Accidental Tourism and War Memorials
By Eric Chandler
I was running along the Bow River in Calgary. I stopped at a memorial next to the water. (I don’t need much convincing to rest.) It was six vertical stone slabs, engraved with the names of Calgary’s war dead from World War I through Afghanistan. Next to the slabs, there was a piece of steel that held the words “We Will Remember Them.” On the stone closest to the river, I read these words, engraved this way:
I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t immediately recognize these lines. I’ll blame oxygen debt. I got back to my hotel room and looked up the memorial and the inscription. The Calgary Soldiers’ Memorial was dedicated on April 9th, 2011, the anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. This fight was a notable victory accomplished by Canadian forces. The lines on the stone are from “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, which is arguably one of the best-known poems to come out of the Great War. I must’ve read the poem before, but I didn’t remember the words and I didn’t realize the author was a Canadian. It was special to me to learn all this after running by a river in Canada. But it highlighted to me that World War I is a big gap in my knowledge.
Travelling isn’t just part of my job. It is my job. I work for the airlines. Which is great, except for one thing: I miss my town on the shore of Lake Superior. Sleeping in my own bed every night after running or cross-country skiing on my local trails is not part of the deal. I fight homesickness by running during my layovers. Running (“jogging” is more accurate) is a great way to get to know a place. For an hour or two, I lope around strange towns and distract myself with accidental tourism. Sometimes, I have a specific destination in mind, but mostly, I stumble into surprises.
For four years now, people who pay attention have been marking the 100th year after events that happened during the Great War. Until very recently I had only a passing knowledge of that war. I was stationed at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, named after Lt. Frank Luke, Jr., the “Arizona Balloon Buster.” I know who Eddie Rickenbacker was. I think I saw a photo of my mom’s paternal grandfather wearing a uniform from that time frame. That just about covers it.
Maybe that’s why we have war memorials. It places a tangible object in our midst so that we can remember things that happened long ago and far away. To give some meaning to the loss and sacrifice. I travel from town to town and run by many memorials. When I’m in Washington, D.C., my company puts me up in the hotel where Reagan was shot. I run downhill from there toward the National Mall and swing past the World War II memorial to the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the 19 statues wearing ghostly ponchos, frozen in time. To the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where I slow to a respectful walk, per the directions of the sign. I walk down the gentle slope to the vertex of black stone, all the names somewhat underground. It’s pertinent to the Great War’s centennial that the site of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the former location of the Munitions Building built in 1918. It housed 9,000 War Department employees.
The impressive spire of the Liberty Memorial rises above the skyline of Kansas City. I ran from my layover hotel to see this site for the first time this fall, all the thoughts about memorials and the centennial of World War I in my mind. The Liberty Memorial was designated the National World War I Museum and Memorial by Congress in 2004. The first thing I ran into at the northern edge of the memorial was a plaque mentioning that the Liberty Memorial site was dedicated in November, 1921. It struck me that after the horrible sacrifice of a World War, this city decided to commemorate the war very soon afterward. Kansas City raised $2.5 million in under two weeks in 1919. That’s $34 million in today’s dollars. 200,000 people attended the dedication, including General Pershing and Marshall Foch, who were embroiled in the Great War just a few years earlier. It was a memorial to the war to end all wars. But running by so many memorials has taught me this: We haven’t ended war.
In 1926 when the Liberty Memorial was completely built, President Calvin Coolidge said this: “It [The Liberty Memorial] has not been raised to commemorate war and victory, but rather the results of war and victory which are embodied in peace and liberty…” When I ran up the imposing steps to the North Wall and the Great Frieze I read the words and looked at the images sculpted there. A veteran of the war added this work to the memorial in 1936. The words seem innocent and hopeful. The idea that an era of peace would prevail seems almost naïve, but the words do echo Coolidge’s sentiments: to memorialize the results of the war, not the war itself.
In Toronto, I run straight downhill toward Lake Ontario’s shore and take a right for my standard five-miler. I head west on the Waterfront Trail to Coronation Park. I leave the urban canyons and go past a dog park into a stand of mature maples along the water. A massive Canadian flag with its red maple leaf flaps in the breeze. Under the flag, the Victory Peace installation marks the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. Those six acres of maples? In Coronation Park, there is an oak tree that was planted on 12 May 1937 to commemorate the coronation of King George VI. Seven maple trees were planted around that oak that same day to represent the British Empire. More trees were planted to represent the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s four divisions in the Great War. They planted almost 150 maple trees that day with each tree representing a military unit in that war. At the base of each tree, a granite stone held a brass plate that named the unit the tree represented. Few of the plaques are left, but the trees are still there.
I used to think it was just a nice stand of maples.
In August 2018, I took my family to the Harvard campus. We visited a building called Memorial Hall. It’s an imposing structure with a layout much like a cathedral. In a portion of the building called the transept, there are massive stained glass windows and dark wood accents. Along the walls, the names of Harvard graduates who died in the Civil War are engraved in stone panels set into the walls.
One of them is my relative, Charles P. Chandler, a major in the 1st Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. He died on June 30, 1862 at the Battle of Glendale in Virginia. His letter promoting him to lieutenant colonel arrived that day. In a grim way, I think that’s funny. I visited a cemetery in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine just days later to visit the marker with his name on it. An obelisk engraved with his name. His body was never found after the battle. Two memorials in two states for one man who is missing. The impulse to commemorate is strong.
As I researched the meaning of the Latin written on the walls of Memorial Hall, I learned the history of the building. The desire to honor the war dead was so strong that a committee with eleven members was appointed to decide on a memorial in May 1865, just a month after Appomattox. It wasn’t cheap. The first stone was laid in 1870 and it was completed in 1878. It’s imposing inside and we found ourselves whispering as our footsteps echoed up to the towering ceiling. I think it’s stunning that such a massive enterprise would happen so quickly after such nationwide destruction.
My awareness of World War I has been slowly increasing over the last few years, coincident with the centennial of the war. I started to pay attention to where World War I is present in our daily life. I’m curious about the powerful desire to memorialize our wars. In September, some news brought all this together in my head. The Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) Memorial Foundation announced the start of a project to determine the shape and location of a memorial to our ongoing wars. Congress authorized this memorial in August of 2017. The foundation wants it on the National Mall. They want to break ground in 2022 and dedicate this memorial in 2024.
The U.S. Code says: “Commemorative works to a war or similar major military conflict may not be authorized until at least 10 years after the officially designated end of such war or conflict.” Congress waived that requirement when they approved the effort to commemorate the GWOT. In a similar vein, the foundation has established six themes for the design competition, one of which is “unfinished.” The prime movers behind this effort all acknowledge the ongoing war. There is no “officially designated end.”
I mentioned many of the war memorials I jogged past. I’ve run past Pershing in DC. In Kansas City, I passed a statue of “The Hiker,” which commemorates the American soldiers that fought in the Spanish-American War, the Boxer Rebellion, and the Philippine-American War. Every time I run toward the lift bridge on the Lakewalk in Duluth, I run past the Northland Vietnam Veterans Memorial and just yards later, I pass the Korean Veterans Memorial. In Canada, not all those maples were planted to commemorate World War I. Some were planted to commemorate the Fenian Raids of 1866, the 1885 Northwest Rebellion, and the Boer War. I’ve run past dozens of war memorials I knew about. If you include the ones I’ve learned about later, it probably numbers in the hundreds.
All these memorials have one thing in common. They were built after the fighting was over.
In an Aug 24, 2017 piece in Military Times about the proposed GWOT Memorial:
Supporters have argued that because the ongoing “war on terror” is open-ended, it could take decades before an official end is declared. By then, they worry, a generation of warfighters may have already died without seeing a tribute to their service.
I can only speak for myself, but the thing I worry about is people dying at the war. When I was leading people in combat, it was my greatest concern. Not that we were paid tribute. I want us to meet our stated wartime objectives. I think all of our energy should be spent on that. Then we can worry about bringing our people home.
I continued running in Kansas City that day and naturally gravitated to the base of the 217-foot tower of the National World War I Memorial. Four Guardian Spirits are carved into the top: Honor, Courage, Patriotism, and Sacrifice. But it was two other sculptures that flank the base of the tower that drew my attention. They are confusing and striking. I could tell they were some hybrid, mythical animal with wings. The wings encircled the face of the animals. I took several pictures of those two sculptures. Then, like I do, I went back to my room and tried to figure out what they were.
They’re Assyrian sphinxes. They’re made of limestone and weigh 615 tons each. According to Harold Van Buren Magonigle, the architect of the Liberty Memorial:
"Memory" located on the southwest side of the court hides its head to forget the pain and suffering of war. The figure faces east toward Flanders Field, the seat of war. On the southeast side, "Future" covers its head to attest to the skepticism of things to come and faces west where "the course of Empire takes its way."
The names resonated with me. But I wanted to know more about the statues. An Assyrian sphinx has the body of a bull or a lion and the wings of a bird. But here’s the thing: it has a human head.
I looked at my picture of the afternoon sun over “Future” as I looked toward “Memory” in the west. The wings cover human faces that won’t look back and are unwilling to look forward. I think the sphinxes from the Great War will do fine as a tribute until the current wars reach an officially designated end.
Eric Chandler is a husband, father, and pilot who cross-country skis as fast as he can in Duluth, Minnesota. His book of poetry Hugging This Rock (Middle West Press, 2017) was released in November 2017. He is the author of two other books: a collection of outdoor essays called Outside Duluth and a novella titled Down In It. His writing has appeared in Northern Wilds, Grey Sparrow Journal, The Talking Stick, Flying Magazine, Sleet Magazine, The Thunderbird Review, O-Dark-Thirty, Line of Advance, and Aqueous Magazine, to name a few. He’s a member of Lake Superior Writers, an Active Member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, and a Member of the Military Writers Guild.
He’s also a veteran of both the US Air Force and the Minnesota Air National Guard. He flew 145 combat missions and over 3000 hours in the F-16. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He enjoys cross-country ski racing and marathon running. He lives with his wife and two children in Duluth, Minnesota.
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My blog: https://ericchandler.wordpress.com/