War Memorials

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One dour morning early this March I had to drive to eastern Pennsylvania. I’d heard that a patch of the sometime steel town of Bethlehem had been spruced up and now was a bower of postindustrial charm, so after my errand I made a detour and headed over to see it. I drove up a hill and across a bridge and came upon something so outside the proportions of the workaday world that I suffered a moment of utter incomprehension. It was like driving through a stand of trees and finding yourself on a prairie occupied by Darth Vader’s Death Star.

I was looking at the Bethlehem Steel Works I realized, after my perceptions had adjusted themselves to its scale and my wife had sharply reminded me to keep my eyes on the road. As it turned out, I could keep my eyes on the road and still see the works, because for a while they were the whole landscape, a gargantuan desolation of half-mile-long gantries made of girders fat as city buses, brick buildings that could contain the suburban town I grew up in, furnaces tall as Park Avenue apartment houses. All of it dead: the ovens cold, the million windows black, gouts of drab vegetation in the intersections of hundred-foot-wide avenues. I thought: This is what it took to beat Hitler.

I’m sure that came to me because I was in the middle of preparing George Rarey’s letters to his wife, Betty Lou, for publication in this issue. This task was a strange mixture of pleasure and discomfort. Pleasure because Rarey’s letters are lovely—funny, self-effacing, and filled with the same sort of precise observation that makes the young cartoonist’s record of the P-47s he flew seem more alive and immediate than any photograph of the machine. Discomfort because of the knowledge that the death Rarey is so genially keeping at bay for his wife is going to claim him above a road in France.

That happened not long after the Normandy landings, whose sixtieth anniversary takes place this June. It’s a big anniversary, not just because of the satisfaction humans take in parsing the past into decades, but because this is the last that will see Rarey’s comrades—and here I mean everyone who joined him in the struggle—still with us in significant numbers.

In his letters, Rarey speaks often about the future he hopes to help shape for his infant son. Those of us who are the legatees of his efforts may not have inherited the tranquil world he hoped to give us, but our lives are unimaginably better than they would have been if he hadn’t given away his.

So when I came upon the Bethlehem Steel Works, I had been thinking about what this war cost: on the one hand, an industrial effort so vast its leavings seem to have been the work of a race of titans; on the other, thousands of young people the caliber of George Rarey.

How to commemorate so magnificent, excruciating an effort? There has been a lot of planning for a national World War II memorial lately, but for my money I’d like to see the Bethlehem works preserved—or, rather, simply not torn down. I find that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Industrial History is interested in taking over the site (not only, of course, for its connection with the Second World War but also because it majestically encapsulates the social turbulence and economic dislocations that beset heavy industry in the decades that followed). The property’s owners, International Steel Group of Cleveland, are selling off the site piecemeal, and have already said they cannot promise to save any of the buildings. Well, you can imagine the complexity involved in an effort to rescue the immense, grimly gorgeous plant, and perhaps this industrial mountain range will dissipate into thin air. How little survives from any epoch.

But what the International Steel Group can’t get at are the letters of George Rarey and all his colleagues, or Winston Churchill’s thoughts on what he had to offer his people, or Franklin Roosevelt’s on what the United States should offer Americans. It’s only words; but then, as William Hazlitt said, “words are the only thing that lasts forever.”