Why is this monument only opening now, years after the memorial for later wars in Vietnam and Korea?
The legislation to construct the monument was first passed in 1987, and then there were a number of obstacles placed in the path of the project. People objected to putting it between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, and so the design was changed so the view from one to the other would not be obstructed. Then there were environmentalists who felt it was going to have an environmental impact on the Mall, and these were thrown out of court.
It's my personal feeling that it's inexcusable that it's taken this long. There were 16 million Americans in uniform at the end of the war. There are less than 4 million of those veterans left now. Practically all of them are men and women in their 80s, and it's a little difficult for them to get around. It would have been fortunate to have had this opening 20 years ago, when they would have still been able to enjoy it more fully, and when millions more would have been available.
Do you think we've changed in our willingness to memorialize war?
You might say that the World War II memorial was slowed down by a rather negative post-Vietnam reaction to the military. There was less respect and honor for military people for a while--what's been called the "post-Vietnam syndrome"--but that didn't stop the construction of a Vietnam Memorial well in advance of this one. So there's kind of a contradiction there.
They are very different monuments. This one seems to be a return to making the effort seem more noble.
Exactly. It's become a cliché now. This was the greatest generation, involved in the last 'Good War'.
In retrospect, was World War II a good war? What makes a just war is not just its cause, but how it was fought. Was World War II fought any more decently than wars since?
That's hard to say. For one thing the coverage of World War II was not as immediate or as intense or as visual as coverage of wars since, in Vietnam or the war we're currently engaged in. These are living wars, where you sit there and you can watch the horrors of what is happening. My study of history tells me all wars are pretty much organized hell, and I can't imagine it was all that much different during World War II.
There's this recent controversy over whether to show the caskets of troops returning home. How was that done during World War II?
My recollection is that the men who died during the war were either buried in American cemeteries abroad or they were sent back to the United States en masse after the war if the families wanted the remains returned. It wasn't that you were killed in the Battle of the Bulge and two weeks your remains were shipped back to your family.
It seems that today we pay greater attention to each individual, as in Iraq for instance, the reading of names on "Nightline," for example. Do we regard death in wartime differently than in World War II?
I'm not sure that a family feels the pain any less in any war. But again, I think it gets back to the immediate coverage. For example, a casualty on D-Day: when some member of the First Army Division was killed on June 6th, his family learned about it two or three months later. There was not this immediacy.
Has that changed how we feel about Memorial Day?
There's been a commercialization of these holidays. On what used to be Armistice Day when I was a kid, the factory whistles would hoot in my town and you would stop for a moment's silence with bowed head. It's now Veteran's Day which is an opportunity for white sales at Sears and Macy's. It's quite different.
What are you going to be doing this weekend?
We're going to a number of events being held in conjunction with the dedication of the memorial. It's complete, it's done, and at tomorrow's ceremony, we'll turn this memorial over to the country.