I was at the War Memorial Opera House recently, watching a fine production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Masquera with my friend Karen, and during one of the intermissions, we went outside to look at the new war memorial. It’s in that peaceful grassy courtyard between the opera house and the War Memorial Veterans Building. Funny to think that all these years—the paired Beaux Arts buildings opened in 1932—these structures with the term war memorial in their names have never had one.
Frankly, I didn’t care: I’m not one for glorifying war, which in my opinion is pretty much what such statues and commemorative plaques, with their emphasis on patriotic heroism, do. Maya Lin’s extremely moving Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in Washington, D.C.—a simple black granite V-shaped wall on which are inscribed the names of all the American dead and missing after that misbegotten war—is an exception.
And so is the memorial finally erected in San Francisco. Interestingly, it also was designed by a female architect, Susan Narduli, who works in west Los Angeles. She started out as a sculptor, according to her website; studied architecture because of an interest in large-scale public projects; and worked with famed architect Frank Gehry before opening Narduli Studio in 1991.
This monument, “Passage of Remembrance,” consists of a 30-foot-long black granite octagon approached by way of a little path that takes you past a beautiful infinity-type pool. The granite is rough on the side facing Van Ness, smooth and sleek on the other side, which shows only the words of a poem by the late modernist poet, playwright, and Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish. Written just after World War II, it is titled “The Young Dead Soldiers.” It does not glorify war:
The young dead soldiers do not speak.
Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses:
who has not heard them?
They have a silence that speaks for them at night
and when the clock counts.
They say: We were young. We have died.
They say: We have done what we could
but until it is finished it is not done.
They say: We have given our lives but until it is finished
no one can know what our lives gave.
They say: Our deaths are not ours: they are yours,
they will mean what you make them.
They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for
peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say,
it is you who must say this.
We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.
We were young, they say. We have died; remember us.
The memorial contains soil, held all these years, from battlefields of previous wars. It is in a compartment that, as one report put it, “can be reopened as needed to add soil from Afghanistan and Iraq and future wars.” If those last three matter-of-fact words aren’t chilling, I don’t know what is.