This Veterans Day, Let's Reflect on the D.C. War Memorial

tags: Veterans Day



Dr. Reznick is Chief of the History of Medicine Division in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Honorary Fellow in the Center for First World War Studies of the University of Birmingham, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He is the author, most recently, of "John Galsworthy and Disabled Soldiers of the Great War, with an Illustrated Selection of His Writings" (Manchester University Press, 2009).

With the passing of America’s sole surviving Word War I veteran earlier this year—a poignant event envisioned years ago—America observes this Veterans Day without a direct, human connection to the "war to end all wars," when nearly 4.5 million men wore the American uniform.  With artifacts, images, words, and memorials remaining as our only links to this era, we should value these connections all the more and strive to preserve them for future generations.  This is why we should appreciate—indeed celebrate—the newly-restored District of Columbia War Memorial.

Completed in 1931 to commemorate the military service of 26,000 District of Columbia residents in the "Great War”—and the 499 who lost their lives in the conflict—the District of Columbia War Memorial is located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., between the National World War II Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial. The site was neglected for decades, until the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act made its restoration possible and thus its prominence in "America's Front Yard," which welcomes over 30 million visitors each year.  Today, as we see the memorial and its surroundings restored to their former glory, we are poised to unveil an important investment in our nation’s past for the benefit of current learning and future historical stewardship.

The District of Columbia War Memorial commemorates a generation that came of age in the face of fully mechanized battle:  machine guns, tanks, and gas that killed hundreds of thousands and disabled, disfigured, and traumatized hundreds of thousands more.  This generation witnessed unprecedented horrors of war, and some lived to see another world war and wars beyond that.

The District of Columbia War Memorial commemorates a generation that created and helped to make commonplace ideas and language which persist today in our conversations and debates.  When we describe the ongoing political battles over abortion rights as “trench warfare,” the terrain after a natural disaster as “no man’s land,” and the victims of hurricanes as “shell-shocked,” we are using descriptions that have their origins in the experiences of the generation of the First World War.

The District of Columbia War Memorial commemorates a generation that witnessed a public health tragedy.  The 1918 flu outbreak was the worst epidemic in American history, killing more than 675,000 Americans and tens of millions worldwide.  That event and those who confronted will continue to be featured in news stories about the threat of pandemic influenza.

The District of Columbia War Memorial commemorates a generation that witnessed medical innovation.  On the battlefront, wounded American soldiers benefited from doctors adopting the World War I French system of triage, the sorting casualties according to the severity of wounds and their need for surgical treatment.  At Walter Reed and other hospitals around the nation, soldiers disabled in battle received artificial limbs and braces as part of physical reconstruction programs that involved education classes and rehabilitation workshops.  Since the war, triage has become a standard practice in emergency medicine.  Cultivated in war, the specialized fields of orthotics, prosthetics, physical therapy, and occupational therapy have become essential to the rehabilitation of soldiers and civilians alike.  Today in military medical centers located around the country—and especially the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at WalterReed National Military Medical Center—the rehabilitation of men and women wounded in war continues.

As we observe this Veterans Day, we should appreciate the newly-restored District of Columbia War Memorial and the link it sustains to a generation now gone entirely and to history that informs our present and will shape our future.


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