On Memorials

by Susan Briante


Behind the visitor’s center at Gettysburg National Military Park, farmland unfurls from gentle hills. Thatched wood fences stretch toward rows of orchard trees trembling in a summer wind. The scene would be entirely bucolic were it not for the equestrian statues, verdigris canons, granite obelisks and cupolas rising from tides of golden grass where more than seven thousand men were killed and twenty-six thousand wounded in battle. The monuments remind us.

For a week this July, I walked the Gettysburg battlefield, past angels and generals, marble from Maine and Alabama limestone. Bronze colonels surveyed Confederate positions. Infantry men crouched behind stone walls. Over the battlefield’s 26 acres, I learned to discern the daring charges and pivotal miscalculations of the worst battle ever fought in the United States. But to understand the story of the Civil War itself, the wounds of slavery and brutality of military campaigns, I had to visit the adjacent National Cemetery and read the words President Lincoln spoke at its dedication: “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Near my hometown in suburban New Jersey, I came across another type of monument this summer. In Westfield, just around the corner from a train station shuttling commuters to New York City, a glass obelisk stands on which nearly 3,000 names have been engraved. Twelve smaller granite markers describe a half-circle around it: one for each local resident killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

While an international jury weighs design proposals for a Ground Zero memorial that will list the names of victims and hold unidentified remains, municipal monuments have risen throughout New York and New Jersey. On the waterfront in Jersey City, a black marble stone depicts the Twin Towers as they once could be seen from that spot. In Ridgewood, residents buried a vault containing the personal effects of relatives killed on 9/11. Along the shores of the Hudson River in Hoboken, a grove of trees has been planted, while pathways and benches are being installed to provide a place for contemplation. Throughout the metropolitan area in towns such as Park Ridge, Lodi, Leone, Marlboro and West Orange, just to name a few, bell towers constructed with scrap metal from Ground Zero, bronze statues of eagles and children, smoke trees or dogwoods stand in tribute. If you were to connect these memorials, you would not be able to discern the advance of troops or strategies of generals. What lies between them is not a battlefield, but railroad apartments and glass-clad corporate headquarters, brick factories and old stone churches condominiums and strip malls… and that makes all the difference.

On the first anniversary of September 11, standing on the edge of the crater at Ground Zero, New York Governor George Pataki recited the Gettysburg address. Perhaps the reference to hallowed ground consecrated by “brave men, living and dead” struck a chord with the governor. Yet so much of the speech rang strangely out of place. When Lincoln read those words a civil war raged on and Union support waned. So Lincoln gave the conflict historical meaning. He explained that it was the rights of all men, not some that were at stake, that it was not the livelihood of a region, but the founding principles of a nation that hung in the balance. He provided us with an understanding of the war largely accepted even today.

During this year’s ceremony at Ground Zero, children related to the victims read the grim list of names. Moments of silence and tolling bells punctuated their somber roll-call. In the two years since the terrorist attacks, this country’s leaders have failed to provide anything but the simplest narrative of heroes and evil-doers. Most of us barely understand why the attacks occurred. Were they an assault on our freedom or the ways in which our government has condoned the oppression of others? Were they a response to our prosperity or our policies in the Middle East? Do we trace their roots to a misinterpretation of Islamic teachings or a critique of globalization? Unfortunately, even posing these questions has somehow become conflated with an attempt to justify or apologize for the heinous acts of terrorism. A desire to consider the legacy of our foreign policy has become synonymous in some circles to “sympathizing” with the enemy.

Instead of offering the kind of historical context that Lincoln provided, our president has proclaimed: “You’re either for us or against us.” Instead of using context to formulate a sensible foreign policy that would ensure such events would never happen again, this administration implied that debate and reflection would only hamper our “moral clarity.”

And we are left with abstraction and cliché.

Newark International Airport has been renamed “Liberty International Airport”. On my 2003 calendar, September 11 bears the designation “Patriot Day”. Daniel Libeskind’s “Gardens of the World” tower designed for Ground Zero has been rechristened the “Freedom Tower.” But when threats to U.S. freedom come from our own government’s subtle erosion of our civil liberties, for whose freedom will it stand?

While missing-persons posters still fluttered from store fronts and telephone poles, I joined thousands of New Yorkers who gathered just above of police barricades at 14th Street in Union Square. Some lit candles and carried flags. They drew chalk peace signs on sidewalks and placed photographs. The air took on the acrid smell of burning wires; smoke billowed down Fifth Avenue. Most people shuffled by in a kind of weary daze. As the Bush administration reviewed plans for a military response, some in Union Square debated through megaphones or on banners hung from wrought iron-fences . Some were already singing sixties protest songs; others scrawled their opinions on butcher-block paper. Then police barricades came down, the fires stopped smoldering and the candles, photos and flowers left at Union Square were also carted away.

Today, across the choppy Hudson River from Lower Manhattan at the Jersey City memorial site, two gnarled pieces of steel construction girder lay, remains of what was swept away from Ground Zero with dizzying speed. A red-white-and-blue ribbon has been tied to one. A T-Shirt from the “Good Grieving” 5-K race hangs from another.

These monuments provide a site from which to consider our loss. And yet they cannot speak for the events of September 11th anymore than the cannon balls and gravemarkers of Gettysburg can tell the story of slavery or the Civil War. Perhaps what we need to tell our story is not a monument but a space, one that will accommodate many voices, some place like Union Square where—amidst the statues of Lincoln and Gandhi—it was once still possible to grieve and ask questions.

Susan Briante is a poet, translator, and essayist. A PhD candidate at UT-Austin, she studies the relationship between trauma, memory, ruins, and memorials in places such as Gettysburg, Mexico City, and Asbury Park, New Jersey.