The greatest monument is the one to peace

Washington, D.C., is a city of memories made from granite,
mortar, cement and steel.
Washington, D.C., is a city of memories made from granite, mortar, cement and steel.

And tomorrow, when the National World War II Memorial is formally dedicated, a new monument will be added to the roster of historic shrines.

About 10 years ago, while visiting our nation’s capital, I woke up early to take a pre-dawn stroll through the city and visit some of its memorial sites. That summer morning as the dawn inched into the city, I left the Renaissance Hotel where I was staying and began my walk along empty streets toward the Mall.

The Mall is the great expanse of land in the center of the city of Washington. It’s essentially a verdant park of 309 acres stretching almost two miles from the Lincoln Memorial to the great dome of the Capital Building.

The centerpiece of the Mall is the Washington Monument. It rises like an ancient Egyptian obelisk 555-feet high.

Originally, Congress intended to install an equestrian statue honoring the Father of our Country. But national leaders changed the idea to a towering needle of marble and granite. It was the largest monument in the world when it was dedicated in 1885 – almost 40 years after its cornerstone was laid.

Hypnotized by its gigantic stature and simple architectural grace, I strolled toward the Washington Monument feeling awed by its grandeur.

Around its base stood 50 flagpoles upon which 50 American flags fluttered in a morning breeze.

Nearby on the lawn in the direction of the White House, Army soldiers in full-dress uniform drilled in preparation for a parade to be held later that day. As I watched them, I thought about General George Washington and his rag-tag Continental Army soldiers. How amazed America’s first president would be to see how the United States evolved into the world’s premiere military superpower.

As the sun began to rise, I continued my stroll among the Japanese cherry trees of the tidal basin.

My ramble took me to the Jefferson Memorial. This Roman-like temple to American democracy honors Thomas Jefferson who captured the spirit of our country in the Declaration of Independence.

The memorial was dedicated in 1943, a dark point in history when democracy faced its greatest risk of annihilation.

At the time of my visit, scaffolding covered the Jefferson Memorial as it underwent renovation. This construction project seemed an appropriate metaphor. Thomas Jefferson was a man who believed in constant self-improvement – a continuous vigil to eliminate the weaknesses of human nature. Constant and never-ending self-improvement also is an ideal of the American character.

Continuing my loop around the tidal basin, I eventually found my way to the Lincoln Memorial, a Grecian Temple-like building dedicated in 1922.

Alone, I sat on the famous steps where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had inspired our nation by describing his “dream” for true equality. The warmth of the rising sun’s rays hit my face as I gazed down the Mall’s expanse.

A line of U.S. Marines jogged in formation around the reflecting pool.

Sunlight kissed the top of the Washington Monument. And in the far distance stood the magnificent dome of the Capitol Building under which so many national laws had been passed and so much of our national history had occurred. I felt suddenly stirred by the majestic power of the capitol city.

After several minutes of pondering the scene, I stood up and entered the Lincoln Memorial. Three African-American janitors mopped the floor in front of the famous statue of our nation’s 16th president.

Lincoln’s somber face seemed to study these working men. Perhaps, I pondered, during the bloody days of the Civil War, their ancestors had felt the excitement of receiving their freeing when Lincoln signed one of this nation’s greatest documents, the Emancipation Proclamation.

The day after my visit to Lincoln’s Memorial, I read in the newspaper a man had stood in front of the Great Emancipator’s statue and shot himself in the head. This happened several hours before my walk along the Mall. The three janitors had been cleaning up the blood from that suicide.

The tragic story seemed to echo a warning. Civil Wars are a form of national suicide. But then, perhaps all war are a kind of suicide of human worth.

The last site I visited in my morning wandering was the Vietnam Memorial Wall. Dedicated in 1982, it upholds a simple and stark nobility unlike any other memorial in Washington.

For a long time, I stared at the names on the shiny black granite. Each name represents an American who made the ultimate sacrifice.

This memorial holds a powerful lesson about the truth cost of war: the decisions our elected political leaders make in the White House and under the dome of the Capital Building can mean bullets and bombs will snuff out the light of many lives.

This weekend’s dedication of the National World War II Memorial is a tribute to Americans who served during the 20th century’s bloodiest conflict. On the home-front and in the battlefield, they truly defended freedom and democratic justice.

But it’s sad to ponder that, in the coming centuries, other memorials might be built along the Mall to honor those who served in wars not yet fought.

Perhaps we as a nation should consider building our greatest memorial.

It would not be made of granite and mortar and cement and steel. This ultimate memorial would be an ideal shared by all the world’s people.

Perhaps one day our world will honor the memory of all who served in times of conflict by putting away our armaments and tools of destruction and living in peace as one humanity.

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