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War Memorial

June 2024
3min read


On the morning of February 23, 1945, while the bloody fighting for Iwo Jima was going on, a small patrol of Marines climbed to the summit of Mount Suribachi and planted an American flag there to show that U.S. forces had taken this crucial part of the island. By 1:00 p.m. it had been replaced by a much larger flag, more visible to Marines battling elsewhere on Iwo Jima.

It was this second flag-raising that the Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal captured and that became the basis for the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. Rosenthal’s picture won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1945 and has been reproduced more often than any other photograph of World War II.

On seeing the flag go up, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, who was just offshore in a landing craft, observed, “The raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years.” The Marines felt the same way, and in commissioning from Felix deWeldon a 100-ton, 78-foot-high cast-bronze sculpture with figures six times life size, they acquired, in 1954, the most recognizable memorial of any armed service.

But what the Marines did not achieve is a compelling war memorial. The giantism of the Marine Corps War Memorial undermines, rather than enhances, its power. The memorial is often seen from cars going in and out of Washington, and as a drive-by monument, its bulk works in its favor. But to approach it on foot is to be struck by a massiveness that never yields compelling detail.

One-third of all the Marine Corps deaths in World War II occurred on Iwo Jima in just over a month of bloody fighting. Of the six flag-raisers Joe Rosenthal photographed, only three survived the combat on the island. But in deWeldon’s statue poignancy has been sacrificed for a heroizing in which the agony of the Pacific war is muted; the memorial impresses the visitor largely as a feat of engineering.


The difference between deWeldon’s Marine Corps War Memorial and Henry M. Shrady’s Gen. Ulysses S. Grant Memorial at the east end of the National Mall at the foot of Capitol Hill could not be greater as far as general recognition goes. Most visitors to the Mall tend to head immediately for its western end, where the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial lie.

Rarely does this trip include a long walk in the other direction to the east end of the Mall, where Shrady’s Grant sits on his horse facing Lincoln, his Commander in Chief. As a result, our most underrated war memorial is also one of our most neglected. It should not be. With the exception of Augustus St.-Gaudens’s bas-relief of Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment on Boston Common, no representational American war memorial is more finely realized or asks more from us.

Shrady was a comparative unknown in 1902, when he was chosen to be the sculptor, and he took his selection as the opportunity of a lifetime and spent his remaining years working on the memorial, dying two weeks before it was dedicated on April 27, 1922, on the centennial of Grant’s birth. For the sculptor, whose father, Dr. George Shrady, had attended to Grant in his final illness, no detail was too small to overlook. Shrady studied the life mask of Grant in the Smithsonian Institution to make sure that he got the facial proportions correct, and he went through the stables of the New York City Police Department to find a horse as similar as possible to the one Grant rode.

The Grant Memorial, which rests on a marble platform 252 feet wide and 71 feet deep, is huge, but it depends for its effect on the relationship between its three main elements, the Artillery Group (1912), the Cavalry Group (1916), and, of course, the equestrian statue of Grant (1920).

In the two groups to the north and south of the general, the violence and action of war rule and are portrayed with painstaking care. In the Artillery Group, which features a caisson with its cannon and three soldiers rushing into battle, the strap has broken on the bridle bit of the lead horse, and disaster looms despite the eagerness of the gunners to do their duty. In the Cavalry Group, which features seven horsemen making a charge, death has already struck. One horse and rider have fallen, and the rider immediately behind them is doing his best to avoid becoming entangled and a second casualty.

Grant, on the other hand, is all calmness. Taking in the battlefield before him, he sits slouched on his horse, a battered hat on his head, a look of intense concentration on his face. And in this contrast lies the genius of Shrady’s memorial. For what we see in the artist’s Grant is not a man oblivious of suffering (death is all around him) but a general who has steeled himself to the kind of war he has found it necessary to wage.

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