The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recently found the cross on Mount Soledad unconstitutional. Cross or not, the Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial doesn’t measure up to traditional definitions of memorials. When Congress appropriated the land in 2006 they called it “a historically significant national memorial” and “a tribute for over 52 years to the members of the United States Armed Forces who sacrificed their lives in the defense of the United States.” However, what sits atop Mount Soledad is intrinsically local and much more confusing.
According to Professor Marita Sturken of New York University, memorials exist to remember those who sacrificed their lives for a particular set of values, while monuments signify victory. Both frame a particular historical narrative or, when official, provide closure on a specific conflict or the sanctioned history of a war. The Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial does not meet these criteria.
According to remarks made by Chairman and CEO of the Mount Soledad Memorial Association William Kellogg at the Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial Ceremony 2010, only 30 percent of those named on plaques glued to Soledad’s walls are dead: The majority of the people honored there are still alive.
Unlike the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial whose presence changed perceptions of that war, the Mount Soledad site does not frame a historically important national narrative or provide closure. Nor does it sanction official history, unless it is the history of exclusionary behavior by the village of La Jolla.
On the contrary, its narrative is most easily read as that of a self-financed commemoration of the biggest business in town: the military. It is a celebration by and for a politically, economically and culturally dominant class of citizens similar in some ways to commemorations for important groups in other cities, like auto workers in Detroit. It is the representation of the names on the memorial that prove this point.
University of North Carolina Professor Carole Blair studies memorials and writes, “The names of the dead are our representatives, those who died under the sign of a public good.” Names are the heart of a memorial, which is why the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor lists the names of all 1,177 men who perished with their ship. Our government memorialized the crew as representatives of that attack and, in doing so, presented these sailors as representatives of the sacrifice any one of us could or would have made to defend our country.
It’s difficult to see such a representation in the “memorial” atop Mount Soledad because even though the names found there signify service, they represent a private and not public presentation, originating out of an honoree’s desire for personal recognition, membership in a special club and the ability to pay. Commemorative plaques are only added to a wall if they are purchased.
There are now over 2,700 plaques on the walls of the memorial. Each presents the resume of an individual veteran. Few died in combat. Many served in peacetime or in non-combat roles. Some honor units; a handful honor women. Seventy percent of those whose names appear are still alive. Taken together these details expose a contradiction identifying the memorial as a tribute to the living more than a memorial to the dead.
Professor Sturken says memorials honor sacrifice. There is no doubt military duty involves sacrifice; any member of the armed forces is at greater risk of being put in harm’s way than an average civilian. But to be honored on Mount Soledad doesn’t require any more sacrifice than an honorable discharge and money. Plaques are available for sale to anyone with both. Our government is not honoring the service of those named on plaques. Their service is being honored by their families, friends or themselves. The Memorial Association even pitches a Mount Soledad commemorative plaque on its website by stating that purchasing a plaque gives a veteran the opportunity to “tell the story” of their service.
Furthermore, on the Mount Soledad Memorial no distinction is made for those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Service members killed in action receive the same treatment as those who simply bought a plaque.
An appraisal of the Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial reveals its deficiencies and makes one wonder why it was conceived the way it was. The answer is that it was built to save the cross from legal decisions ordering its removal, and not to memorialize service personnel. If planting an orange grove or building a skate park around the cross was the best legal strategy for saving it, the defenders of the cross would have done that instead.
What stands on the hilltop is a physical manifestation of a legal strategy and not a traditional memorial as its sponsors would like you to believe, although it makes good on one academic point: It is a monument to victory, a victory for the old guard of San Diego, whose desperate attempt to save their identity and maintain their political power through the presence of a cross on public land has resulted in a flawed memorial that cheapens the sacrifice made by those who actually died for our country. The decision of the 9th Circuit Court offers an opportunity to make it right.
Bob Stein lives in University City.