Jewish World Review July 23, 2004 / 5 Menachem-Av 5764

Paul Greenberg

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So help us ... ? | It is bad enough that veterans of the greatest conflict in American history, a life-and-death struggle that determined the fate of freedom in the world, were made to wait half a century for a monument in Washington.

It is bad enough that the just-dedicated monument turns out not to have much of a focus. It seems more a parentheses added along the Mall than a free-standing memorial of its own-a wide spot in the road you might glance at on your way someplace else. The veterans may have finally got their monument, those of them still living, but it looks like what it is: a pause between the real monuments.

It is bad enough that the country was denied a landmark on the heroic scale of the Marine Corps monument, which depicts the flag going up over Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima. Now the whole war gets only a bunch of columns and a couple of little towers off to the side of the Mall.

It is bad enough that the first inscription visitors may see as they enter the monument's vague area is written in a syntax-free simulacrum of English that, in its imprecision and insensibility to both language and history, ranks as a model of mediocre modern prose. The inscription speaks of those who "made the sacrifices to perpetuate the gift our forefathers entrusted to us: a nation conceived in liberty and justice."

 Made the sacrifices to perpetuate the gift? Who wrote this - a trust lawyer accustomed to drawing up fiduciary agreements?

And why curtail and distort the reference to the plain words of the Gettysburg Address? A nation conceived in liberty and... justice? The truncated inscription loses not just the prairie-lawyer sense and majestic simplicity of Mr. Lincoln's words, but obscures their historic connection to the ideas of the Declaration of Independence, the very distillation of the American creed.

For ours is a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. When you squeeze all that down to one vague, all-purpose latinate word-justice-and then use it in an inappropriate context (conceived in justice?) you've lost a lot in the translation. O, Justice, what crimes are still being committed in thy name!

Yes, all that was bad enough, but look at the sliver they chose for the monument from Franklin Roosevelt's message to Congress. Understandably, his whole address couldn't be inscribed on the small corner of the monument reserved for his words. And the designers of this monument did include the most memorable of his phrases that fateful day ("December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy").

But most of FDR's war message is lost to an ellipsis. And the paragraph chosen for inclusion is not the one that includes the sacred vow he made on behalf of the nation that fateful day:

"With confidence in our armed forces - with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph - so help us G-d."

Those culminating words are so much a part of a whole generation's memory that their exclusion has become the basis of a whole urban myth about how they were chopped off a different paragraph of the speech.

But there's no denying that, in keeping with the politically correct times, FDR's invocation of the Deity has been omitted.

Indeed, in reading over the various inscriptions scattered around this monument, I can't find, among all the appeals to Heaven that are inevitably made in perilous times, a single reference to the Deity. As in General Eisenhower's famous order of the day for June 6, 1944. Its last sentence isn't here: "And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty G-d upon this great and noble undertaking." That, too, has gone down the memory hole.

The desanctification of history proceeds apace, but ever so quietly. By omission instead of commission. No one is supposed to notice. But how can we help it? For He is a very present help in trouble, as the Psalmist put it, and the whole world was in trouble in those terrible, decisive war years.

There are other inscriptions scattered around this monument-tributes to our veterans, our women, our fighting allies - but nowhere is there any acknowledgment of the Lord of Hosts.

At a time when the popular culture is permeated with vulgarity and worse, no mention of G-d is made on the walls of a memorial to this greatest of struggles between the forces of darkness and those of light.

But anything that can be inscribed can be changed. If the temple that is history can be desanctified, it can be rededicated, too.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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