Does City Need Another War Memorial?
It’s being offered for free to the county. But will it junk up the lakefront?
Last week there was a rather odd meeting of the Milwaukee County parks committee, to discuss a proposed addition to the lakefront over which the committee has no power. The county was being offered a free memorial to the families who lost loved ones in past American wars by the Woody Williams Foundation based in Louisville, Kentucky.
Under a state law passed when Chris Abele was county executive, the county board no longer has any say over what happens to non-park land owned by the county and this proposed memorial would be on lakefront land co-owned by the county, Milwaukee Art Museum and the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center. This means it’s up to the two organizations and County Executive David Crowley whether to accept the memorial.
So why were board members being consulted? Because there is likely to be public interest in the project,
Comments by readers referred to the proposed memorial as “bizarre,” a “mere tchotchke” and a “cookie cutter monument.”
An image of the black granite, two-side memorial is displayed at the foundation’s website. One side of the monument bears the words: “a tribute to Gold Star Families and Relatives who sacrificed a Loved One for our Freedom,” and on the other there are scenes of “Homeland” (image of Mount Rushmore), “Family” (outline of a five-member family), “Patriot” (soldiers raising the flag on Iwo Jima) and “Sacrifice” (veterans’ graveyard). Compared to Maya Lin’s remarkable Vietnam War Memorial, a work of art which has left many in tears, this Gold Star memorial feels more like an advertising placard, a forgettable slice of kitsch.
Yet 179 identical memorials have been installed or are in progress (including Milwaukee, the first proposed in Wisconsin) in all 50 states, the foundation says. On a per capita basis no state has installed more of these than relatively tiny (1.8 million population) West Virginia, with nine memorials installed in the cities of Charleston, Wheeling, Fairmount, Institute, Parkersburg, Vienna, Mercer City-Princeton and Marshall County-Moundsville, and three more planned in Martinsburg, Williamson and Wyoming City.
“As World War II began, Woody came into direct contact with families in his own community when he delivered Western Union telegrams informing the Gold Star families of the death of their loved one,” the foundation he created notes. He became convinced that “consideration and recognition of the families of those lost in military service was very inadequate.”
The foundation has a $1.6 million budget and is very transparent about its finances, listing its last three annual tax forms, something many nonprofits don’t do. Most of the budget goes to pay for those identical memorials.
Are they having any impact? Has the installation of 12 memorials in Ohio and nine in Texas made citizens of those states more concerned about families who’ve lost loved ones in war?
War memorials are a tricky thing. To me, Maya Lin’s more abstract Vietnam memorial is far more powerful than the flatly representational Korean War memorial at the National Mall, with its 19 statues of soldiers.
Far less successful is the city’s 1991 Vietnam War Memorial, located to the north of the War Memorial Center, and featuring three Wausau Red Granite columns standing 22, 26 and 30 feet high and representing those killed in action, prisoners of war/missing in action, and those returned home. The memorial also has five granite benches to symbolize the five branches of the military and 11 to represent each year of the Vietnam War
Do we really need yet another war memorial in this area, much less a cookie cutter of 178 others installed or in planning in this country? “Can’t we do better than a McMemorial?” wrote one Urban Milwaukee reader. “Something unique and dedicated specifically to the Gold Star Families of Milwaukee or Wisconsin?”
The project is one that Crowley inherited. The foundation has been working with parks staff on this project since 2016, as Graham Kilmer reported. Does Crowley support it? His communications director Brandon Weathersby told Urban Milwaukee that a few questions were raised about the project at the parks committee and “the County Executive wants to ensure those questions are answered prior to making a decision.”
It’s a pretty tough issue for any elected official. How do you turn down this memorial when it’s free and when it’s all about patriotism? That might help explain why identical memorials are popping up all over America, and why we’re soon likely to see one erected on Milwaukee’s lakefront.
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