The Winners Build the Monuments

An editorial piece in today’s Daily News, decrying the slow progress on the World Trade Center memorial, cited the remarks of former New York City Mayor Giuliani on leaving office in 2001, shortly after the events of 11 September:

You know, long after we’re all gone, it’s the sacrifice of our patriots and their heroism that is going to be what this place is remembered for. It could be a place that is remembered 100 and 1,000 years from now, like the great battlefields of Europe and of the United States. And we really have to be able to do with it what they did with Normandy or Valley Forge or Bunker Hill or Gettysburg. We have to be able to create something here that enshrines this forever and that allows people to build on it and grow from it.

At the time, nobody called him on it: we were still overwrought with what had happened, and Mayor Giuliani had done a wonderful job in keeping the city together after 11 September.  But now that we have some distance from the event, we might consider:

  • Normandy:  The Allies landed in Normandy as a first step to retaking France and western Europe from the Nazis.  They secured a beachhead and advanced from there to end the war in Europe in less than a year.
  • Valley Forge:  It wasn’t really a ‘battlefield;’ it was where the Continental Army encamped for the winter of 1777-1778, during which they became stronger and ultimately succeeded in driving the British out of what is now the United States.
  • Bunker Hill:  The Continental Army actually lost the battle of Bunker Hill, an effort to secure the Hill as an artillery site.  But the British took heavy losses, and ultimately lost the war.
  • Gettysburg: We remember Gettysburg for President Lincoln’s famous speech (‘Four score and seven years ago…’).  But Lincoln would not have given the speech there if the Union forces had lost the battle of Gettysburg, and we would not remember it if the Union had lost the Civil War.

The winners write the history books, and the winners build the monuments.  When there is a monument to defeat, even when built by the winners afterward, it tends to be small, understated, conciliatory.  (There is, for example, a monument at Dunkirk, not far from Normandy, where the British and French were driven out by the Nazis some years before.)

In other words, there seems something profoundly wrong with building a big elaborate monument to getting one’s own ass whupped.  On the other hand, this won’t be the first time: witness the Oklahoma City National Memorial.

Have pain and suffering become the psychic coin of the realm, as triumph and exultation were in the not-so-distant past?

And what does that mean for the future?

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