In Washington D.C. last fall, I spent some time at the Korean War Veterans Memorial. I sort of stumbled across it on my way to the Lincoln Memorial, so I was unprepared and didn’t really have a context for what I was seeing. That lack of context may have made the experience more powerful.
Power in imagery
The 19 ghostly statues emerging from the woods and into a triangular space are slightly larger than life, and though they are still, their ponchos and helmet straps seem to billow in the wind. The effect is haunting. I heard a park ranger explaining that the statues are positioned in such a way that no matter where you stand, at least one of them is looking at you, a detail that pays tribute to the heightened watchfulness of troops in enemy territory.
Meaning in words
So the initial impact of the images was powerful, but I didn’t recognize the symbolic details until I could read about the memorial later. For example, I learned:
- All four branches of the service are represented: 14 Army, 3 Marines, 1 Navy, and 1 Air Force.
- The diversity of America is represented: 12 Caucasian soldiers, 3 African American, 2 Latino, 1 Asian, and 1 Native American. The Korean War was the first fought by an integrated military.
- The 19 soldiers are reflected in the Mural Wall, giving an impression of 38 soldiers, representing the 38th parallel and the 38 months the war lasted.
- The 2,400 images on the Mural Wall depict Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard personnel, all facing the 19 soldiers, indicating their support. And when you face the Mural Wall, your image is included among the supporters.
- Juniper bushes underneath the soldiers’ feet alternate with granite stripes to create an impression of the rugged Korean terrain and other obstacles that made the war difficult.
- The focal point of the memorial is the reflecting pool, so the entire memorial serves as a pointed reminder not to forget “the forgotten war.”
Powerful, meaningful stories
I think the most powerful stories become memorable and meaningful because they use words and images together. In some cases, the images make an impact first, and then words help us verbalize and understand the impact. In other cases, images can more clearly express what our words are unable to convey. And sometimes, words are used to actually create images in our minds.
Those images, those words, those stories—they’re important. They help us understand ourselves and our world and our past. They help us remember and feel and commit. They build relationship and break down stereotypes. They inspire simultaneous humility and pride.
Without those words and images and stories, holidays like Memorial Day lose their meaning.