New World War I memorial: America looks back to move forward

Shifts in thought

The unveiling of the Washington memorial's design is a sign of how far America has come in its willingness to acknowledge dark corners of US history.

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    The existing World War I Memorial in West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C., as seen on April 16, 2012. A new national memorial, set to be erected in Pershing Park and the design for which was unveiled in Washington Tuesday, will signify an America that is finally ready to confront some of the challenging societal fault lines revealed by the Great War, says the team behind the new monument.
    Joanne Ciccarello/The Christian Science Monitor/File
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It was supposed to be the “war to end all wars,” but World War I did nothing of the sort. Instead, it ushered in a new era of conflict and striving, inspiring women and veterans to take to the streets – in some legendarily violent clashes – to protest for their rights. 

It also redrew the borders of the Middle East and inspired its survivors – who had endured trench warfare, chemical weapons attacks, and bodily harm on a previously unthinkable scale – to rethink jingoistic calls to the glory of war.

The new national World War I memorial, the design for which was unveiled in Washington Tuesday, is for an America that is finally ready to confront some of the challenging societal fault lines revealed by the Great War, says the team behind the monument.

“People are ready for these stories now,” says Libby O’Connell, chief historian for the History Channel and member of the World War One Centennial Commission. 

"These stories," which highlight America's early grappling with women's rights, African-American rights, and the treatment of veterans, will be commemorated by a memorial in D.C.'s Pershing Park. Each cubic foot will represent one American solider lost in the war – 116,515 in total. The commission said Pershing Park was "the next best place" to put the memorial due to a law passed by Congress that says the National Mall is a "substantially completed work of art."

Despite concerns about how the United States handles human rights and widespread political stalemate in Washington, “I think we’re making great strides,” says Dr. O’Connell. “There are things that we couldn’t talk about at the dinner table even 15 years ago that we can now.”

Anguish that led to recent riots over the police violence faced by African-American communities, for example, is creating a new conversation around race, and the US experience of World War I can contribute to it, those communities say.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D) of Missouri saw anger within his own African-American community around commemorating the war. “They were very angry over the fact that African-American men had been excluded from battles during World War I,” he recalled, as a result of the belief among many that “they were cowards and lacked the fortitude to fight.” 

The 369th Infantry Regiment, comprised of African-American and Puerto Rican soldiers, was put under French, rather than American, command during World War I, “because many white officers didn’t want it,” O’Connell says. 

Nicknamed the “Harlem Hell Fighters,” the 369th became among the most decorated of units, changing the way the nation viewed its black citizens. 

When they returned to the US, however, “Some of them were lynched – in their military uniforms,” she says. “Some of these stories have been pushed to the side, because they don’t reflect well on our country – but we’re ready to talk about them now.”

In his home district of Kansas City, as well as through his work in Congress, Representative Cleaver helped to spearhead the creation of the national World War I memorial.

“I think it’s important for us to have monuments and memorials, so that people will not forget not only the history of that war, but the hell of that war,” Cleaver said in a press briefing Tuesday.  

People confronted that challenge in different ways. Women said goodbye to husbands, brothers, and sons and took to the floors of factories that marked a historic leap for the US in aviation and manufacturing – including technologies that helped to win the war itself.

“Soldiers rode into this war on horseback, and flew out on airplanes,” O’Connell said, adding that women were vital in making that happen. “Rosie the Riveter had a mother. We think this happens in World War II, but in fact the mothers of those women were working in factories while they were fighting for the right to vote during World War I.” 

Even as they demonstrated for the right to vote, however, and as the US was moving from a debtor to a creditor nation, President Woodrow Wilson “called these women treasonous, because he felt that they had no right to protest during the war.” The women felt more than justified, however, because they were helping to keep the factories that were fueling the war running. 

By the war’s end, “Wilson had given up – he realized he’d lost this one.” Today, O’Connell adds, “We’re not arguing about whether people deserve to be treated equally – it’s about how do you bring it about.” 

In the aftermath of World War I, veterans, too – many of whom had been put out of work by the Great Depression – had to agitate for their rights, with 17,000 of them marching on Washington in 1932. They were driven away with gunfire and infantry troops commanded by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, then the Army chief of staff. 

“It doesn’t get any worse than that,” O’Connell says. “I think it’s one of the horrible stories in American history.” 

With notable hiccups, the nation has learned from its wars of the past 14 years – America’s longest – how to better treat its veterans. That the country will continue to remember its veterans – even those who served a century ago – is a key theme of the World War I memorial, says Rebekah Wilson, director of operations for the World War One Centennial Commission.

It was seven years ago that Ms. Wilson, who served as a sergeant in the Army, had her own wake-up call.

She happened upon the World War I memorial to D.C. veterans, just off the National Mall. “I just came back from my second tour in Iraq. It had one dinky light, the sidewalks were broken, it was overgrown, there was litter everywhere – I was like, ‘What is this?’ ” she recalls.

“I thought about my friends who were coming back with PTSD, and we sit here and say we’re going to remember the sacrifices you made for this country, and it hasn’t been 100 years and we’ve forgotten – it really struck me,” she says, tearing up.

She went home and began organizing cleanups for the memorial, for a war in which the nation lost more troops than the Korean and Vietnam Wars combined. Of the 4.7 million Americans who went off to World War I, nearly 117,000 died – and that’s when the US population was less than a third of what it is today. Some 53,000 were lost in six months of fighting alone. 

“How can we turn to a young person who’s thinking about joining the military and tell them their service will be remembered when we have a whole generation," O’Connell says, "who has suffered worse casualties than the Korean and Vietnam Wars combined?”

 
 
 

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