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Hard to Find, Hard to Forget

The newest memorials in Washington share a simple message of bravery and courage.


The newest monuments in Washington, D.C., are a little tricky to find, and that seems appropriate. One is a memorial to the soldiers who fought in the Korean War, a war that is still without resolution. The other is to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but its lasting effect is to remind you of the hardships faced, and the victories won, by the average American of his day.

The FDR Memorial, which opened in 1997, is far and away the biggest in town — dozens of acres spread along a strip between the Potomac River and the Tidal Basin, just across the water from the Jefferson Memorial. From a distance it is virtually invisible because it’s cut into the hillside along the water’s edge.

The memorial is broken up into four different areas, one for each term of office. The first thing you see in the first-term area is something you see throughout the memorial: the words of FDR. “This generation has a rendezvous with destiny.” “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” “Among American citizens, there should be no forgotten men and no forgotten races.”

There are also waterfalls in each area — a simple one in the first, meant to symbolize the simplicity of FDR’s message during his initial term. From here you also have a view of another marker to a great man, the Washington Monument.

In the second-term area you come face-to-face with the people of the America in the mid-1930s, and it’s not a pretty picture. I was born in 1966, so to me the Depression is something only in the history books. But looking at the statues Appalachian Couple and The Breadline, I was struck by the stooped shoulders, the frail limbs, the bowed heads. I couldn’t imagine an America where one-third of the population were out of work or without homes or proper food, but my father looked at Appalachian Couple and said, “That’s exactly what my grandparents looked like.”

Next up, of course, is the war — and Roosevelt’s famous “I hate war” speech sculpted next to a waterfall that’s in pieces, as if hit by a bomb. It’s in this area that you finally come across FDR himself, in a statue that set off its own mini-war of controversy. Roosevelt is seated but his cloak nearly covers the chair he’s sitting in — and it’s not a wheelchair. This did not thrill the disabled among us. Also, FDR is posed not with his wife but with his dog, Fala. The designer of the monument said this was done to portray FDR’s youthful enthusiasm. Eleanor is by herself in another area — by herself to acknowledge her unique contributions, including her role as our first ambassador to the United Nations.

“United Nations” is a phrase that stuck with me at the Korean War Veterans Memorial. I have to admit that in my ignorance (I never studied much in school) I didn’t realize anybody other than Americans and Koreans fought to defend South Korea. In fact, men and women from 22 countries fought and died over there.

The memorial is in many ways the most touching of all those that D.C. has to offer. The Vietnam War Memorial, just a short distance away and also in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, is more personal because it’s more recent and because it’s a list of all the Americans who died in an ultimately pointless war. Also, there are always people there looking for and finding the names of lost family and friends, or guides answering questions about POW/MIAs.

But the Korean Memorial, which opened in 1995, is a simple yet in-your-face reminder that, as General Ulysses S. Grant said, “War is hell.” There are 19 stainless-steel statues of soldiers out on patrol, all moving forward. They represent the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, and they are of several different ethnicities. They walk on juniper bushes, to represent the rough Korean terrain, and their ponchos are whipping in the wind.

Each of these soldiers is slightly larger than life-sized, and each of them has the same look on his face: determination in spite of absolute misery. They look scared, too. I looked at them and was extremely thankful I don’t have to go off to war. I also remembered the words of a John Prine song: “We lost Davey in the Korean War/And I still don’t know what for/Don’t matter anymore.”

Or maybe it does. There’s a big slab of granite, out ahead of the soldiers as if it’s what they’re marching toward. It has a simple message on it: “Freedom is not free.”