The Corner

On that Vietnam Women’s Memorial Photo . . .

Another photo — this one not of a dress — has the Internet abuzz. On Tuesday, Matthew Munson, an Ohio tourist visiting the nation’s capital, posted to his Facebook page a photograph he snapped, showing two young girls scrambling atop the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, a small work of bronze not far from Maya Lin’s famous gabbro memorial on the National Mall. The girls were using the memorial as a jungle gym, says Munson, until their parents arrived — and told the pair “to get on for pictures.” Users on Reddit, Twitter, and other sites are debating: A show of disrespect? Or just kids being kids, and parents letting them?

I find myself on the finger-wagging side of this debate, but perhaps for reasons different than have yet been articulated.

There are memorials on the battlefields at Gettysburg, but they are, from a certain perspective, unnecessary. The whole place is a memorial. Much like the Somme. The Somme doesn’t need any statuary.

And those who have been to them know that places scarred by war have a singular gravity. By nature, it seems, human beings honor their dead, and they have always honored specially those who give their lives in battle. You don’t frolic in a graveyard, so you certainly don’t frolic in Flanders fields.

But that attitude of reverence and solemnity is born of immediacy. Actually stand at the Angle and look out at the wide, clear expanse over which Pickett’s men were expected to charge, and you cannot help but go quiet.

I reckon that war memorials are (often, if not always) attempts to create that same sense of immediacy. That is certainly true of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, with its depiction of a dying soldier in the lap of a nurse. It aims to capture a moment of the past and make it present — as present as the ghosts one would feel actually standing in the Ia Drang Valley. And if a war memorial is not just a reminder, something to jog one’s memory — “Oh, yeah, that happened, didn’t it?” — but the past made in some way present, then we are obliged to approach it as we would approach the moment and the men and women it re-presents.

And who would be surprised if those men and women responded by hoisting those girls onto their shoulders in delight?​

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