There Are Too Many War Memorials and Not Enough Money to Keep Them Going

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty

Memorial Day gives us a lot to reflect on: the thousands of Americans killed in useless wars, the hundreds of thousands of people those service members themselves killed, and the enormous amounts of money thrown away on fighter jets that don’t work while veterans are left mentally and physically disabled and without decent healthcare. It’s great stuff!

But there’s one part of the formidable American military-industrial complex that you may not have considered, and that’s the increasing prevalence of war memorials in Washington, D.C., those memorials’ scramble to secure funding, and the pushback from the city and Congress to ensure they don’t take over the entire capital.

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“We have had a significant number of new memorials built over the last quarter of a century while at the same time Congress allocates less and less for their upkeep,” Beth Meyer, a landscape architecture professor at the University of Virginia, told the New York Times.

Meyer and others believe that the focus on war memorials in D.C. is a bit overkill.

“Every single thing that has been added since the Vietnam memorial is funereal,” she told the Times.

The concern over the war-memorialization of D.C. has even prompted legislation.

From the Times:

That concern caused the memorial train to slow for a while, Mr. Savage said, until the Vietnam memorial, which began in 1982, kicked off another wave that led to efforts to remember the Korean and Second World Wars.

In response, Congress passed the Commemorative Works Act in 1986, intended to curb projects on and around the National Mall. Memorials once approved by Congress must now go through an arduous 24-step process, overseen by an advisory commission in concert with the National Park Service. Groups have seven years to complete their projects and often need to seek an extension to raise money. Since 1986, 37 works have been approved, 19 have been completed and 12 are in progress.

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The projects in progress include memorials for black and Native American veterans, gulf war veterans, and military mothers.

The Times reporting focuses on the struggle to secure funding for a memorial dedicated to female veterans. The idea was conceived by Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught, who was the first woman to deploy with an Air Force bomber unit.

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“She was so determined to get this done,” Maj. Gen. Dee Ann McWilliams, the president of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, told the Times. “She put up a good deal of her own funds to see that it was completed. She even auctioned off a million-dollar house and had then-Wonder Woman Lynda Carter come and draw the winning ticket. This is truly the house that Wilma built.”

“The women’s memorial is one of whole numbers of memorial projects that were part of the late 20th-century boom,” Kirk Savage, chairman of the history of art and architecture department at the University of Pittsburgh, told the Times. “But it would be hard for me not to think that it was a response to the proliferation of war memorials to men.”

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“Women and people of color are disproportionately not represented in the monument landscape in Washington,” Savage added. “If you don’t see yourself there as a legitimate part of this country, that’s a problem, and that’s what makes the women’s monument stand out.”

The memorial—which was converted from what was supposed to be a grand entrance to Arlington National Cemetery that was abandoned in the 1930s—opened in 1997. But it has struggled to stay afloat, with waning donations from female veterans.

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“Partly there has been this stigma around women in the military,” McWilliams told the Times. “Most women don’t walk into a bar and say, ‘Hey, I am just back from the war,’ the way a man might.”

“We want to positively preserve the memories of women who served this country. It’s a part of our history that had been ignored,” she added.

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