Literally Monumental: Norfolk, VA

             Literally monumental: the Norfolk Armed Forces Memorial 
     Like papers scattered in the wind, the large bronze pages strewn on the ground at the Norfolk Armed Forces Memorial catch you off guard and reach deep into your soul. One billows up in the center as if floating down from a passing gust of wind to land with just its four corners touching the ground first. The edge of another folds over itself, seemingly in the process of coming to a flat resting stop. And one leans against a bench in arrested motion. The 20 sheets with raised lettering represent correspondences dating from Oct. 4, 1776 to Jan. 31, 1991, sent from soldiers of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, both World Wars, the Korean War, Vietnam and the Gulf War. The letters reached home, but the men and women who wrote them did not.

     As an art historian and world traveler, I have visited many war-related monuments including the equestrian statues of ancient Rome, the Arc De Triumph in Paris, the Minuteman on Lexington Green, and 20th Century Commemorations. All the statues and arches and obelisks and plagues created in memory of fallen heroes and in praise of heroic battles are grand and important and meaningful. However, none has ever moved me to tears as this unpretentious tribute along the Elizabeth River at Town Point Park in Norfolk, Virginia. Designed by artist Maggie Smith and architect James Cutler in 1998, the memorial is located on the water’s edge, connected to the park by two bridges. As you walk along the picturesque riverway with its shops and restaurants and gardens and happy people, you really don’t anticipate seeing a war monument, and perhaps it is that unexpected element that adds to its emotional impact.

     Looking as if the letters have just escaped from a passing boat, the chaotic scene seems so casual, so real, so part of life. Two lines from Archibald MacLeish’s poem, The Young Dead Soldier, mark the entrance/exit: “We give you our deaths/ Give them their meaning.”

     Bertram Arnold Bunting addressed this missive to his “darling wife” on January 17, 1968, “When we meet again I can promise you that there will be no wasted moments. Every minute spent with you will be nothing less than a gift to be cherished . . .There are many times when I want only to know your presence. . . There are many ways of loving—perhaps the simplest are the most satisfying.” Bunting was killed in Vietnam less than a month later.

     Reading the soldiers’ own words and imagining the addressees who loved and mourned the writers are powerful experiences. The letters reflect first-hand accounts and universal themes, personal opinions and profound philosophies. Writing to his mother, on June 18, 1918, Quincy Sharpe Mills said, “Even the trenches can be beautiful when they are trimmed with flowers, and the barbed wire forms a trellis for rambling vines. . . At the base of one of the birches is a flourishing wild rose bush, literally covered with blossoms, some of which I sneaked up and picked. . . .” He died on July 26 of the same year.

The authors write of resolve for their present world and hope for the world’s future. Three days before his death in Korea on October 20, 1951, Samuel Lloyd Jones penned, “ This whole thing, as are all wars, is complete lunacy, proving nothing. . . International courts aren't impossible. Men must work out something along that line. Living from generation to generation of wars seems like mankind admitting it doesn't know how to be civilized. There must be a way.”

     Art—whether it be painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, music or monuments—has a way of capturing a society’s thoughts and innermost feelings. Sometimes it is a rebellion and some times a reflection. Here in Norfolk, it is a remembrance and a reminder that war is not just policy or politics, it is also people. 



The Art and Writing of Barbara Rizza Mellin