Book Review: Kristin Ann Hass's "Sacrificing Soldiers on the National Mall"

By Doctor Comrade

Hass, Kristin Ann. Sacrificing Soldiers on the National Mall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.

Hass’s Sacrificing Soldiers on the National Mall is a potent evaluation of the nationalistic messages of war memorials that occupy the symbolic space of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The book presents a compelling cultural and political history of the plans, debates, and construction of memorials at the Mall after the 1982 dedication of the controversial Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Hass observes that the National Mall did not have any war memorials until the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which inaugurated a boom in memorial proposals, leading to the production of the Korean War Veterans Memorial, Women in Military Service for America Memorial, National Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism during World War II, and the National World War II Memorial, as well as the failure to produce the planned Black Revolutionary War Patriots Memorial. Additionally, she argues that each memorial proposal was self-consciously responding to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Her central thesis is that war memorials helped reassert nationalism after the crisis of the Vietnam War by “enabling and encouraging an unfettered celebration of military service,” using the elevated status of the soldier to “make claims of national belonging based on military service” (19).

  The Korean War Veterans Memorial, as seen on the cover of the book.

The Korean War Veterans Memorial, as seen on the cover of the book.

Hass is a professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, and she specializes in visual and material culture, museum studies, and twentieth-century cultural history. Sacrificing Soldiers is Hass’s second monograph on memorials; her first book Carried to the Wall: American Memory and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial similarly traces constructions of memory and nationalism in terms of war memorials. Her articles, book chapters, and conference presentations largely focus on the problems of American memory and its interaction with how war is memorialized. In this way, Sacrificing Soldiers is part of her larger intellectual project of deconstructing messages of American identity through analysis of collective memory.

The author’s first argument is that memorials help create a shared past, which is critical to forming what Hass calls a “memory-nation nexus.” In essence, nations are “constructed by… the daily willful forgetting or misremembering of shared grief” (4). Building on Benedict Anderson’s formulation of imagined communities, Hass contends that memorials reify the national community by creating an imagined past. She names this the memory-nation nexus because “nations and memories… exist in mutual dependence…. In this formulation, nation and memory are inextricably bound; memories constitute nations” (3). By providing a shared nexus of nationalist memories, memorials occupy a critical space for the constitution of a national identity. These constructions become so powerful that memorials contribute to the nationalism that millions of citizens become willing to die for.

Hass also builds on Eric Hobsbawm’s theory of invented traditions. Memorials create false links to the past and thereby establish continuity between an imagined historical event worth celebrating and the present need to fight. Hass argues that even when there are significant ideological, ritualistic, or factual differences between previous wars and current conflicts, memorials’ nationalistic messages create the impetus for citizen-soldiers to continue to sacrifice themselves. Memorials, sanctioned by the state, allow the state to rewrite the traumatic experience of war as a linear narrative of national heroism that conceals the trauma the state produced (4-5). Hass connects these invented traditions to the symbolism of the National Mall: from 1935 to 1979, the Mall allowed people “to seize the national stage and rewrite national narratives. This process gave the Mall new potency as national ground” (14). In this place, recognized by Americans for its cultural significance, nationalism could be inscribed and re-inscribed by carefully deployed versions of the past that became enshrined in war memorials.

The book’s second argument is that memorials appropriate the figure of the fallen soldier in order to establish normative boundaries of citizenship and inclusion. War memorials articulate “the centrality of soldiering to U.S. nationalism… making the argument that national belonging and military service… are inextricably bound. Military service becomes the ultimate expression of national belonging” (19-20). When the failures of the Vietnam War created a crisis in American patriotism, the crisis was exacerbated by a modernistic memorial that did not glorify the acts of war or country but the individual soldiers who perished. Additionally, post-Cold War conflicts have further complicated the revered position of the soldier (2-3). In response, new memorials on the National Mall sought to re-inscribe the soldier as a symbol of American strength and perseverance, as well as what American citizenship should represent. Moreover, memorials on the Mall tried to legitimize the inclusion of non-white and non-male citizens by incorporating them into the military service model in which they could become full citizens through service. Memorials to the Japanese internees, female soldiers, and the failed memorial to black Revolutionary War veterans demonstrate how military service was valorized as the correct means by which these marginalized groups could attain full citizenship.

The book’s five chronological chapters chart the planning, debates, and construction of the five war memorials on the National Mall since 1982. The first chapter documents the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Hass argues that the planners “sought to use what they understood as the ‘blind devotion’ of soldiers from a ‘simpler time’ in a national recovery project… they wanted to foreground the service of manly, heroic soldiers” in direct response to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (21, 33). Her poignant analysis of internal documents from the planners of the memorial revealed how, despite the insistence that the statues of the soldiers represent white, black, Native American, and Latino soldiers, the planning committee insisted on removing racially specific characteristics from the figures, rendering them “fascinatingly racially indistinct and racialized at the same time,” a central theme that Hass demonstrates in subsequent chapters (53). By stripping away racial characteristics, the planners made “painfully clear… the importance of representing the soldier in particular terms—heroic, manly, gallant, [and] not-too-not-white,” which speaks to the racially marked notions of national identity wherein soldiers designed to represent the nation are assumed to be white (55).

hass memorials linear narrative of heroism

The theme of racialized national identity becomes fully examined in the second chapter, which describes the “failed attempt to use the revival of the status of the sacrificing solider to redraw primary boundaries of national inclusion” that would include the African-American veterans of the Revolutionary War (59). Through the archives of organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution (an organization that opposed a monument to black soldiers) and the Black Revolutionary War Patriots Foundation, Hass revealed that dominant racial narratives about national inclusion and patriotism prevented the legitimation of black veterans as true Americans. Because they were denied a war memorial, and therefore denied the legitimating effects of having sacrificed their bodies in military service to the country, these black veterans were also denied full citizenship. In essence, the failure of this memorial marked the failure to overcome racism’s “long history of efforts to make them illegitimate” (95).

The third chapter details the struggle to erect a memorial for female soldiers, which was placed underground, a “saga of the practically invisible rendered nearly invisible; it tells of an effort to carve out a place in the public imagination…. But it is all literally buried and nearly invisible, hidden in plain sight, built underground with the stipulation that it could not be visible from the exterior” (96-98). In the effort to create visibility for female veterans, their memories were similarly rendered illegitimate by denying their memorial visibility.

In the fourth chapter, Hass returns to race, this time in the form of the National Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism during WWII, which was an attempted apology for Japanese internment. However, Hass argues that this apology memorial attempted to excuse the United States’s “racist cultural logic that defined Asians in the United States as ‘impossible subjects’ beyond the reach of true citizenship” (124). Rather than addressing the internees directly, the memorial heralded the Japanese American soldiers who died defending the country that had stripped their families of civil rights, relying on the “soldier to establish Japanese Americans as members of the greatest generation…. In doing so, it risks erasing the history of racial logic… that enabled the internment…. The soldier is used here three times: stripped of freedom, celebrated for the sacrifice he was almost barred from making, and made to serve the cause of blind devotion” (150-151). She excellently details how “internee” and “soldier” were continually conflated in the planning documents, a slippage that implied that only through sacrifice could Japanese Americans be considered full citizens (134).

Anxieties about Vietnam are obliterated by the gargantuan National World War II Memorial, the last of the war memorials established on the Mall. It embodies an “emphatic statement of the revived status of war and soldiering in the United States that uses the soldier in a racially and gender-segregated military… to obscure the problems raised by more recent wars,” as the memorial’s architecture “define[s] and celebrate[s] the war as an event defined by holding, claiming, and recapturing territory all over the globe…[:] a triumphal monument to military might and imperial swagger” (154). Where other memorials had attempted some celebration of specific soldiers, either by listing their names or giving credit to their race, the World War II memorial celebrates the victorious act of war, positioning military might as the central defining characteristic for not only the generation of soldiers but also the country as a whole, “a trope in a recovery project, a means of getting at a larger rewriting of the past in the United States to defend a particular kind of nationalism” (195).

Brilliantly written, Sacrificing Soldiers unapologetically castigates a militaristic and ethnonationalist culture that has developed around the veneration of war and soldiering. By dissecting the documents of planners, architects, memorial foundations, the National Park Service, and other organizations, Hass cleverly deduces that the memorials were not only self-consciously answering the supposed shame of Vietnam and its memorial, but also celebrating not individual soldiers but the very act of soldiering. Through extensive archival and organizational research, the author uncovered several evidentiary “smoking guns,” including the Daughters of the American Revolution’s racist exclusions in local chapters, white-washed narratives, and Korean War memorial questionnaires that unequivocally suggested that the Korean memorial should reject the principles embodied in the Vietnam memorial. Hass also expertly expounds on questions of race, gender, and class, using interdisciplinary analyses both within the field of history and outside the discipline.

The book’s text is quite short and could be improved by considering the reactions of memorial visitors rather than solely focusing on the motivations of planners. Memorials do not speak univocally; they are palimpsestic and constantly ascribed meanings by visitors as well as designers. Though obviously difficult to find sources, she should explore the ways in which people who visited the memorials—especially women, Japanese Americans, and African Americans—reacted to the various appearances of each memorial. Perhaps then she could isolate and answer the epistemological question of the directionality of nationalism. Though discussed at length, Hass does not define the origins of nationalism, though she describes plenty of relays through which it is transmitted, like racism, sexism, and invented traditions. The book seems to suggest that discourses of nationalism become apparent through memorialization, which might indicate that nationalism is power in a Foucauldian-discursive or Marxian-ideological sense.

Cultural historians will find the book’s indictment of nationalist mythology intriguing, and political historians will discover the book’s utility for discussions of conflicts between competing political ideologies embodied in public and private organizations. Nationalism has become a hotly discussed topic in recent historiography, of which this book is undoubtedly a part, and therefore it is a must-read for any scholar investigating the constitution, transmission, and reception of nationalist ideals.