Washington, DC is one of the most popular tourist destinations not only within the United States, but internationally as well. Millions of people from across the globe come to our nation’s capital expecting to see its glowing history and remarkable educational treasures, its breathtaking artwork and gleaming architecture, and, of course, its varied and enticing culinary delights. Upon leaving the capital area and returning home, many visitors are somehow forever transformed.
From my first visit to Washington, DC when I was a high school student back in 1964, to taking up residency in “The District” from 1971 until 1973, to my infrequent return trips over the past thirty years, I am continually amazed by the emotional and, yes, transformational impact this relatively small parcel of land has upon my spirit. I attempt, whenever I am able, to return to the Capital Mall area to visit its lavish and poignant museums and galleries; its monuments to our past presidents; its legislative, executive, and judicial halls; its libraries and archives; its memorials to past wars, fallen heroes, and collections investigating domestic and international tyranny intended as a reminder that we need not repeat the mistakes of the past.
Each time I return, though, there remains within me a feeling of unease, tension, and inner conflict where my thirst remains unquenched and my hunger unsatisfied. I view the Washington, DC experience as representing an important and inspiring, yet limited, partial, and narrow vision of our complete national history and our collective consciousness.
First, while our monuments, statues, and memorials honor our country’s luminous heroes, an extraordinarily few pay tribute to our nation’s women and persons of color. And second, and here is where I would now like to focus, the gleaming and stirring monuments and memorials, though certainly moving, appropriate, and important in that they keep us forever connected to an aspect of our past while helping us progress into the future, primarily embody and give testament to our nation’s past wars, and honor primarily presidents who either served during wartime or achieved prominence in war. Therefore, the symbolic and literal narrative of our nation’s capital speaks only part of our collective story. The fulcrum on which the foundation of this narrative rests represents an important though incomplete story, primarily about white male leaders, with armed conflict as the organizing principle.
Take, for example, our most notable and visible monuments and memorials situated on the Capital Mall. Standing tall and visible for miles around in every direction, the Washington Monument honors our first president, one of our “founding fathers,” who organized and led what began as a rag tag, disorganized, and undisciplined array of resisters into an effective fighting force. The Thomas Jefferson Memorial, reflected in the Tidal Basin, gives tribute to the author of the Declaration of Independence, which signaled the colonies’ severing of ties with Great Britain and sparked the War of Independence. The Abraham Lincoln Memorial, which greets visitors as they cross the Key Bridge over the Potomac River from Virginia into the District, memorializes the man who served over a divided land, and who eventually kept the nation intact during trying times. And the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, one of the newest and most expansive in sheer acreage, gives homage to our longest serving chief executive who presided during a time of great peril as ruthless tyranny threatened both domestic and world democracy.
In addition, our new and eagerly awaited World War II Memorial, situated directly between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, stands in tribute to the “greatest generation” of patriots who defeated the forces of tyranny and oppression continents away. The Korean War Memorial, located in the shadows of the Lincoln Memorial, keeps fresh the memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice during the “Cold War.” And the Vietnam Memorial, also in the shadows of the Lincoln Memorial, its black marble reflecting the faces of young and old as they come to witness the thousands of names inscribed on its surface, helps to heal some of the many wounds of a divided nation torn apart by war far from home.
As truly important and inspiring as these memorials and monuments are, except for a small, nameless, nondescript, and relatively unknown statue representing “Peace” located near the Capitol building, I must ask, where are our tributes, our monuments, our memorials to peace and to the peacemakers. Where are our memorials and monuments to the diplomats and the mediators; to those working in conflict resolution; to the activists dedicated to preventing wars and to bringing existing wars to diplomatic resolution once they have begun; to the individuals of conscience who refuse to give over their minds, their souls, and their bodies to armed conflict; to the practitioners of non-violent resistance in the face of tyranny and oppression; to the anti-war activists who strive to educate their peers, their citizenry, and, yes, their government about the perils of unjustified and unjust armed conflict and incursions into lands not their own in advance of appropriate attempts at diplomatic means of resolving conflict?
I contend that individuals and groups that stand up and put their lives on the line to defend the country from very real threats to our national security, as do those in our nation’s military, are true patriots. But true patriots are also those who speak out, stand up, and challenge our governmental leaders, those who put their lives on the line by actively advocating for justice, freedom, and liberty through peaceful means. Looking over the history of humanity, it is apparent that tyranny, at times, could only be countered through the raising of arms. On numerous occasions, however, diplomacy has been successful, and at other times, it should have been used more extensively before rushing to war. I, therefore, find it unacceptable when one’s patriotism and one’s love of country is called into question when one advocates for peaceful means of conflict resolution, for it is also an act of patriotism to work to keep our brave and courageous troops out of harm’s way, and to work to create conditions and understanding that ultimately make war less likely.
The United States embodies a beautiful and noble concept, a vibrant idea, a vital and enduring vision, a process and progression toward, but does not yet attain, does not yet reach that concept, that idea, that vision. The country is, rather, a work in process. As a next step in that process, I propose, first, that the United States Congress pass a bipartisan resolution to increase the number of statues and memorials to honor this country’s female heroes and heroes of color. Second, I call on the United States Congress to set aside a parcel of prime land on the Capital Mall in Washington, DC for the installation of a highly-visible and permanent United States Monument to Peace and Peacemakers, and I urge residents as well as business and corporate leaders throughout this country to donate financial, moral, and tactical support to coordinate the design and development, and to cover the costs of such a Monument. Third, I ask local communities to develop residents’ counsels to work toward the establishment of regional and local Monuments to Peace and Peacemakers throughout the United States to honor individuals and groups that have in the past and continue to work through peaceful channels. The national, regional, and local Monuments to Peace and Peacemakers could be connected to institutions of research and learning, which will serve as archives, libraries, and living teaching centers of continuing education for ourselves, our children, and for the generations yet to come.
We are once again a divided nation—politically, philosophically, economically, and spiritually. The theme of values has been dominant in recent public and political discourse. The promotion of peace should rank as one of the highest values deserving our immediate and sustained attention. The creation of Monuments to Peace and Peacemakers can help us heal the divisions, can help to bridge the gaps in our national consciousness, and help bring us together. It is time to let the healing begin.
Warren J. Blumenfeld is Assistant Professor, Multicultural and International Curriculum Studies in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. He is editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge), co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Butler Matters: Judith Butler’s Impact on Feminist and Queer Studies.