A Paper of Monumental Importance
Prompt: If an English-speaking person from Mars visited the monuments in Washington, D.C., what would he think of our country?
An English-speaking person from Mars who visited Washington, D. C. to see the monuments would get an intriguing view of America. He would hear nothing about capitalism, democracy, great technological advancements, or the frontier. He would not know that America had a western European cultural base. He would not know that America has a long history of impressive military victories. Nevertheless, he would get a positive, if occasionally confused, picture of the country and its values. He would believe that America was founded on the ideas of enduring greatness, unity within diversity, the value of the individual, freedom, altruism, and reluctance to war.
After seeing the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and the World War II Memorial, the alien would note that America wants to be remembered forever for its power. The Washington Monument, an obelisk which towers several hundred feet in the air and which is visible from anywhere in the Mall, is simple, yet stunning. It is an expression of power which is instantly recognizable and not easily forgotten. It needs no excuse for being; it simply is. The enormous replication of President Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial makes him the largest person in all of Washington. The alien would note that Lincoln is neither well-fed nor beautiful; he is a slim, stern man who must have been the most important president in American history. The World War II memorial is sprawling, round, and symmetrical. It would give the alien a sense of peace. He would note that because this memorial is so large, this war must have been pivotal in world history.
We do not know if the alien is coming from a homogeneous or a heterogeneous society. Regardless, he would note from the Lincoln, World War II, Vietnam Women’s, and Korean memorials that this society values both unity and diversity. The Lincoln, Vietnam Women’s, and Korean memorials all feature people of many different races and of both genders. This would show that American citizenship goes beyond race or sex, and that society values all kinds of people equally. The Lincoln and World War II memorials would also emphasize diversity in a different way: they both have engravings around the memorials celebrating different states. In the World War II memorial, even the territories of the United States are honored for their contributions. The alien would realize that America is a federalized nation, a combination of many different land masses under one flag. He would think of America as a place where many diverse people can work together to make the nation better.
Indeed, the United States does not just honor separate races and groups; it honors individuals. The Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Roosevelt memorials are all built to honor great individual leaders. The alien would note that dynamic individuals can become greatly honored in America. He would get a much different, yet equally poignant reminder of the value of the individual from the Vietnam Women’s and the Vietnam memorials. In the Women’s memorial, three female aid workers crouch around a dying man, and all four people have looks of horror on their face. The alien infers that in America, the death of even one person is at tragic event. Even more powerful is the Vietnam memorial. This one features the name of every soldier who died or went missing in action during the war. The names start as a trickle; the alien sees the individuals and thinks of each one of them, of the lives they led and the families they had. As he walks down the corridor, the memorial and the list of names widen and widen and widen into a massive burst of emotion swallowing everything else. The alien looks backs back at the beginning of the memorial, seeing ten to twelve names on a tablet, and then turns to where he is now standing and sees hundreds and hundreds of people at a time, each one with intrinsic value, each one’s death as tragic as the one portrayed at the Vietnam Women’s memorial. He realizes the massive destructive power of war and the way it alters the lives of an entire people, one by one. He realizes that in this nation, when one person dies, the bell tolls for us all.
Freedom is an essential part of the American story, as well, and the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials show the alien their value to Americans. The Jefferson memorial honors a man who said that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Lincoln memorial tells the story of freedom in the text of Lincoln’s famous speeches, the Gettysburg and Second Inaugural Addresses. The alien learns from Lincoln’s words that the American people will fight for freedom as long as is necessary, and they would rather die than live as slaves. The alien would see that these people’s religion does not enslave them; it sets them free and exhorts them to fight for others’ freedom.
Those others and their importance is what the alien would discern from the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. The moment he steps in this memorial, he realizes it is much different from all the others. In this memorial, the people in the sculptures are smaller, not larger, than the average human being. The alien gets a sense of the poor and downtrodden people of the land as represented by their protector, the tiny, crippled Franklin Roosevelt. As he walks through this memorial, he hears Roosevelt exhorting the people to give and to care about each other. He sees the old, poor farmers who have equal stature with the president. He notes the many governmental programs Roosevelt established to help the poor. He sees Roosevelt’s homely wife, and at the end of the long, long walk through this memorial, he sees Roosevelt again, close to death, a tiny dog at his side. The presence of the dog makes Roosevelt even more frail and human. The alien reads Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” and notes the man’s constant devotion to freeing his people from want and from ignorance. This is a monument to altruism and compassion. He remembers the epitaph of the Korean War: it was a war which Americans fought in a country they’d never seen for people they didn’t know. He remembers Lincoln’s exhortation to Americans to forgive the South but to fight tirelessly for the freedom of the slaves. He notes that altruism is more important and more integral to the American experience than he had previously thought.
What might interest the alien most about American monuments are their many, not necessarily positive messages about war. Clearly, the society thinks that war is important; there are four war monuments: World War II, Korea, and two for Vietnam, and Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt were all wartime leaders. Yet, besides Washington’s enduring power, the monuments provide a neutral or negative perspective of war. There are no images of victorious soldiers, mounted horsemen, or glorious commanders. Instead, there is a leader who says that the people have a solemn duty to fight for freedom and a leader who screams that he hates war. The World War II monument is large and enduring but is a memorial, not a celebration, of battle. The Vietnam memorial emphasizes the enormous human costs of war. The Vietnam Women’s memorial shows that the death of even one soldier is a tragedy. The Korean War Memorial goes beyond even this: it depicts a retreat. The soldiers are hardened, frightened, and frightening. They seem unreal, and if the alien views the memorial at night, he sees that the environment from which they are running is hellish and intimidating. From viewing these monuments, the alien would never know of the military excellence of the U. S. He would predict that this nation hates war and does not want to see another one.
Greatness, unity within diversity, the value of the individual, freedom, altruism, reluctance for war: these are the values which the alien would discern from his visit to Washington. He would see that the country is as colorful and complex as it looked from the telescope in his Martian home. He would see an America whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It values the individuals and groups which live in it, and it continually strives to make life better for them. It seeks to take its freedom around the world so that everyone might have it. The nation hates war, but if there is a battle to fight, America will fight it. By doing what is right, this nation hopes to live forever. This is a holistic, powerful, and sobering vision. The alien hopes that the nation is true to these ideals, and that it always will be. So do I.