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Why Have We Stopped Building War Memorials?


We're going to consider now how we remember those who have given their lives while serving their country on days other than Memorial Day - what we see or don't see in our cities, in terms of stone or bronze - tangible memorials to our fallen. Kurt Piehler is the director of the Institute on World War II and associate professor at Florida State University. He wrote about this today in The Daily Beast. Welcome to the program.

KURT PIEHLER: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: You write that the American approach to memorializing its war dead is shaped by the Revolutionary War. So, what was the thinking of our founding fathers at that time?

PIEHLER: It's interesting. The founding fathers were actually very skeptical about war memorials. The issue really came to a head, initially, when George Washington passed away, and there was a big debate in Congress whether they should build a monument to George Washington, and Jeffersonian Republicans opposed it. They thought that monuments to George Washington - they also thought that organizations like the Society of Cincinnati, which was the first - nation's first veterans organization, smacked too much of aristocratic Rome and aristocratic Europe. And so they ended up not building a monument to George Washington after he died, and it wouldn't be until the 1830s do we have serious effort to start commemorating the American Revolution.

CORNISH: And obviously, there was a broader change in that thinking - right? - because the Civil War is very much marked in monuments and hallowed battlegrounds across the country.

PIEHLER: Yeah. The Civil War is striking because, whereas until the 1860s, there are very few war memorials, and many of them that are undertaken are not finished, after the Civil War, there's a desire to build war memorials, and it's really - a good driving force for that movement is reconciliation.

CORNISH: So how did this play out, say, in the 20th century? Did it make much of a difference if a war was considered historically controversial?

PIEHLER: Generally, the more controversial the war is, particularly over time and the aftermath of the war, the more memorials are built. So the Civil War is by far the war that has the most memorials. There are just tens of thousands of memorials. In fact, if you go to Gettysburg or Antietam, there are hundreds of memorials just in one battlefield. World War I takes the spot for the second-most-monumented war, and I would argue it's probably the - one of the most controversial wars in American history. It's, to me, definitely the most controversial war of the 20th century.

CORNISH: And yet, World War II - we see a marked difference there. I know that this is your area of expertise. What happens with World War II?

PIEHLER: World War II is interesting. I remember being so struck when I was first studying the topic back in the 1990s, and all of a sudden I realized, where are the World War II memorials? And I realized - this was in the 1990s - that there aren't very many memorials because the veterans, in a sense, didn't want them initially. If they thought of memorials at all, they wanted the things like highways. They wanted parks. They wanted community homes. Only when the generation was starting to age did they start thinking, maybe we should leave some memorials behind. But I also think it was their children that are also equally the driving force to build memorials, but that's only - the drive to World War II memorials only comes sort of around the 50th anniversary.

CORNISH: Going forward, what are you seeing when it comes to Afghanistan, Iraq? What kind of memorials have developed out of these wars?

PIEHLER: One of the things that prompted me to sort of write this article for The Daily Beast is I've been wondering when we are going to really start thinking about commemorating the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. And I think two thoughts prompted me, as I remember that rush to memorialize 9/11, and I think that was very much to mourn the dead and had a real cathartic element to it. And I've been surprised at how - I think the failure to even discuss memorialization in a serious way is how these two wars have increasingly, for most Americans, just sort of disappeared for them in terms of consciousness and memory. But I also think there's a number of deeper issues going on here. One of them is, you know, are these wars really over? Will they ever have an end? And I think the other issue is we're fighting with very much a professional army, so I think there's less of a sort of public desire to kind of remember these wars 'cause we have fewer connections with those who fight in the war.

CORNISH: That's Kurt Piehler. He's the director of the Institute on World War II and the Human Experience. His article, "Why Don't we Build Statues For Our War Heroes Anymore?," appeared originally in The Daily Beast. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

PIEHLER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.