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A Monument To 9/11? - - - No Political Correctness, Please!

January 25, 2002
Copyright © 2002
PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved. 

In the news section of this week’s Herald, Roger Franklin comments on the New York City’s Fire Department’s (NYFD) recent misbegotten effort to honor its firefighters by casting a statue in bronze based on the now famous photograph of three of their numbers raising the American flag over the rubble of the demolished World Trade Center.

The firefighters who raised the flag were Anglo but the monument’s backers announced that the statuary faces would reflect Anglo, Hispanic and Black appearances, since members of those three groups were killed or injured in efforts to save lives and contain the damage of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Nevertheless, so vocal are the complaints that "political correctness" had intruded upon historical fact that, in all likelihood, the project will be scrapped. In an interview with The Herald, NYFD Press Officer, Amanda Schmidt, denied that there was any attempt to be politically correct. She stated that the project’s sponsor, the Forrest City Ratner realty company, landlord for the fire department’s headquarters building, intended that the statue be "faceless," only suggesting ethnicity. When asked about the number of Puerto Rican firemen killed in the rescue effort, she said, "many, but I can’t give you a count. If fact, we never broke it down officially. To us, they are firemen, period."

Those wishing to memorialize New York’s devastation and New Yorkers’ gritty response to their plight now face the dilemma that artists, designers, architects and politicians always encounter when trying to give artistic expression to recent historical events. They face the difficulty of capturing its spirit in an aesthetically pleasing way that is acceptable to a public that will be asked to accept it as a perpetual symbol of the event or for the period of time it seeks to represent.

Two monuments in the Nation’s Capital, and another on the drawing boards there, illustrate this point.

Washington D.C.’s National World War II Memorial, after going through several radically changed designs, will soon begin to rise in the center of the national mall, at a point adjacent to the Reflecting Pool, lying between George Washington’s towering obelisk and the neoclassical mausoleum housing the brooding figure of President Abraham Lincoln. Many object to its placement, feeling that it will intrude on the vistas of these revered monuments and clutter the mall’s bucolic openness. It is to be a massive structure of marble and bronze, encompassing a fountain, memorial arches and 56 granite pillars which organizers explain will symbolize "the unprecedented unity of the nation during WWII."

The 56 granite pillars emerged embarrassingly late in the memorial’s design. Each represents a state or territory of the U.S. at the time of the war. There is also one for the District of Columbia. The original concept employed only 50 columns, representing the current number of states of the union. After that concept was made public, the howl from residents of Puerto Rico, Guam, The Philippines and other U.S. Territories during the period of the war was immediate. Puerto Ricans pointed out that their sons and daughters served in WWII with distinction and German U-boats constantly haunted their coastline. The Philippine Islands were invaded and occupied by the Japanese during most of the war while Guam and other U.S. territories in the South Pacific were in the epicenter of battling forces on land, sea and air. Alaskans and Hawaiians politely pointed out that they were actually U.S. territories then, and not states. Most old-time residents of Washington, D.C., the site of the monument, shrugged in amazement. Red-faced designers returned to their drafting tables and opened the history books.

The snapshot of NYFD firefighters raising the American flag over the ruins of "ground zero" is reminiscent of one of the best known photographs to come out of WWII, Associated Press photographer, Joe Rosenthal’s shot of U.S. Marines raising the stars and stripes atop Mt. Suribachi during the bloody battle of Japanese-held Iwo Jima in February of 1945. Its publication immediately made it a national icon. The six men pictured became allegorical figures, representing all the men and women who served in the war. The fact that the photograph was a recreation of an earlier flag hoisting caused no stir. Most commentators judged it to be the most famous photograph taken up until that time and Rosenthal was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for its creation.

The photograph depicts five Marines and a Navy medic hoisting a flag atop a 100-pound length of pipe and ramming it into a battle scared patch of ground at the mountain’s precipice. There were six flag raisers seen in the photograph. Three would be killed in action before the battle was done. None of the three survivors would later accept being called a "hero." John "Doc" Bradley, the Navy medic, who was later wounded in both legs but survived the battle, gave but one interview in his life. In it he said, "People refer to us as heroes (but) I personally don't look at it that way. I just think that I happened to be at a certain place at a certain time and anybody on that island could have been in there--and we certainly weren't heroes, and I speak for the rest of them as well. That's the way they thought of themselves also."

A statue, very literally based on the photograph, now stands in a small park adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery. It has become the United States Marine Corps Memorial. No hint of controversy accompanied President Eisenhower’s 1954 dedication. The photograph on which it was based had become a universal symbol of the American struggle and subsequent victory on both the Pacific and European fronts. Critics of the planned National WWII Memorial pointed to this monument as the quintessential statement of WWII, rendering the other superfluous.

Three decades later, Washington’s most visited attraction, The Vietnam Memorial, popularly known as "The Wall," situated adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial in a landscaped parcel know as "Constitution Gardens," had no such tranquil birth. Some ten years after America’s humiliating defeat in Southeast Asia, veterans of that war began to lobby for some national recognition of their service and perpetual remembrance of the comrades that fell beside them on the field of battle. No government money was made available, so a national fundraising drive was launched. A national competition for a design was initiated and a Yale architecture student, Maya Lin, submitted the winning selection.

Architecture critics were nearly unanimous in their praise of Ms. Lin’s design. A long and low polished black granite wall would hold the names of all who died in the conflict. Names would be arranged according to the dates of their death. There would be no mention of rank, sex or military service. Just the names. All of America’s dead from that conflict would be symbolically brought together on The Wall. Visitors would walk along it and see themselves reflected within the rows of chiseled-in names. The Wall would be placed in a gentle berm making it invisible from the street but blending in perfectly with the surrounding lawns and stands of trees. It would create a dignified and peaceful atmosphere for visitors and a respectful repository for the memory of the fallen. As they walked along a brick and flagstone path, visitors could see beyond the memorial the distant outlines of the edifices and symbols of the federal government that the honored dead had so proudly represented.

And then the fireworks began!

Vietnam Veterans groups, perhaps expecting something as triumphant as the Iwo Jima statue, spoke out. Comments were harsh. Protests were launched. "They’ve put us in a ditch" one sign read. "Its nothing but an ugly tombstone," one protester told a reporter. The complaints centered on the fact that there was no statue, nothing that evoked the danger and horror of the war. A statue was needed! Flags were needed! The Wall would not do! It was an insult to the memory of the dead!

In spite of the protests, in 1982 the finished wall was dedicated. Promises had been made that there would be a traditional statue in close proximity to The Wall. That later work shows three GIs, as if on patrol, all looking out towards a distant danger. The faces clearly reflect facial characteristics of the ethnic mix deployed in Vietnam, white, black and brown. But where were the women? Their statue, dedicated on Veterans Day of 1993 is a 360 degree bronze casting showing three nurses tending an unconscious wounded male soldier. One has him cradled in her arms, another searches the sky for a rescue helicopter while a third gathers a fallen helmet from the ground. Even though these two works have artistic merit, they are an afterthought to The Wall. Many visitors fail to notice them, drawn like iron filings to The Wall’s magnetic force.

The National Park Service, the custodian of The Wall, calls it the most popular tourist attraction in the Nation’s Capital. Some visitors linger for hours, others stroll past the names and hurry on past to other pursuits. Many come to find the single name of a spouse, a loved one, a buddy, someone from their hometown. More than 58,000 names, together etched in single monument to their courage and sacrifice. Among those names are Puerto Rico’s three Medal of Honor winners from the Vietnam War, Carlos J. Lozada, Euripides Rubio and Hector Santiago Colon, their names inscribed with the other 240 posthumously recipients of the Nation’s highest honor.

The cataclysmic nature of the terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers calls out for a monumental response. It is to be hoped that its design will evoke the universal popular acceptance that Joe Rosenthal’s picture from Iwo Jima did while possessing the transcendent eloquence of Maya Lin’s Wall.

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