One hundred years ago Sunday, the horrific fighting of World War I came to an end. The armistice went into effect at “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” in 1918.
The “Great War” was total war on an unimaginable scale. It brought us new lethal technologies such as the machine gun and poison gas, the Armenian genocide, a vast displacement of peoples, an epidemic of PTSD (then known simply as “shell shock”), and a final casualty toll of about 38 million people, both military and civilian.
Sadly, precious few Americans today know a single thing about World War I. This is unconscionable, because we can still feel its aftershocks all over the world today. Forgetting our history has very damaging consequences if we ever hope to attain real progress in this world. And the point of war memorials is to remind us of such things, and to bid us never to forget.
So there is great poignancy in the timing of the Supreme Court’s recent agreement to consider the case of The American Legion et al. v. the American Humanist Association et al. The court will decide whether a World War I memorial in Bladensburg, Md., may remain standing, or if it constitutes an illegal mix of church and state. The American Legion is appealing the Oct. 18, 2017, decision of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that the memorial must go, which overturned a previous ruling allowing the memorial to stand.
We should ask: Will this Sunday’s 11 a.m. wreath-laying ceremony on the centennial of the end of World War I be the last one to take place at the Bladensburg Peace Cross?
What Is the Bladensburg Peace Cross?
Nearly 100 years ago, the American Legion and private donors financed the memorial, which was dedicated in 1925 to honor the memories of 49 local men who lost their lives during the war. The mothers of two of the fallen took part in the ground-breaking. All of the wording on the memorial is secular. There is a quote from President Woodrow Wilson, the names of the fallen, and on each of the four faces at the base are the words: Valor, Courage, Endurance, Devotion.
Yes, the memorial is in the shape of a Latin Cross. The American Humanist Association claims the 93-year-old monument is unconstitutional because it’s a cross standing on public land. It is currently maintained in Prince George’s County by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
Yes, at 40 feet tall, it is also very large. No doubt its size represents the scale of the war, the sacrifice and the inconceivable suffering of it all. The location is at the crossroads of major routes that go from Washington D.C., to Baltimore and to Annapolis. So, yes, it’s visible. Memorials aren’t meant to be hidden, especially when they commemorate fresh wounds so deeply felt by the people who put them up.
As far as the cross shape is concerned, it is often considered a universal symbol of sacrifice. In the case of this memorial, it symbolized the thousands of cross-shaped grave markers for the American soldiers who never came home. Many were buried in cemeteries overseas, including the 14,245 Americans laid to rest at Meuse-Argonne in France, under rows and rows of crosses. Without a gravesite to visit, families of the fallen saw the memorial cross as a reachable place of remembrance for their sons.
Spreading Acts of Religious and Historical Iconoclasm
But it’s not only about the cross. This an assault on the study of history. If atheists get their way, and the Bladensburg WWI Memorial is removed, we should not expect that to satisfy them. It would only enable more such acts of iconoclasm.
Crosses are sprinkled everywhere throughout America in public places. Even little makeshift roadside crosses meant to memorialize loved ones lost in car accidents are having their constitutionality questioned, as this New York Times article illustrates. References to God are prominent in the U.S. Capitol as well as in the Supreme Court building. And it’s on all of our currency, right down to the last penny. Obviously, these forces are just getting started.
Yes, their continued acts of iconoclasm would erode religious freedom by empowering the state to make decisions about where, when, and why and how people can express their consciences. It would also allow the state to make those decisions retroactively, as in the case of Bladensburg’s 93-year-old monument that is a part of the community’s landscape and heritage.
But these acts are also an assault on the study of history. If you were a purely secular person, you could make a purely secular argument that such acts in effect amount to erasing history. That is another alarming aspect of this war on the cross. It is an assault against the retention of our national memory — where we’ve been as a people, what we’ve done, who we are, and who we once were.
Does it ever occur to people offended by an old monument that it represents far more than meets the eye? I wonder if they have any natural curiosity. Aren’t they interested in that perennial question of history: What Happened? And what does this memorial actually represent? Why can’t they consider context — the who, what, where, when, why, and how of a memorial’s placement in time and space?
In the case of the Bladensburg Cross, they should understand that it served as a universal symbol of sacrifice. They should be able to recognize the magnitude of the sacrifice, and the utter tragedy of that war. We should all be able to reflect on how World War I changed the world, particularly the role of the United States in it.
We Need Memorials to Our History
Sadly, the assault on the study of history is everywhere now. Not only do K-12 and university systems increasingly shun it, but the assault on history has been a big part of our culture’s blind emotionalism that can’t abide any local differences. These anti-thought brigades have even used threats and “suspicious devices” to force the cancellation of battle reenactments that would shine some light on the question of what happened. If only more people were interested in knowing the actual answer — and allowed to learn it — there would be fewer divisions and more peace among us.
In recognition of the centennial of the WWI armistice, please consider listening to this fascinating 7-minute lecture explaining the effects of World War I and the earth-shattering psychological effects it had on the entire world for generations to come. The video was filmed at the World War I Museum in Kansas City, Mo. University of Tennessee History Professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius is probably the most engaging and informative speaker on the subject.
He explains that understanding World War I is important, because it serves as a great cautionary tale for our own age. He also engages questions on what we should have learned from WWI and why it is critical for everyone to study history as a means of recognizing our common humanity.
The ‘Wall of Separation’ Eviscerates Free Exercise
I’ve no doubt that many who wish to see the removal of the Bladensburg WWI Memorial really do believe that the establishment clause of the First Amendment means that all public spaces must be utterly devoid of religious symbols, particularly of the Christian cross. But I’m also convinced that a lot of them don’t really believe that.
The interpretation they have chosen — “wall of separation between church and state” — serves mostly as a convenient vehicle by which they can gratify their personal grievances. No doubt they had some bad experiences with people who called themselves Christian. I imagine many also feel that moral codes cramp their style.
But I think what we are dealing with mostly in the challenge to the existence of the Bladensburg World War I Memorial is that blind emotionalism. It is emotionalism at the expense of reason, memory, and history.
It’s also interesting that in their citing of Thomas Jefferson’s reference to a “wall of separation,” many self-described atheists always end up empowering the state and diminishing the free exercise of conscience. Might they consider the possibility that this wall of separation was intended to do the opposite? To protect freedom of conscience — especially in a country totally founded on Judeo-Christian values and heritage — against encroachment of the state? Isn’t it more likely that the clause means freedom from the state far more than freedom from religion?
After all, communism, in which atheism is considered the state religion with no other permitted, is responsible for the deaths of 100 million people in the 20th century alone. It goes to show that in order to stay free, we have an obligation to study and appreciate history, not to erase it.