Memorials in marble
October 28, 2007
Visit Washington, D.C., and you’ll see something from western Colorado. The marble used in some of the nation’s monuments came from the Yule quarry at Marble, Colo. You can see Yule marble at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a solid block quarried at 105 tons and later trimmed to 45 tons. You can touch Yule marble at the Lincoln Memorial, whose 36 columns were quarried from 1914-16 and required more than 600 freight cars to haul them on the Crystal Valley Railroad and on to the capital.The monuments on the National Mall are many. They stand with artistic grace, eliciting awe. They mark world events with glory and grieving. They reflect on who we are as a nation and as a people. Seeing these monuments for the first time two weeks ago with my family, history became more real, more personal.The most conspicuous feature on the mall is the Washington Monument. This lofty pinnacle is the pivot from which the United States turns on an axis of prominence and power. The nearby war memorials reflect the price we have paid for that prominence and power.Much of our nation’s stature comes from philosophy, from the founding values depicted at the elegant Jefferson Memorial. Jefferson’s words are there, etched in stone – the sound bites of wisdom from a philosopher king who owned slaves and fathered children by them.The memorials to idealism, philosophy and moralistic values stand second to the more noted, more visceral, memorials to war. These memorials stand for the culmination of ideals made flesh on the many battlefields of the world.The Korean War Memorial is a bleak, ghostly depiction of a platoon of soldiers slogging through a miserable campaign, shouldering packs and weapons with grim determination. There is little glory here, especially when seen in shadowy night lighting. The shapes are human, but nondescript, exuding fatigue and drudgery. There is a pall of sadness here.The World War II Memorial is bright and sunny, set around a gushing fountain within a ring of stone columns that support a lintel engraved with the names of every U.S. state and territory. World War II veterans shuffle feebly within that circle of columns, revisiting the battlefields of their youth, the glory of their victory.The Vietnam Memorial is anything but splashy. The low, grave-like cut in the land, where the black wall lists the 54,265 Americans dead, is a huge tombstone. Scattered memorabilia – funeral flags, GI boots, letters, dog tags, photographs – rest at the base of the wall. The million Vietnamese dead from that war are spectral in their absence.The Marine Corps memorial is a huge bronze sculpture of the famous flag-raising scene from Iwo Jima. The rising banner and the upraised hands symbolize the force of American determination and the pride of a riveting emotional image.And then there’s Arlington, with its thousands of gravestones, its rows and rows of final resting places. Here are scores of young men who died in service to the nation’s ideals, to its union, its hegemony, its foreign engagements. The weight of history at Arlington is pressing. It bears down on the earth with the weight of countless stones.Visit all these memorials, and the intense preoccupation with war becomes draining. They take you through a progression from duty to valor, to glory, to honor, to loss, to sorrow. These silent memorials give gravity to the past. They elicit a sense of futility in the hope peace.Marble is a lasting, beautiful stone. Its creamy white luster shines in the sun and glows under the lights. How much more marble, how many blocks and columns, will decorate the National Mall? How many more monuments must we erect as touchstones to human sacrifice?Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.
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