Thursday, January 19, 2012

Sacrifice and Public Life

In our Interdisciplinary Seminar on Sacrifice today we explored notions of sacrifice in common life in the United States, with one hour spent looking at some of the war memorials on the DC National Mall. Below is my daughter Rebecca at the World War II Memorial and at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

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For more of the photos collected by the class, click here (large file: 2 MB pdf).

The WWII Memorial is very much a triumphal monument to sacrifice. For example, there are huge wreaths of victory at the tops of the north and south pavilions. The monument teaches the conflict as the “good war” that was fought by the “greatest generation.” There are touches that attempt to add personal elements and a consciousness of war’s tragic dimensions, but these are muted and often unclear if not specifically pointed out. For example, there are open rectangular slots and no formal tops in the pillars named with states, alluding to death and the grave, but I never caught the allusion on my visit.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial has a very different feel. To visit it is a much more subjective experience. It has little to “teach” objectively, but encourages a subjective interpretation and a journey of grappling with the meaning of war and the meaning of the huge sacrifices made by those who died. One makes a therapeutic journey down below ground-level, increasingly surrounded by the thousands of names of those who gave their lives. One sees one’s own reflection in the walls as one brings one’s own thoughts and questions to the memorial. Then one emerges back to ground level, often with some feeling of healing.

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