Kehinde Wiley, Rumors of War, 2019. Photo: Travis Fullerton, © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, December 2019

What Do We Really Want from War Memorials?

As a sculptor who has spent most of his life in the South, I have followed recent debates about Confederate monuments with interest. Those debates typically descend into a polarized zone, where those who want the monuments to remain are labeled racists, and those who favor removal are accused of trying to erase Southern heritage. Many people’s opinions are formed without even looking at a particular monument under discussion. Finding solutions, or even acceptable compromises, is challenging in the midst of conflicting views of history and ideology.

As we struggle to determine the future of Confederate monuments, we might do well to step back and ask a broader question: “What do we really want from war memorials?” I decided to explore that question by visiting five well-known war memorials in Washington, DC, to consider their social functions and artistic qualities. Those five memorials range from traditional to contemporary, and from representational to abstract. The varied design approaches offer perspective on our remembrance of the Civil War. What follows are some observations and questions that came to me as I considered these memorials, starting with the oldest and ending with the newest.

Photos: Courtesy Harry McDaniel, unless otherwise noted

Ulysses S. Grant Memorial—Dedicated 1922

The Ulysses S. Grant Memorial was initially proposed in the 1890s, about 30 years after the Civil War ended. At that time, numerous monuments to Robert E. Lee had already been erected in the South. In many ways, it is a perfect reference point for discussing Confederate monuments. Like many traditional monuments, the central feature is a bronze sculpture of a general (Grant) on a horse, on a marble pedestal. While Grant is the focal point, the memorial includes several other elements, making the overall statement a bit more complex than a simple “general on a horse,” but the primary difference between this and the most prominent Confederate monuments is that this monument represents the Union.

The Grant Memorial was designed as an architectural environment composed of several sculptures positioned on a large, elevated marble platform with balustrades, benches, and steps. At the base of the central pedestal, Grant is flanked by two bronze lions and two relief sculptures representing common soldiers. Further out, on each side, are two large sculptures depicting soldiers in battle, or on their way to battle.

This combination of elements delivers a variety of messages, but the strongest message is simple: “We (the Union) won.” The concept, design, and placement of the memorial all project power. Visitors must look upward and climb steps to reach the central platform. The elevation of Grant on a tall pedestal, the surrounding troops at his command, and the calm, regal lions, all signify power. Grant sits astride his horse with a dignified certitude, surveying the surroundings. This emphasis on Grant not only honors him as a leader, but also holds him up as a symbol of the ideals and principles underlying the effort to hold the United States together. The placement of the monument, directly in front of the U.S. Capitol building, and the use of marble (like most DC government buildings), emphasize that the monument represents the U.S. government.

The secondary elements express a broader purpose to the memorial. The various representations of common soldiers remind visitors not to forget the service and sacrifice of those soldiers. One of the side sculptures illustrates the immediacy, danger, and chaos of battle, including a soldier being trampled by a horse. The other side sculpture conveys the day-to-day tedium and suffering of war. The seating areas invite visitors to spend time and contemplate.

While the Grant Memorial represents an important historical period in the social and political life of the United States, it also expresses history in its form and concept. Its design approach was the norm at the turn of the 20th century, but today, its cold, hard formality, imposing scale, and tomb-like forms may not engage the public in the same way.

U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima)—Dedicated 1954

The central element of the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial is a large bronze sculpture representing a group of Marines raising the American flag on the island of Iwo Jima. The sculpture is based on a well known, inspiring photo taken in 1945. Knowing that the sculpture is based on an actual event adds depth to its emotional engagement. It portrays a heroic moment, but the portrayal also speaks of the exhaustion, discomfort, and danger of war. The group effort of raising the flag reminds visitors of the cooperation and self-sacrifice inherent to military service. The integration of an actual flag with a bronze sculpture adds life to the sculpture. Symbolically, the combination emphasizes that the efforts of Marines in the past support America in this moment. The stone pedestal supporting the sculpture is inscribed with the names of conflicts in which the Marines have been involved, and with the words, “Uncommon Valor Was A Common Virtue.”

The Marine Memorial echoes many common themes of war memorials—triumph, courage, heroism, determination, patriotism, and camaraderie—through a classical sculptural approach. It is realistic but somewhat stylized (the figures are not an exact representation of the photo). In capturing a dramatic moment of common servicemen in action, it is similar to one of the secondary sculptures of the Grant Memorial. The two memorials are quite different, though, in their overall impression. In the Marine Memorial, the common Marines, rather than their leaders, are the primary focus. The memorial was intended to honor all Marines who have served through the history of the Marine Corps.

Like the Grant Memorial, the central sculpture of the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial is surrounded by a large, open lawn. The site provides a forum for public gatherings and ceremonies. The scale projects power. Benches and historical plaques extend the visitor’s experience beyond the central sculpture.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial—Dedicated 1982

When proposed, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was a significant departure from the forms of previous war memorials. The primary feature is a V-shaped wall of black granite, inscribed with the names of Americans who died in the Vietnam War. There is no “general on a horse,” no angel holding a wounded soldier—in fact, no direct representation of people at all, just names. The wall is more architectural than sculptural. It is simple and direct.

The selection of the design was very controversial. People objected to the Minimalist, somber concept. Some also objected to the fact that the designer, Maya Lin, is of Asian descent. As a compromise, the committee also commissioned a more traditional bronze sculpture of three soldiers for placement on the site near the wall. That sculpture does not feel fully integrated with the wall, but it offers another point of connection for visitors. Despite the initial controversy, today the memorial is the most visited war memorial in our national capital.

The memorial does not speak of the principles of the war. It does not glorify war or its leaders. It acknowledges and honors each American life lost. The large black granite wall of names makes a powerful impression. The abstract design is conceptually open-ended. People can find what they need in it.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial invites visitors to interact with it. The walkway naturally draws people to walk the length of the wall, reading or at least sensing the multitude of names. The shelf below the names clearly encourages people to leave flowers, pictures, or letters. It is apparent from the items left that people appreciate that opportunity for direct, personal interaction. It functions somewhat like a grave marker, but if you go there to remember and grieve for a loved one, you know you are not alone in your loss.

The sloped sidewalk suggests the descent to the low point of the war, and the climb out from that point. At the same time, it suggests the journey through despair for those who lost a loved one. The black granite wall expresses mourning. One cannot see the long list of names of those lost in the war without asking if the war made sense. It is visual evidence of wasted potential. The ambiguous nature of this monument reflects the time in which the war was fought.

Paradoxically, this simple wall does not feel as cold and lifeless as the much more complex and representational Grant Memorial. The scale is large and the design is Minimal, but the experience is intimate.

Korean War Memorial—Dedicated 1995

The design of the Korean War Memorial utilizes the site in a contemporary and comprehensive way. It combines representational sculpture with landscape design. Most notably, a group of 19 stainless steel figures represents a squad on patrol. Landscaping elements suggest Korea’s rugged terrain. The squad is contained within a V-shaped area that intersects a circular area that contains a flag, a reflecting pool, benches, and low shade trees.

The dispersed array of soldiers draws the visitor into a moment in the daily life of a soldier in the Korean War. You can feel the strange combination of tedium, discomfort, and anxiety inherent to patrol duty. You can see that the soldiers are maintaining enough distance that a mortar, or sudden burst of machine gun fire, would be unlikely to take them all out at once. They are prepared to counter-attack. You know that the guys with antennas projecting from their packs are prime targets. By bringing visitors into the daily life of the common soldier, the memorial acknowledges and honors Korean War veterans without glorifying the war.

The plaza carries further messages, both through written text and through the design of the walkways and surrounding structures. A wall is etched with images from photos of Korean War veterans, emphasizing that these young men and women came from typical American families. Surrounding the flagpole are a “Pool of Remembrance” and benches inviting visitors to pause and reflect. A wall by the pool is etched with the statement, “Freedom Is Not Free.”

The Korean War Memorial is a particularly effective memorial. There is some visceral power to the soldiers moving through the undergrowth. It feels like a real moment, rather than an idealized, glorified vision. That captured moment is further enlivened by the adjacent images of individuals who served. The architectural momentum of the site draws visitors to a tranquil, sheltered sitting area. This comprehensive approach to site design offers the remembrance, honor, and consolation that families need and veterans deserve.

Air Force Memorial—Dedicated 2006

The Air Force Memorial is unique in its intention to be seen from a distance. Drivers on I-395 see the three simple arcs, of slightly different lengths, reaching skyward. It is an ambiguous, graceful, monumental abstract sculpture. The image is pleasing, but viewers may not recognize that it is also a powerful symbol. They may not see the forms as vapor trails of jets accelerating upward (symbolically, toward heaven). Those familiar with the performances of the Thunderbirds will recognize the “bomb-burst formation,” and they may be aware that three arcs, instead of four, allude to the “missing man formation.”

A visit to the memorial offers a very different experience than the distant view. The three immense arcs emerge from a plaza that includes a variety of elements to honor and remember Air Force veterans. At one end of the plaza, four bronze sculptures represent airmen carrying flags. At the other end are plaques and inscriptions commemorating various aspects of Air Force History. The plaza includes benches and shade trees. The view of Washington, DC, is pleasing and serves as a reminder that the Air Force serves the nation.

The contrast in scale between various parts of this memorial is notable. The upright forms are obviously intended to be seen from a distance. They make a powerful, simple, thematic statement. The plaza is almost like a different memorial from the arcs. The benches and trees within the plaza create a more intimate environment, but it does not quite have the comfort of the Korean War Memorial or the invitation for personal connection of the Vietnam Memorial. It feels more like an educational garden. Oddly, the most recent of these five monuments, for me, shares the cold, hard formality of the oldest (Grant). If I were directly connected to people in the Air Force, perhaps it would strike me differently.

So, returning to the opening question: What do we want from war memorials? We probably all share some basic expectations. We want war memorials to: honor the effort and sacrifice of those who have served; comfort those who have lost loved ones; and provide a site where people can remember and grieve as a community. Memorials can also serve other tangential purposes, including to: remind us of underlying principles and ideals; commemorate significant wartime events; celebrate the leadership or accomplishments of particular individuals; and remind us of the costs of war.

We want many different qualities, and some conflict with others. Those qualities can be expressed through contemporary or traditional approaches. In either case, the effectiveness depends on the depth of the design concept. One thing that we surely do not want is divisiveness.

Memorials honoring and emphasizing the common person who has served in the military fulfill a straightforward human need for acknowledgment. For me, memorials that romanticize war are troubling. Memorials that elevate national ideals can be inspiring, but also complicated, as in the case of the Civil War. Memorial designs that carefully consider the visitor’s experience and provide remembrance, comfort, and inspiration can become greater than the sum of their parts.

Since war memorials typically remain in place for decades or even centuries, it is important to note that their social and aesthetic functions change over time. While the impetus to create monuments is often rooted in a desire to honor veterans while they are still living, or to help in the healing process of those who have lost loved ones to a war, the monuments can only serve those functions for a limited period of time—about 100 years, at most. Once the people directly impacted by the war are gone, the purpose of a monument shifts from performing personal healing to more symbolic functions. Those functions may be educational or cultural, as with historical markers, or they may be patriotic, political, or ideological. Ideological functions range from benign to corrosive. The most well conceived memorials are built around enduring, inclusive concepts that will continue to be of value to the community.

Confederate Monuments

As I have reflected on the social and aesthetic functions of war memorials, the controversies surrounding Confederate monuments have remained in the back of my mind. Passions are strong on both sides of these debates. Most objections to Confederate monuments have revolved around the effort by Southern states to maintain the institution of slavery. There is disagreement as to whether or not that was the primary cause of the Civil War, but, undoubtedly, the issue of slavery was intertwined with the war, and, undoubtedly, slavery was an evil institution. A monument that suggests otherwise poses serious moral questions. A monument that honors and elevates the secession effort, which would have extended slavery, is bound to be offensive.

Still, assessing the meaning of a particular monument, and determining its fate, can get into murky territory. In the Civil War, Americans fought Americans; there was no foreign enemy. The attributions of motivations for the war have been simplified over the years, but an array of economic and political considerations propelled each side. Beliefs regarding slavery were more complex on both sides than we typically acknowledge. For some with deep family roots in the South, the removal of monuments may feel like an erasure of part of their personal history. Most Confederate monuments offer some combination of honoring the dead and resurrecting ideology. Weighing the balance can be difficult.

In reflecting on the Civil War, it is impossible to separate Confederate leaders from the ideology they espoused. They spoke and wrote at length about their motivations and intentions. It is not as hard to separate common soldiers from that ideology. Surely, many of them were committed to the cause, but it is safe to assume that many of them were simply dragged into the war by the sad, hungry undertow that drags most soldiers into most wars. Monuments remembering the common Civil War soldier, without glorifying ideology, fulfill the same functions as any other war memorials.

Memorials, at their best, have the power to heal; they also have the power to divide. When they aim to acknowledge and honor individual losses, they can help people to move forward. When they glorify the issues and principles that led to the conflict, they invite people to look backwards and re-litigate those issues. In the American Civil War, both sides suffered immense losses. For Civil War memorials to have acceptance, they need to serve the aspirations of the nation as a whole.

Historical monuments, markers, and other structures exist in the backgrounds of most people’s lives. We may pass by them daily without much notice. Unless we make an intentional effort to explore them, read plaques, and ponder their significance, we gather only a vague feeling of historical significance. Confederate monuments, however, are hard to ignore for many people. They can be an imposing reminder of an ideology intertwined with white supremacy. In fact, many of these monuments were intended to be imposing, as demonstrated by their proliferation during the Jim Crow era and the years of the Civil Rights movement. They have been used as a tool in an effort to maintain a set of values and a social hierarchy that historically put light-skinned people above dark-skinned people.

If we view Confederate monuments with similar considerations given to other war memorials, how do they stand up?

Jefferson Davis Memorial—Dedicated 1907

 In Richmond, Virginia, on Monument Avenue, the Jefferson Davis Memorial is a prominent example of a Confederate monument. The Jefferson Davis Memorial is composed of a large central column supporting a female figure, with a statue of Jefferson Davis at its base, surrounded by a classical colonnade supporting an entablature capped with sculptures of flags, shields, and armaments. Inscriptions and plaques are distributed throughout the monument. The interior space is closed off by an iron fence.

The first thing that struck me about the Davis Monument was the odd proportional relationship between the parts. The column is huge, making the sculpture of Davis seem diminutive. If the column stood alone, the proportions would seem fine. If the rest of the monument stood without the column, it would also work. This may just be an issue of personal taste, or reflect the aesthetics of the turn of the 20th century, but it may also be tied to the intent of the monument.

The overall feeling is somewhat solemn, cold, and imposing, like the Grant Memorial. The predominance of architectural elements over the sculptural elements suggests that the primary intent is to honor an institution, rather than a person. The tall central column and elevated inscriptions require visitors to look upward. The colonnade stirs feelings of authority and established power, like a government building (or, perhaps, the ruins of that authority). Architecturally, the memorial invites viewers into its interior, where there is a semi-circular bench, but an iron fence (which looks like an afterthought) divides the space and presents a fortress-like atmosphere.

At close range, visitors’ attention is drawn to the plaques and inscriptions scattered throughout the monument. Conceptually, the text encapsulates the primary intentions of the monument. It describes Davis as an honorable citizen who cared deeply about Constitutional principles and the rights of states. It suggests that he, like other secessionists, courageously took on the burden of defending his home, and “when their cause was lost, with dignity, he met defeat.” The monument includes several Latin phrases suggesting that, with time, the Confederate effort will be vindicated.

While the monument nominally represents Jefferson Davis, it is clearly a monument to the Confederacy as a whole. The monument dwarfs the depiction of Davis. If aliens abducted his bronze figure one night, it might be several days before anyone noticed. On the other hand, if that bronze sculpture were the totality of the monument, then one could say that the monument was devoted to Davis. The proportions suggest that the monument sponsors had some ambivalence about honoring him, and a great interest in celebrating the Confederacy. The figure at the top of the column is a woman, perhaps a personification of the efforts of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

The Jefferson Davis Monument is filled with mixed messages: it honors Davis (but really the Confederacy), proclaims the greatness of the cause (but laments its hopelessness), invites visitors in (but fences them out), mourns the defeat of the Confederacy (but predicts vindication). In a nutshell, it captures the passive-aggressive nature of many Confederate memorials. As I walked around the monument, it struck me as a thinly veiled threat. On the surface, it purports to honor Davis, but the scale and the text almost proclaim “the South shall rise again.” I could not argue against an effort to remove it.

An element of ideology may be present in any Confederate monument, but the nature of its representation varies widely. The Jefferson Davis Monument is extreme in its celebration and promotion of the Confederacy. Closer to the other end of the spectrum, a monument I saw in the Fredericksburg Confederate Cemetery represents a common soldier, with no direct reference to the cause. Its location, in a cemetery, clearly indicates its intention to honor and remember those who lost their lives in the war. Many monuments fall somewhere in between these two examples.

Reactions to Monument Avenue

Soon, Richmond will have a new sculpture in the Monument Avenue area. Kehinde Wiley has responded to the collection of Confederate monuments with Rumors of War. His sculpture mirrors the form of the nearby J.E.B. Stuart equestrian sculpture, except the rider is a young, contemporary African American man, rather than a Confederate general. Wiley appropriates that form to question and balance the power of the existing monuments. Like the Confederate monuments, Rumors of War is a projection of power; however, it does not imply dominance, as they do—it seems to be more about the power of resistance and resilience. The combination of a young, contemporary African American man on a horse in an urban environment is somewhat anachronistic, but also firmly rooted in this moment of African American youth activism. The sculpture uniquely captures this moment in American history, though I wonder how it will be perceived in 25 years. Understanding the sculpture is somewhat dependent on awareness of the artist’s other work. It is notable, in light of the “you will not replace us” chants heard in Charlottesville, that Wiley literally replaced a white man with an African American man. Ultimately, I wonder if this reaction to the existing monuments balances and disempowers them or reinforces and emphasizes them.

The Arthur Ashe monument on Monument Avenue can also be seen as a reaction to Richmond’s Confederate monuments, but if it projects power, it does so through its presence more than its subject. It elevates the capacity of African Americans to succeed and excel, despite a history of oppression and continuing obstacles. Its placement on Monument Avenue effectively equates an African American tennis player with Confederate generals, which shines a different light on their endeavors.

Moving Forward

Responding to controversial monuments with new monuments or artworks is one option for balancing their impact. Other options include contextualization, alteration, relocation, and destruction. Finding the right course of action begins with identifying problematic monuments. How do we, as a nation, or as local communities, decide which monuments or public artworks are acceptable and which are not? Do we give precedence to historical status quo? Do we respond to protests? Do we respond to demonstrations of support? Is there a threshold of dissent that requires a monument or artwork to be removed?

We need to view these questions in a holistic manner to arrive at conclusions that can be applied fairly and consistently to a variety of works. In some cases, removing monuments is appropriate, but removal can have unintended consequences. If a relatively small number of vociferous protesters can cause a Confederate monument to be removed, that action may invite protests around Union monuments, Martin Luther King, Jr. memorials, or contemporary public art. We cannot expect 100 percent of the population to like any particular monument or artwork, but without significant public support, what is the point of placing (or keeping) it in a public space? As we discuss and evaluate any particular Confederate monument, several questions may guide us toward clarity about its place among us today.

Firstly, what is the commemorative focus of the monument? Memorials can be oriented toward the common soldier, an individual, a particular event, or principles. A monument’s focus and intent can be found in its style of presentation, text, symbolic objects, proportions, sculptural gestures, and more. Grant and Lee were not represented on horses to celebrate their love of horseback riding; prior to the 20th century, horses were equated with power. Beyond visual cues, the circumstances surrounding the creation and installation of a monument may also clarify its intentions.

What does the monument’s placement communicate? There is an interplay between site and monument that affects public perception of both. Changing the location of a monument would create a different experience. The placement of a monument can be an extension of the intent of that monument. Monuments in cemeteries are clearly focused on acknowledging loss. Confederate monuments in front of courthouses or other prominent public properties are projections of power, associating Confederate ideals with contemporary governance.

Finally, does it unite or divide? While subtleties of design and questions about intent can be debated endlessly, the ultimate measure of the appropriateness of a monument is its embrace, or lack thereof, by the surrounding community. A monument that offers comfort to some but disrespect to others does not serve the public well.

In many cases, the answers will be ambiguous. In some cases, a problematic monument can be balanced or contextualized through signage, or some other addition. Contextualizing Confederate monuments is an art form in itself. How much contextualization is enough? Does the effort to contextualize also serve to empower the original monument? How is the contextualization framed so that it is effective without becoming divisive in itself? Contextualization cannot work for all Confederate monuments. If a monument is irreconcilably divisive, removal may be the most appropriate option.

As a sculptor frequently working in public settings, I am very uncomfortable with the idea of tearing down someone else’s creative effort. Even as I view a monument that may convey a troublesome message, my eyes are drawn to well-formed curves and textured details (as when I visited the Lee memorial in Richmond). I notice if a figure’s posture feels natural, or awkwardly posed. I notice if the scale of the hands does not match the head. I appreciate sculptural compositions that deviate from expected clichés. I understand the effort and expense that goes into creative public works, but if a work is put forward in the wrong spirit, it will not withstand the test of time. Placing a monument in a public space does not give permanent ownership of the space to the monument, or any organization behind it. The public owns public space. I consider it a privilege when I have the opportunity to install or exhibit one of my sculptures in a public setting. I expect my own work to withstand the questions that I ask of Confederate monuments.

Harry McDaniel lives and works in Asheville, NC. He has been creating sculptures and placing them in public spaces since the mid-1980s.