May 2, 2004
As the National World War II Memorial prepares to open, the secretary of State tells how these public spaces help everyone better understand what America is all about.
By Colin Powell
Every Memorial Day, my sister, Marilyn, and I would put on our Sunday best and accompany our parents to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx to visit the graves of family members. Like all kids, my sister and I were happy to have the day off from school, and I can't say we were in a solemn frame of mind. But taking part in that annual rite of remembrance gave me my first sense of the importance of honoring those who have gone before.
I grew up and chose a soldier's life. I lost close friends in war. Later, I commanded young men and women who went willingly into harm's way for our country, some never to return. A day doesn't pass that I don't think of them. Paying homage to the fallen holds a deeply personal meaning for me and for anyone who ever wore a uniform.
In 1990, when I was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I took my Soviet counterpart, Gen. Mikhail Moiseyev, around the United States. I wanted to give him a better understanding of what America is all about. We started in Washington, D.C. I especially wanted to take him to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
But I didn't take him there directly. First, I took him to the Jefferson Memorial. I pointed out a passage from the Declaration of Independence carved into its curved wall. All who have served in our armed forces share its sentiment. "And for the support of this Declaration," Jefferson wrote, "… we mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honour." Then I asked the general to look up. Above the statue of Jefferson, in 2-foot-high letters on the base of the monument's dome, is this inscription: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."
Here, I said, you see the foundation of America, a nation where "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights." I told the general that like Washington, Jefferson and all our Founding Fathers, Americans of every generation are ready to fight and die for those unalienable rights.
Then, to show Gen. Moiseyev the kind of sacrifices Americans are willing to make, I took him to the Lincoln Memorial, where Lincoln's words at Gettysburg are engraved. There, Lincoln said we had fought the bloodiest war in our history so our nation "shall have a new birth of freedom" and so "government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth." I wanted Gen. Moiseyev to see how sacred those words are to Americans. The nation's newest memorial, to be dedicated Memorial Day weekend, reminds us in this time of war that "each life given in the name of liberty is a life that has not been lost in vain," Powell writes.
I showed the general the final lines of Lincoln's second inaugural address: "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan …"
I then walked the general part of the way down the Lincoln Memorial's steps to the place from which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. I explained that the unfinished work of which Lincoln spoke was still unfinished a century later, so from the very spot on which we stood, King challenged his fellow Americans to make the promise of our Founding Fathers come true for all Americans.
Only now was I ready to take Gen. Moiseyev to the Vietnam memorial. We walked the short distance from the Lincoln Memorial to the Wall. I showed the general how to find someone's name on it. I looked up Maj. Tony Mavroudis. Tony and I had grown up together on the streets of New York. We went to college together. We became infantrymen together. And in 1967, on his second tour of duty in Vietnam, Tony was killed. The memorial book directed us to Panel 28 East, and there we found ANTONIO M MAVROUDIS carved into the black granite. It was an emotional moment for me, and not just for me. Gen. Moiseyev reached out gently and touched the Wall. The infantryman in him understood.
Thankfully, our forces no longer face the prospect of war with the Soviet Union. Today, we are cooperating with Russia's evolving democracy and with other former foes against 21st-century dangers common to us all. Today's deadly threats come from rogue powers and stateless networks of extremists who have nothing but contempt for the sanctity of human life and for the principles civilized nations hold dear.
I do not know or care what terrorists and tyrants make of our monuments to democracy and the memorials we dedicate to our dead. What's important is what the monuments and memorials say to us. They can teach us much about the ideas that unite us in our diversity, the values that sustain us in times of trial, and the dream that inspires generation after generation of ordinary Americans to perform extraordinary acts of service. In short, our monuments and memorials tell us a great deal about America's commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all.
The haunting symbolism of the 168 empty chairs at the Oklahoma City National Memorial, the heartbreaking piles of shoes in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the carefully tended headstones bearing crosses, crescents and Stars of David standing row-on-row in Arlington and our other national cemeteries — all speak to the value we place on human life.
The Vietnam Women's Memorial of the three servicewomen and the wounded GI; the Korean War Veterans Memorial's haggard, windblown patrol trudging up the rugged terrain; and the memorial of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima do not glorify war — they testify to the glory of the human spirit.
The Civil War battlefields and the monument in Boston to Robert Gould Shaw and his 54th Massachusetts Regiment of Negro soldiers who rode together into the jaws of death for the cause of justice tell us of the price past generations have paid so we might live in a more perfect union. They remind us also of the work our generation must do.
This Memorial Day weekend, we will join in celebrating the opening of the National World War II Memorial honoring the great generation of Americans who saved the world from fascist aggression and secured the blessings of liberty for hundreds of millions of people around the world.
Today, their descendants are fighting the global war against terrorism, serving and sacrificing in Afghanistan and Iraq and at other outposts on the front lines of freedom. The life of each and every one of them is precious to their loved ones and to our nation. And each life given in the name of liberty is a life that has not been lost in vain.
In time, lasting memorials will stand where the Twin Towers once etched New York City's skyline, near the west side of the Pentagon, and in the Pennsylvania field where doomed heroes died on Sept. 11, 2001, using their last moments to save the lives of others and most probably the Capitol or the White House — symbols of our living democracy.
All of us lead busy lives. We have little time to pause and reflect. But I ask of you: Do not hasten through Memorial Day. Take the time to remember the good souls whose memories are a blessing to you and your family. Take your children to our memorial parks and monuments. Teach them the values that lend meaning to our lives and to the life of our nation. Above all, take the time to honor our fellow Americans who have given their last full measure of devotion to our country and for the freedoms we cherish.
Cover and cover story photographs by Cameron Davidson for USA WEEKEND