“We have faith that future generations will know here, in the middle of the twentieth century, there came a time when men of good will found a way to unite, and produce, and fight to destroy the forces of ignorance, and intolerance, and slavery, and war.”
FDR’s words are inscribed in stone at the WWII Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana are a testament to the hard-fought ideals represented by World War II, its battles, and its victories.
To speak of it in commemoration, these battles all seem as American victories, each hammering into the public psyche the ideals that America’s foundations are built upon, ones that can still be told, “lest we forget”.
This is the story of “The Greatest Generation”, FDR’s “men of good”, a straight arrow to the heart of evil that begged for defeat, for the sake of not only American future, but of the world’s.
But this is not a single story.
Two stories are told at this sacred space of commemoration: one of America’s ideals and one of its silence. For each story and reenactment of American battles, in places like Guadalacanal, the beaches of Normandy, the island of Iwo Jima, there are missing tales- gaps and fissures in the narrative that cannot be filled.
WWII Museum’s recent installation of the art of French painter and soldier Guy de Montlaur is a singular example of the stories inside these fissures, best demonstrated through his artwork post-warfare. As de Montlaur points out, in reference to his soldier experiences:
“these things cannot be expressed in plain language. They are strictly unspeakable...we can only speak of them by allusion.”
The untold stories are waiting: unearthed, unnoticed, and un-memorialized.
The harsh reality of WWII is best represented in American soldiers that were never fully given the rank of belonging to the Greatest Generation: its soldiers of color.
In stories of Dorie Miller, who, as a mess attendant on the battleship West Virginia, manned a machine gun and shot at the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, or Staff Sergeant Leonard Dowden, serving in the segregated 93rd Division, who charged the enemy, shielding his men, despite being seriously wounded, there are mostly questions without answers.
Why, while these soldiers were fighting for the ideals of “defense of freedom, optimism, teamwork, determination, generosity, volunteerism, sacrifice, courage”, ideals which the museum notes as “rooted in the birth of our nation”, did America insist on first sidelining soldiers of color in segregated units, largely kept stateside, then, subjecting them to the injustices of Jim Crow after their service? Why were many of these valorous soldiers denied the Medal of Honor, which were only given to white recipients in WWII, until corrected under President Bill Clinton?
While we visit the curated objects of memory in war, in railroad tickets, illicit soldier journals, military uniforms, war souvenirs, where are the objects that tell these stories?
Most importantly, what does this disjointed story, of ideals and injustice, speak about the nation we live in today?
The WWII museum presents, as all commemorations do, the narrative of the difficulties of war service as a single story- one we must learn, recite, never forget.
It has, perhaps, does its job too well.
While showcasing the hardships for soldiers of color in a single display, the WWII Museum largely presents the second World War as a story of American victory over the Axis of evil. It displays a select few soldiers of color, with a laser-like focus on those who served in combat, which by default erases the stories and realities of the soldiers stateside, who remain now in silence.
It might seem that WWII, in commemoration, is a shining example of the arc of justice.
But this kind of commemoration also does a profound disservice to the sites of tension in the narrative: where American ideals failed American soldiers of color.
It is not enough to have one showcase devoted to a few of these brave soldier citizens.
It is necessary that we present, and study, the war narrative for what it is: a double helix of triumph and tribulation, another mark against American ideals, while remaining one in celebration of those same values.
Let us celebrate our war heroes, but also remember those who were forced to serve, those who were relegated to second-class citizens, those who fought in desperation and futility to achieve the double V of victory: over the Axis powers, and over Jim Crow.
Let us hear more of their stories in the context of the Greatest Generation, not just relegated to the sidelines and footnotes of American history.
These spaces of silence are not just for commemorating the sacrifice of the past. It must be spaces of silence for where America has, time and again, not lived up to its values, while proclaiming them with alacrity.
This is not a single story, pointed to one generation, memorialized and enshrined in stone.
It belongs to all of us, the living and the dead.