Friday, August 7, 2009

Massachusetts: Not Your Grandfather's War Monument

The citizens of Swampscott, Massachusetts, can rest easy tonight. Their Board of Selectmen changed their minds. The fair scenes of Swampscott will not be sullied by a new statue.

(Mark and Debra Blain, via FOXNews, used w/o permission)

(Ted Fitzgerald, via Boston Herald, used w/o permission)

Those photos show what Swampscott's Board of Selectmen accepted, and then rejected.

There are a few ways of looking at this bit of news. the Boston Herald used one approach:
"The owner of a Millbury stoneworks who donated a granite statue honoring soldiers serving in the Afghan and Iraq wars is lashing out over a move by Swampscott town officials to reject the gift.

" 'I'm giving it away for free,' said Mark Blain, 47, who runs Fireplace Mantels Etc. with his wife, Debra. 'What the hell is (the) matter with these people?'..."

"...Town Administrator Andrew Maylor said that after selectmen voted to accept the gift two weeks ago, residents raised concerns about its proposed location on Monument Avenue and the lack of community input in the decision.

"Maylor said that there are several war monuments on display on Monument Avenue in the shape of a block, traditional stone or obelisk. The street is a part of the town's historic Olmsted District, laid out by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

" 'As it relates to Swampscott, it was not consistent with what has been historically placed on Monument Avenue,' said Maylor, who wrote an e-mail to inform Blain of the selectmen’s vote and thank him for the 'generous' offer...."
(Boston Herald)
A national news service focused a bit more on the sculpture and why it doesn't look like your run-of-the-mill conventional war monument.
"A Massachusetts couple is looking for a new home for a granite statue they built to honor American troops fighting overseas after the town that they planned to donate it to declined their offer after residents complained.

"Mark and Debra Blain, owners of Fireplace Mantels Etc., in Millbury, Mass., told that they created the prototype statue — depicting an American soldier in uniform standing in front of a stone U.S.A and waving American flag — and decided they wanted to give it away.

"After watching the film 'Taking Chance,' in which Kevin Bacon plays a U.S. Marine bringing a fallen comrade home, the Blains decided they wanted to donate it to an area town that didn't have the funds on hand to build their own monument...."
I'm inclined to believe Town Administrator Maylor: it's likely enough that there were procedural errors in how the first vote was done - and the location in Swampscott where the statue would have gone was a designated historic Olmsted District. And it had been laid out by a famed landscape architect, too.

Words and phrases in the dialects of English don't always mean the same thing: "pavement," for example. So, maybe in Massachusetts "laid out" isn't what a somebody's body is, after a mortician prepares it for viewing.

Historic Districts: Yes, They're Important

The matter of a historic district is important. The small central Minnesota town where I live has a designated historic district downtown - and over the last several years we've been peeling off 20th century paneling (some of it bug-ugly, in my opinion) and polishing up the late-Victorian storefronts underneath.

Aside from 'historic importance,' there's an economic angle to these historic districts. I think we'll get our money back through tourism - maybe by the time my grandchildren are raising families.

Proper War Monuments Should Look a Certain Way - Traditionally

There's a reason why the rejected war monument doesn't look like a 'real' war monument. The designers wanted it to look like it does.
"...Debra Blain, whose brother is a retired Coast Guard officer and whose father died in WWII, said that they plan to continue to solicit letters to find the statute a new home, but that she would prefer it not go to a cemetery.

" 'We had a lot of cemeteries apply for it to, but we wanted it to be about everybody that's still there,' she said.

" 'We didn't want it to be the typical monument that looks like a gravestone. We want it to be a visual sculpture that when you drove by it, you would remember that there is a conflict going on and even in every day live to remember and give prayer that somebody's over there and not home with us,' she said...."

'We've Never Done it That Way Before' and Other (Valid?) Reasons

I'll freely grant that the sculpture that Swampscott, Massachusetts, accepted and then rejected isn't your standard-issue war memorial. It doesn't look much like a headstone, for one thing.

Back in the early eighties, when it was built, the appearance of The Wall, or Vietnam Veterans Memorial, was controversial. It was stark and dark.

On the other hand, it arguably met the design criteria. That it:
  1. be reflective and contemplative in character;
  2. harmonize with its surroundings;
  3. contain the names of those who had died in the conflict or who were still missing;
  4. make no political statement about the war.
The third criteria was - and is - a very traditional approach to war memorials. Their focus is on the soldiers who have died.

The ones who are still living - and in many cases still serving - aren't on the radar all that much. There's not so much recognition of them in the monument line.

And that's what the Blains had in mind: something to remind people of American soldiers who had died - and who were still defending the right of Code Pink and less colorful protesters to sound off.

Radical? Maybe. But I think it's a good idea. I also think that the sculpture would look out of place among the properly funereal monuments of Swampscott, Massachusetts.

It's likely enough that Swampscott's Board of Selectmen weren't aware of just what sort of what sort of monument the Blains had designed.

Reality Check - Anti-War Sentiment Didn't Start in the Sixties

Although Taking Chance (2009), the movie that inspired the Blains, is a 'war movie,' it's not the sort of war movie that we've gotten used to over the last few decades.

Terms like "hippie" didn't get associated with pacifism, aggressive and otherwise, until the sixties: but the urge to force peace down the necks of warmongers - at any cost - goes back much further than Woodstock.

Take High Treason (1928) for example. "It was also a film that was so overtly anti-war that it promoted itself as the 'Peace Picture,'... " in which the chairman of the peace movement blew up the president of his own country.

Hats Off to the Blains

I think it's important to remember the men and women who died in defense of America and its freedoms. I also think it's important to remember the people who have served, and are serving today. War isn't particularly nice and tidy: but sometimes it's better than the alternative. As I wrote earlier "I feel that pacifism is a philosophy which will thrive: as long as there are non-pacifists to defend its followers."

Related posts, mostly about American soldiers and perceptions: In the news:

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