WWII's Central Place

Standing at the entrance to the new World War II memorial in Washington is like being at the axis of American history. Look ahead, and it's a straight shot to the Lincoln Memorial. Turn around, and the Washington Monument fills the view.

The message is unmistakable. A direct line of freedom connects and undergirds America, from the first president, to the unifying president, to the millions who sacrificed to "perpetuate the gift our forefathers entrusted to us," as one inscription reads.

The oval complex has its critics. For some, the classical architecture of the surrounding towers and wreaths evokes fascist-era monumentalism. For many supporters, it was too late in coming. Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, fewer than 4 million survive today to accept this expression of thanks.

Yet all visitors to Washington do need a reminder that the US saved the world in the mid-20th century, and, even if sometimes misguided, stands ready to do it again. The grand design of this memorial glorifies what those heroes accomplished, and points out that wars generally need popular support to succeed.

The Vietnam Memorial - a dark and descending granite wedge of more than 58,000 names situated just off the axis on the Washington Mall - is a reminder of how a war's unpopularity can lead to a focus on the deaths rather than the results for the world at large. That's not to take away from those deaths. Indeed, this is the most visited memorial in Washington.

As the years have passed without a World War II memorial, that war's place in history only grows larger. Its official opening this week, nearly 60 years after D-Day, will help ensure that its lessons last.

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