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David A. Smith: It's monumental work to honor our war heroes

By David A. Smith
May 26, 2013

We as a culture are uncertain these days about how we want to memorialize our heroes.

The design of our monuments and the consequent reactions they inspire veer between coolly detached on the one hand and monumental on the other. Since the unveiling of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982, a detached style intended to encourage contemplation has largely reigned. Meanwhile, we’ve also grown less comfortable with the artistic language of triumphalism. (Witness the recent controversy over the MLK Memorial, whose critics said made King seem arrogant or look downright Pharaonic.) The more modest style has also been influenced by current trends in art, trends that tend to abstract heroism out of the act of commemoration.

The fight over the proposed Eisenhower Memorial in Washington shows how this impulse can run up against the historical task a memorial is meant to accomplish. To the dismay of some people, architect Frank Gehry’s design for the memorial purposefully played down Ike’s role in World War II and his subsequent presidency, instead highlighting his humble beginnings in Middle America. But as the artistic act of memorializing a person becomes more egalitarian than heroic, the person we ostensibly seek to remember gets reduced to anonymity. So minimalized in this case were Ike’s wartime experiences and his presidency that his grandchildren felt compelled to speak out against Gehry’s design. Now the whole project is on hold, if not back to the drawing board.

Underway now in Waco is an effort to memorialize a less well-known figure from World War II, one whose heroism and life story are quite different from that of Ike, Nimitz, Patton or any other famous leader.

Waco native Doris Miller was a Navy mess attendant on the battleship West Virginia, which, on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, was sitting quietly at anchor in Pearl Harbor. As the Japanese attack began and the West Virginia took two torpedoes into its port side, Miller raced topside and helped wounded sailors to safety. Finally he manned a machine gun to return fire, possibly shooting down one of the attacking planes.

For his actions, Miller was awarded the Navy Cross, the first African-American to receive the honor. He was killed in action a year later when a Japanese submarine sank the escort carrier on which he was serving.

Like all who embody the nebulous notion of heroism, Miller represents a yardstick by which to judge ourselves. But more and more, we tend to confuse heroism with celebrity, the result being that we don’t know how to commemorate it. A true hero enshrines his individual identity by surrendering it, something our current culture does nothing to encourage.

Miller is worthy of something more than either a vague and detached memorial or a monumental one can provide. Who can be inspired if the individual honored is abstracted to meaninglessness? On the other hand, too much monumentalism suffocates the complex idea of heroism. Who can contemplate what it really means to be a hero faced with that colossus of Sam Houston towering over the interstate in Huntsville?

The design for the Doris Miller Memorial on the banks of the Brazos River avoids the pitfalls of being either overly monumental or overly contemplative. Indeed, in terms of art, it combines contemporary abstraction with a traditional commemorative element better than perhaps any other memorial to an individual in the country.

Memorializing someone isn’t merely an act of remembering them. To memorialize is to allow the memory of a person to adjust the way we live our lives. It’s a tough task. But the right kind of art in the memorial can make all the difference.

David A. Smith is a senior lecturer in American history at Baylor University and the author most recently of Money for Art: The Tangled Web of Art and Politics in American Democracy. He can be reached at

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