Traditional war memorials celebrate victory and sometimes boastfully depict a victor’s prowess with tall obelisks and arches or statues of strong men and horses. The now 200-year-old “Triumphal Arch” in Paris, France does just this for the French Revolutionary and the Napoleonic Wars. It features the names of French generals and a surprisingly long list of French victories from the wars.
A war memorial that commemorates the injured and fallen is a relatively new concept.
Think of the seemingly endless list of names at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. or the Cornerstone of Peace memorial in Okinawa, Japan. Both were constructed in my lifetime. Newer still are the memorials that denounce war in the name of peace. These “peace” memorials are far and few between compared to monuments dedicated to death and destruction.
Peace memorials are sometimes statues of peaceful people or peaceful things. They depict peaceful acts like collaboration or icons of peace such as the angel or the white dove. They are ideas, and they are words, and they are beautiful works of art built upon fountains and reflection ponds or about gardens.
They aren’t necessarily peaceful themselves. The World Peace Bell in Newport, Kentucky is just a bell named for peace. Depending on the hour, it can be heard unpeacefully for 25 miles in all directions.
The French make up for their pretentious Arch with the Wall for Peace. The pillar of metal and glass stands at the base of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It features the word “peace” written in 32 languages and 18 alphabets. If peace were merely words, I’d say we have a winner.
Words, however, do not make “peace.” At the root of peace are actions and behaviors that convey trust and vulnerability. These are very conceptual ideas in word form. In action, people of different languages understand peace. Even animals without language communicate peace by their behavior. A pigeon knows when to come running for food or fly away to safety.
A pigeon will also poop on your peace dove after it eats.
Peace memorials are abstract. These implements of peace — trust, vulnerability — are immaterial. I don’t mean that they are unimportant and deserve the pigeon poop. Rather, they have an existence that is difficult to depict physically because their meanings are not built in to their words.
Take for example the Peace Monument in Washington, D.C. It’s one the most convoluted memorials to peace I’ve ever seen.
Dually known as the Naval Monument and Civil War Sailors Monument, it serves as a remembrance to the naval deaths (not peace) from a civil war of all things. A female figure representing grief stands atop the monument. Grief weeps into the shoulder of another who represents history. We know her name is History by the stylus she holds alongside a tablet inscribed “They died that their country might live.”
Another figure below Grief and History holds a laurel wreath and carries an oak branch. Her wreath is a symbol of war victory just as it was in ancient Rome. The oak branch symbolizes strength and endurance. Below Victory rest the god of war, Mars, and the god of the sea, Neptune.
I’m sorry. Grief, Victory, War? Where is Peace? Why, she is on the other side, facing the Capitol if you can believe it.
She has her boobs out and holds a sprig of olive. There was originally a dove below her, but it went missing some time ago, and no one seems to have ever taken a picture of it. Ever. And then there are symbols of industry and science, literature and art — things that suggest our civilization is making progress because of peace.
Honestly, I needed a manual to fully appreciate the “peace” in the Peace Monument. Pigeons, on the other hand, find it a very peaceful perch.
So, why build a monument to peace that is also a monument to war? Is it that war and peace are inseparable? The circuitous meanings of war becoming peace or vice versa are only made more appropriate by the Peace Monument’s placement in the middle of a traffic circle, dubbed the “Peace Circle.”
Around and around. War, peace — peace, war. One, and then the other.
Further reading reveals that this kind of dichotomous war/peace imagery is new. It’s only slightly older than flat-out denouncing war in monumental form as does the multi-lingual pillar of peace in Paris. Traditional war monuments celebrate victory. Only in modern times has it become customary to honor the dead, and then even more recently, actually condemn war. A few of these “pacifist” war/peace memorials exist; they use a lot of the same imagery.
The earliest symbols of peace, the olive branch and dove, have served mankind unchanged since their inception thousands of years ago. The two peace symbols we recognize today (e.g. the v-sign and the nuclear disarmament symbol) were popularized in the last 100 years.
These new symbols are synonymous with anti-war movements but require a measure of abstract thinking or at the very least a passing grade in popular culture to understand. The older symbols of peace are no better and are best represented in religious texts. New or old, they just don’t speak for themselves.
The implements of war, however, speak volumes.
We know to shy away from a crouching tiger. No one swims toward the circling fin. Our man-made symbols of danger are just as foreboding. The Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. shows soldiers ready to fight, carrying arms, and dressed in full-combat gear. The Tomb of the Unknown in Arlington Cemetery is a war memorial to those lost and unrecovered. It is continuously guarded by armed men and women. And then there is the National World War II Memorial, which looks wonderfully peaceful and non-combative while also being self-important and pretentious.
You see, victors usually are self-important and pretentious. Even winners who lost at first but later won find ways to mourn… boastfully. This could be why our “peace” monuments are actually war memorials in disguise! I’m talking about you, USS Arizona!
It’s not only the statues, monuments, and sunken ships that memorialize a deadly and destructive past. The numerous canons and other artilleries surrounding our historic fortresses and battle sites all over the South are anything but peace idols. These massive iron and stone relics of war quite intrinsically speak to death.
Conversely, a dove doesn’t exactly convey the notion of trust. Angels are allegedly immortal; supposing a statue of one with open arms speaks to vulnerability is far fetched. As much as I hate to say so, the implements of “peace” are rather dull and those of war are pretty much awesome.
I’m not a fan of war, though I am a fan of war stuff. War relics are cool because they represent a kind of technological advance that has apparently been present among humans forever. While our ideological advance is questionable, our technological progress is unmatched in the animal kingdom.
Humans are arguably first when it comes to developing tools for out-killing one another. We know that a lot of animals kill other animals, and some even kill for the same reasons we do. Animals have been offing other animals for a very long time and in many different ways. They rely on sharp things like teeth and claws to mutilate others. They use dull things like bone or sheer size to smother life. Still others rely on venom or even bacteria to do their killing.
But these tools have been with the animal kingdom for as long as the animals have. None save man (and not coincidentally, other primates) has improved his killing ability by engineering advanced tools.
Bludgeons have been found among primates and within the remains of nomadic man. Bludgeons were just the precursor to sharp tools like spears and stone knives. Why get close to your prey when distance is safer? Man developed more exacting projectiles like darts, arrows, and bolts. Always eager to kill more, better, and faster, modern man produced exploding projectiles and bullets. And now we have tools to deliver the vilest of killers: radiation and nerve gasses.
This obvious technological advance separates us from our fellow animal killers. It fascinates me, and it’s why I definitely prefer visiting war museums to peace memorials.
Stay pretty, Angel of the Waters.
Of course, this is really just a very long introduction to photos of Eric and me visiting war museums. Early in October, we took a road trip to Battleship Texas and the San Jacinto Memorial. Both are just east of Houston by an hour.
The battleship-turned-museum is complete with all the cool war stuff of an antique battleship. Much of the ship is inaccessible for being in dangerous disrepair, and still a visitor can spend hours walking deck to deck browsing the big guns, little guns, early electronics, and living areas. The ship’s outer deck and tower are alone worth visiting.
The San Jacinto Memorial is visible from the ship. The battle it memorializes represents a decisive turn of events favoring Texas and its revolution with Mexico. The museum beneath the monument features war memorabilia (e.g. uniforms, firearms, swords) from the early 1800s, but the monument’s coolest feature is a look-out observation deck 500 feet above.
The view is to die for.