At sunrise, on every Memorial Day for the past 20 years, Wes Anderson is alone in Spokane’s Riverfront Park, scrubbing clean the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
“I get there at 5 a.m.,” said Anderson, post chaplain of the Spokane chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “Just by myself and nobody else.”
The bronze statue of a forlorn looking soldier, a letter in his hand, is tucked away on a wooded rise in the park. The monument, dedicated in 1985, is etched with the names of those who served in the war and hailed from the Inland Northwest.
Anderson was in Vietnam as a Marine from 1966 to 1968, and the memorial represents the recognition and respect that he said was absent when he came home from war – a sentiment shared by many veterans of that war.
“We’re a tightknit group. We support each other because when we came back we had no support,” he said. “When I pass on, all that’s going to be left of me is a stone plaque out at the veterans cemetery. And that’s it. But that monument is for everyone that served.”
Memorial Day is a day to remember the people who died while serving in the military. Monuments like the one in Riverfront Park are just one way to remember the dead, and Spokane, like much of the rest of the country, has many such memorials.
As it’s said, those who died while serving made the ultimate sacrifice. But not all wars are remembered equally, with some notably lacking in monumental form. Where is our plaque for the Korean War? And where do we go to reflect on World War II?
G. Kurt Piehler, a historian at Florida State University and director of the Institute on World War II and the Human Experience, has studied war monuments in America. The more controversial the war is, he said, the more memorials are built for it. It’s a way for society to figure out what the war meant, or for competing sides to define how they want the war to be written in history.
“People are literally working those things out in stone,” he said.
Piehler points to the nation’s most controversial wars, conflicts that divided the nation such as Vietnam, the Civil War and World War I, as the “most monumented.”
Even in Spokane, the Civil War is well memorialized, despite the fact that it took place on the other side of the continent a decade before “Spokan Falls” was recognized as a settlement in the Washington territory.
Besides the Lincoln Statue portraying the president in his role as commander in chief of the Union Army, there’s a marble memorial outside the downtown post office dedicated “to the memory of our fathers Grand Army of the Republic” and to the “daughters of Union veterans of the Civil War.”
World War I gave the nation Memorial Day through its own day to remember its dead, Armistice Day, which marked the truce that ended the war on Nov. 11, 1918.
Though it’s not as well known as the national split caused by the Civil War, the First World War too tore at America. When war was declared in Europe in 1914, America adopted a policy of neutrality and isolation. As reports of chemical weapons and trench warfare made headlines, many here felt the lack of involvement was wise. President Woodrow Wilson was re-elected in 1916, and many voters believed he would maintain his stance of keeping the U.S. out of Europe.
That changed when the Germans used U-boats against the British oceanliner Lusitania, killing 128 Americans. Wilson, and public opinion, began turning against a pacifist stance. Still, Henry Ford, the industrialist, and leaders of the women’s movement wanted the nation to stay out of the war.
Wilson didn’t, and Congress declared war on Germany in 1917. The next year, war was over, but it did not “end all wars” as many hoped. The memory of the century-old conflict is dotted around Spokane.
The Marne Bridge over Latah Creek near People’s Park was dedicated on Armistice Day 1920 “to the men of Spokane who died in the Great War.”
There’s a small plaque on the summit of Mount Spokane, dedicated in 1925, that reads: “Lest we forget the World War veterans.”
The story’s not the same for the Korean War, which ended in a truce that still defines international politics. The war was waged with a lot of support but ended with a fizzle, a truce, and the Cold War simply gained momentum.
“It was a truce. It was an armistice. There wasn’t a sense of victory. The Cold War wasn’t over,” said Piehler, the historian. “At the time, there was a discussion whether to even put ‘war’ on the soldiers’ tombstones. They originally wanted to just put ‘Korea.’ That may give you sense why there aren’t many Korea memorials.”
As a World War II scholar, Piehler said he’s glad to see that war waged by the “greatest generation” is still being remembered, and lauded, in popular culture. As many know, the war wasn’t without its opponents, but most people view it as a just war that ended the Holocaust and stopped the Nazis.
It’s this shared understanding of World War II being justified that leaves it largely without monuments not just in Spokane, but across the country, said Piehler.
“If there’s consensus on why the war was fought, you’re not going to see a lot of memorials,” Piehler said.
World War II did give us “living memorials,” Piehler said. Instead of statues and monuments, the fallen soldiers of World War II are remembered by the names of hospitals, roads and bridges.
Though it was built decades later, the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena is a prime example of a living memorial.
As Piehler acknowledges, his attempts to make sense of why memorials are built, and when, will be tested as the nation grapples with how to remember those who served in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Iraq War, especially, led to upheaval across the nation, but not many memorials have been erected to work out the war “in stone,” as Piehler put it. He predicted we would not see monuments for these wars anytime soon.
But there is one in Spokane. In 2015, the Illumaniting Courage memorial at the Spokane Arena was dedicated to those killed in wars since 9/11.
He said the recent wars are largely ignored in other places because they were fought “by a professional army.”
“Professional soldiers are viewed very differently than citizen soldiers, which I find distressing,” he said, noting that conscription of American soldiers ended in 1973. “The professional soldier has largely been forgotten.”
A remedy for such forgetfulness is Memorial Day, said Piehler.
“I think Memorial Day is a great time to reflect on the significance we have as citizens to understand military affairs and defense affairs. We control the military,” he said. “Our actions, and those of the people we elect, get people killed. It’s a tragedy when people die for no good reason.”
Anderson, the Vietnam vet, agreed about reflecting on and remembering the fallen soldier. He said he goes to clean that statue as a way “to honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our nation.”
“These young men and women gave their lives to defend our nation. We should never forget who they are and what they did,” he said. “We also have to give credit to their families. They gave as much as the servicemen did.”