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Don’t Do This in Remembrance of Us?
Appreciating the past and constructing the future shouldn’t be incompatible
Earlier this year, I saw a photo on X/Twitter of a bunch of people standing and wading in the reflecting pool at the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. This is one of those summer controversies that we relitigate every year. At least, that’s what a brief Google search about this whole issue suggests. An article from 2010 popped up, which included this:
National Park Service spokesman Bill Line said it is illegal to walk or wade in the water or to splash others in the Rainbow Pool.
“It is also considered to be highly disrespectful to World War II veterans, sadly most of whom are no longer with us,” Line said. “There should be a high level of respect and decorum displayed at all times at the Memorial.”
Another article, from 2016, said:
Holly Rotondi, executive director of Friends of the National World War II Memorial, told The Washington Post that she recently received a phone call from the son of a World War II veteran complaining about visitors dipping their feet in the water, saying it was “very disrespectful to the generation” who fought in and lived through the war.
I’ve been to the memorial twice in the last year, and on each visit, I was slightly befuddled by the signs posted there. They specify that sitting and dipping your feet in—which I did—is permitted. But they also say: “Honor Your Veterans. No Wading.”
I remember thinking at the time that this injunction was a little odd. First, it seemed odd that dangling your feet is okay but wading isn’t; and second, it seemed to suggest that the act of wading was somehow historically or generally understood as disrespectful to veterans in particular.
Maybe I was reading the sign too literally, reading a layer of meaning into it that it wasn’t intended to convey. But I was genuinely curious whether that sign was trying to convey some bit of etiquette that had been lost, or simply never communicated, to my generation. And so I turned to X/Twitter to ask: Why is walking in the water particularly disrespectful to veterans?
Where Do We Draw the Line?
Since this was social media, what happened was not terribly edifying. Because of a reply from one large conservative account—“Do you really need someone to explain to you why it’s disrespectful to treat a war memorial like the splash pad at the local outdoor shopping center?”—I got a series of what were mostly other older conservatives telling me that my millennial generation is ungrateful or disrespectful or that I just didn’t get it or that Twitter didn’t offer enough characters to explain it. One person gave an interesting, long reply about sacrifice and honor, suggesting I try to ask a veteran myself for his own take on it all.
More than one person referenced “splashing”—well, yes, splashing around in the reflecting pool would be disrespectful, in the same sense that obvious merry-making in a somber place would be disrespectful. But almost nobody could actually answer my question. But then I think of the childhood Palm Sunday sword fights after Mass—with, of course, the blessed palms. Or the Americans who picnicked on Civil War battlefields—which, by the way, you can still do in Civil War battlefield parks today. Why is that permissible? At what point did a graveyard become just another park?
You can see some large subset of Americans as always being pigs, or you can see two camps of different opinions as to how much of a claim the events and sacrifices of the past should have on us today. I found this all interesting. And that’s before you add the urbanist opinions into the mix.
In contrast to the older, more conservative crowd, which seemed very much in agreement with the prohibition on wading, a number of my own Twitter followers offered their urbanist or land-use opinions on the matter. Most of them seemed to think of the furor over wading as quaint or Victorian. It’s basically a pool; the weather is hot; there’s not a lot of shade. Didn’t our boys beat Hitler so we could enjoy freedom—including, maybe, the freedom to cool off on a sweltering summer day?
None of this, of course, quite answered the underlying questions. Is it simply true that wading disrespects the veterans? Is it a revelation—a dogma? Or is it mere etiquette? Does etiquette have a statute of limitations? How heavily do we weigh the actual needs of people today, in a heat wave, in a shadeless part of the city, versus the honor we no doubt owe to those who preserved our freedom? How much sacrifice must we make now for sacrifices made in the past?
And despite having sparked an argument over all this, I can’t answer any of these questions either. I will say this: I found the arguments of the pro-wading contingent clearer and more sensible than whatever arguments the anti-wading contingent offered. But they also made me a little bit uncomfortable.
It almost seemed as though the people who care about cities, and their residents and visitors, have trouble with the ideas of honor, sacrifice, symbolism and deeper meaning—and in particular with the small-c conservative idea that these things still do or should exert some duty on us today. It gave me the impression that urbanism, at least in its typical left-leaning incarnation, is twinned with a practical, bare, unenchanted sense of the world. It reminds me a bit of the people you’ll occasionally see who suggest that cemeteries should be opened up for development because living people need housing. They do. But if that’s the whole story, what’s the point?
Do No Harm
This also reminds me of the recurring debate over fare evasion. As far as I can tell, quite a lot of urbanists are uninterested in stopping fare evasion, or only weakly feel it should be punished. Often, they will argue that it hurts nobody, while similar infractions by motorists do—or at least can—hurt people. In Washington, D.C., even the installation of more jump-proof gates, or the advertising of $100 fines for fare evaders, sparked a lot of “What does all this enforcement cost anyway?” or “Don’t we have bigger fish to fry?” questions among the urbanists I follow on social media.
I can’t say that I myself feel very strongly about fare evasion, as far as urban issues go. But I do feel that it is an offense, however small, against a kind of order. It honestly doesn’t really occur to me to ask whether it harms anybody. Or, if I were to embrace that framing from my conservative-leaning perspective, violating the social order or the principle of paying for what you are required to pay for is a kind of harm.
Is wading in a memorial pool the same sort of offense against order as fare evasion? Does it have the potential to harm anyone the way speeding does? What are the residents of a city supposed to do to cool off? Did our boys bleed and die in 1944 so that children in 2023 could sit in 100-degree weather and stare at cool flowing water? A prohibition on wading is tantamount to arguing that people should be hot and uncomfortable—a secularized version of the Catholic idea of “offer it up.” It is, after all, a smaller cross than Jesus bore. But is that actually an operating principle in the real world?
And what of the veterans? Unfortunately, I don’t know any World War II veterans. What, exactly, are they—and the people who remember or knew them well—trying to communicate when they express shock and hurt at people enjoying the water today? What bit of cultural knowledge has simply been lost to a 20- or 30-something like me?
But that’s where I started, isn’t it? Here’s where I’ll end: There is no inherent reason why it should be the case that the people who fiercely honor the sacrifice of our veterans are also, statistically, the same people who look askance at cities. And there is no reason why the people who champion cities should be flippant about such civic concerns. These are not at odds, but accidents of American politics create that appearance. If honoring your past and building your future are mutually exclusive, nobody comes out on top.