War memorials and how we remember conflicts

Beyond specific sites, many French monuments relied on commonly understood symbolism that helped viewers quickly connect with them. Memorial designers imagined France herself as a woman, often recalling the Virgin Mary just after she lost her son. It has become the legible sign of a nation mourning the loss of hundreds of thousands of young men and women. This imagery did not need to be physically tied to a battlefield or cemetery to clearly convey its message, and many local, regional, and national commemorative efforts relied on symbolism that clearly recalled maternal loss and human suffering as a reminder of war and those it claimed.

No matter where we are in the world, as visitors we want to feel an emotional charge and learn more about the conflict in question when we approach a war memorial. This is a difficult task for a designer, as we require memorials to contain a tangible element of something as huge and incomprehensible as war.

Thus, memorial designers must take creative risks, forcing visual and experiential connections for visitors who may not all share the same associations between what they see and what they know or remember. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that in France and the United States, memorial efforts have never been widely praised.

We need only look to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC, for an example of the difficulty of trying to capture and reflect so much horror and loss in tangible form. Commemorating more than 58,000 Americans who died in the Vietnam War, Maya Lin’s design is reminiscent of Neolithic plinth-like monuments, much like Hill’s Stonehenge in Washington state. The “Wall”, as the Vietnam Memorial is often called, represents nothing recognizable. Its location is crucial to its operation, linking the Washington and Lincoln memorials that flank it. The Wall inserts itself into the conversation with these other physical testimonies of American history. But, because it’s aniconic, viewers often have a hard time connecting to it.

Hill’s Stonehenge operates on the assumption that we know something about the Neolithic site it emulates, and the wall doesn’t even grant us that kind of reference. We are so often accustomed to attaching our practices of commemoration to a readable symbol or tangible idea – such as the figure of a grieving mother or actual battlefields in France – and Lin’s conception defies these attempts. The Memorial strips away all referential signs in favor of a structure that obliges us to participate actively in its creation of meaning.