memor esto… quarum?

Since the previous post I’ve been ruminating on war memorials.

I have the impression that they used to fall into two categories: triumphalist and elegiac. The tone of more recent ones, however, seems quite different from either of these. It’s hard to capture, but it often seems to suggest that the people memorialized were not so much heroic, in triumph or sacrifice, as ill-used.

Perhaps this is better than triumphalism, at any rate. But it rather depends on who is understood to have committed the ill-usage.

Take the Vietnam War memorial shown above(*) — in Rochester, New York. Does it suggest that American grunts were marched into the darkness by their leaders? I of course am tempted to read it that way. But I wonder, how many of the good people of Rochester return from a visit to this object with that reflection in mind?

The sculpture certainly intends to evoke sympathy for the grunt, who is shown as a bit of a sad sack, really. He’s the victim of something or somebody. But of whom?

I have an unpleasant suspicion that these mopey monuments we see all over the place now really end up reinforcing the great American sense of self-pity — the vague hovering notion that we’re misunderstood and mistreated by the world. I wonder whether they don’t belong to the same order of cultural markers as that awful stupid maudlin POW/MIA flag that every municipality in America flies above its City Hall and police stations, right under the triumphalist Stars And Stripes.

Not only are we Top Country, we’re also, oddly, the great victims of the world.

(*) … Please! (You knew that was coming, didn’t you?)

Stupidest war memorial ever


I used to work, years ago, down by Battery Park. On pleasant days I’d get a sandwich for lunch and go sit on a bench there to eat it.

In those times — the late 70s — it was your usual seedy New York park, tired parched grass interspersed with patches of bare dirt, and guys selling loose joints, and fetching Italian keypunch chicks taking in a bit of sun. I well remember the Summer Of Horizontal Stripes, when lycra was still a new thing.

There were a couple of war memorials in the park then. One rather grand one consisted of a double row of big stone monoliths, with the names of all the Navy men and (I think) merchant seamen lost at sea during World War Two inscribed on them. It was rather stodgy in design — very Fifties — and featured a most unfortunate nasty-looking eagle, if memory serves, hunkered down in a resentful pose at the end of the aisle. But at least it had the virtue of sobriety and restraint, and all the names after names gave one food for thought. And then too the axis of the aisle was unobtrusively aligned on the statue of liberty across the harbor. There was nothing to point this out, or beat you over the head with it. After a few lunchtimes there, you noticed. As war memorials go, not bad. Not as good as this one, below, but not bad:

The lion — a copy, apparently, of one in Lucerne — used to occupy a place of honor in Colby College’s Memorial Hall. Now it’s in a sterile undistinguished space in the basement of the library, which seems a bit of a comedown. But it’s still pretty impressive.

Since my days of lunching (and ogling Italian girls) in Battery Park, some other monumwents have been added. There’s one to the merchant mariners of WWII, a very lugubrious affair, showing three big bronze guys on what appears to be a sinking bronze deck, and the hand of a fourth bronze guy, clearly a goner, reaching up out of the water. The hand is all you see of this fourth guy. He appears to know the answer to the last question Teacher will ever pose him. Ask me! Ask me! Before it’s too late!

There is a tablet nearby which notes that the sculpture group is based on a photo of sailors on a bit of wreckage from a torpedoed ship. The tablet also records, with a strange note of grim lip-smacking relish, that the sailors in question were not rescued, and subsequently went down with their vessel.

There is a monument to the Norwegian merchant marine, also during world war II. This consists of a roundish stone sitting on top of a flattish stone. Enigmatic people, those Norwegians. But one is glad for a respite from bronze.

And then there is the monstrosity shown up top. This is the Korean War memorial. Dunno if you can see the inscription; it reads, THE UNIVERSAL SOLDIER. There are earnest little national flags, picked out in clumsy childish mosaic, surrounding the base. I assume these were the various “allies” in the Police Action.

Questions crowd to mind. Who on earth came up with this misbegotten idea? What had he or she been doing the night before? How did the committee come to pick this one? What, in God’s name, were the other ideas?

Now the Korean War was a hell of a bad idea, and the soldiers who died there died very much in vain, I think. But they certainly deserve better than to be remembered with the title of a pop song and represented as a void — a lumpish, badly-drawn void at that.

Speaking as a [whatever]….


I’ve been thinking a lot about bikes lately. Partly this is because I am riding my own more.

I have two. Which may be one too many, but I can explain. The one shown above — leaning against the clavichord, which occupies the only sunny spot in my apartment — is my dear old fixie, inherited from a pal who traded up. Note the way-cool Brooks leather saddle, and the desperately dorky fender. When it comes to coolth, I cover the waterfront.

Lately however I have been covering the waterfront on this little item:


I got this bike last summer, mainly with the boat in mind. (Note the aluminum frame.) I have had the experience, in the past, of sailing up and down the coast, and finding myself in a marina or at an anchorage which is an inconvenient distance from the nearest grocery store. So having a little bike on board seemed like a good idea. Then the boat sank, leaving me with a boat bike and no boat to put it on.

However the bike has come in handy. I have a day job again, which requires me to cross the Hudson River twice a day. Now I could do this cheaply, by riding the bike down to the World Trade Center and then taking the brutish PATH train over to Joisey. But like Bartleby, I prefer not to. Instead I take the pleasanter (though more expensive) option of riding down to 39th Street and taking the ferry across the river.

Now the ferry people charge you a buck extra to take a full-size bike on board. But not a folding bike! So I can sorta economize, in an overall context of extravagant self-indulgence.

Folding bikes, by the way, have become very popular. Used to be, you hardly ever saw one. Now they’re probably a third or more of the rides I see on my commute.

I’ve also been participating more in my local cyclists’ mailing list. Again, this is partly because I’ve been riding more, and also, partly, because the list has been discussing the Five Borough Bike Tour’s anti-terrorist bag ban, discussed here earlier.

It’s been a lot of fun. There are two or three huffy wet hens with much-ruffled feathers, eager to leap to the defense of the volunteer Gestapo schtick the Tour’s managers have taken on. I’m lazy enough to like an easy target, and boy, do they provide one.

There was, of course, a certain shark — you can probably see this coming — which was bound to be jumped sooner or later. Here’s Comrade Adamantinus, jumping it:

Speaking as a Jew, I find repeated references to the actions of Bike New York being likened to actions taken by Nazis or their Vichy collaborators to be offensive in this “conversation”.

This locution has always puzzled me. Presumably Adamantinus is a Member Of The Tribe, so how else could he speak? I mean, he could hardly speak as a Gentile, could he? Or even as a Gentile does? To be sure, impersonating a Gentile is not a crime, but why would he want to do it?

Rosie O’Donnell, I believe, had a funny line about this: Speaking as a Lesbian, I’d just like to say… pass the salt.

There’s another perplexity. Presumably nobody, Gentile or Jew, likes being compared to a Nazi, or a Vichyssois for that matter. So why Adamantinus seems to think that a Gentile should be happier about it than a Jew baffles the goyische kop of this particular shaygetz.