in the Air Force. The most talkative of them served as an artilleryman in the Navy—he was at Omaha Beach, and later at Okinawa, where his ship went down after being hit by two kamikazes. As we were gathering the lot of them around for a picture, one man stepped back and shook his head. “No, you don’t want me in there,” he said. “I was just a clerk.”

His friends made it quite clear that there was no such thing as “just a clerk”; you got the sense that this was a scene that had been played over plenty of times before, but none of it—the survivor’s guilt, the grief, the camaraderie—was diminished as a result. It’s hard to believe that in a decade or so there will be almost none of these veterans left. But while they’re around, the Memorial provides not just a commemoration but a place eminently suited for them to gather together. We owe them that much, and more.