It is one of the greatest mysteries of our nation’s capital city.
Although the national mall ornaments a sterling memorial to those who gave their lives and sacrifice in World War II, evokes the fears and trepidations of the Korean conflict a mere few steps from the Lincoln Memorial, and regularly draws hundreds of thousands of Americans to Maya Lin‘s famous Vietnam War Memorial within view of Washington‘s main street otherwise known as Constitution Avenue, there has never been a national World War I memorial in Washington DC until now.
Puzzling because of the remarkable sacrifice by millions of Americans who served, and the indisputably pivotal role America played in that European conflagration leading ultimately to victory by the Allies.
But now, in the center of Washington, when American families make their way to Washington, D.C. for spring breaks and summer vacations post-Covid, they will have the perfect entrée to paying homage to those who served in what was otherwise a cataclysm of the first order.
The backstory on the memorial is of interest.
Near to the White House and a stone’s throw from the Department of the Treasury, in the center of Washington, D.C., stood an otherwise plain and forgettable square featuring a beautiful, lone statue of America’s leading general in World War I, Gen. John Pershing. For years Washingtonians would walk across Pershing Plaza in a hurry to get to their destination without giving the statue or the surrounding area a second thought. It was a typical metropolitan area space with seemingly no purpose.
But a group of bold, steadfast, and stout-hearted citizens who believed that the sacrifices of those serving America in what President Woodrow Wilson called ‘the war to end all wars’ were being unfairly forgotten and neglected even as other American veterans were rightly memorialized in prominent places around the city.
And so across too many years to count, this group of dedicated, persistent citizens worked to procure that otherwise ugly plaza as the ultimate and best spot for a new national memorial to those who served in World War I, transforming its anodyne appearance into a powerful, simple, but elegant wall of remembrance and gratitude.
Unlike the World War II Memorial across the street from the Washington Monument, which is both grand and large, the World War I Memorial is trim and fleet, animated by a remarkable and understated series of unfolding statues that remind us of the doughboys and battlefields of bloody France and Belgium.
The United States entered the war in April 1917, three years after it had begun. More than 53,000 Americans lost their lives on the battlefields in that horrific war.
Disease alone added another 60,000 wartime American deaths and more than 204,000 others were wounded, many of them maimed with terrible disfigurements.
In total, some 15 million people lost their lives in what was otherwise known as The Great War.
The late entry of the United States into the war was a major inflection point in all of 20th-century history. While America’s involvement in the war indisputably assured the allied victory over imperial Germany in November 1918, it left a road of ruination, blood, and destruction that even today is difficult to internalize.
Not only did those bloody battlefields soak up American lives in large numbers but also they reminded a restive America that President Woodrow Wilson, who had first been elected in 1912, was not infallible, having promised over and over again that he would keep America out of the war.
After victory was declared on November 11, 1918, Wilson was lionized all across Europe as a kind of colossus on the world stage. But he could not successfully convince the Senate to pass the Treaty of Versailles or make the United States an original member of Wilson‘s League of Nations which was a forerunner to the United Nations.
Today those policy battles, so supreme in their time, are mostly forgotten. When a person visits the memorial, the thing that is most striking is the valor, gallantry, and chivalric virtues of that generation of Americans. Their patriotism, service, duty, and sense of American exceptionalism is beautifully captured and rightly rendered in this lovely memorial. The embers of that long-ago war are now snuffed but not the glow-hot reality of what America’s military achieved.
America’s leading role in the Great War’s victory helped to propel and codify the upward trajectory of the United States of America as the most powerful and dominant nation in the world. This would be solidified in our World War II victory in 1945 and the unspooling of the American Century.
When I visited the memorial, the overall sensation that gripped me was a sense of life’s inexorable flux. They were once all so young. Yet something abides: noble sacrifice and dedication to the larger cause of American liberty, and to each other.
“Greater love has no man than this: to lay down his life for his friends.”
Photo from Tony Peltier/REUTERS