Wally Bowen was watching BCTV, the county-government access channel, when a poem titled “It is the Veteran” appeared on the screen during a brief segment on the planned WNC Veterans Memorial (see box). Bowen, who is executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network, says he’d been considering buying a brick on the memorial (for a donation of $500 or more), but he has problems with the choice of poem.
“I support veterans,” he explains. “There are a lot of veterans in my family, going all the way back to the Battle of King’s Mountain [in 1780], but the poem kept nagging at me.”
To Bowen, the poem is “a grave misrepresentation of American history. Our founders had deep misgivings about the influence of the military and of standing armies. We have a long tradition of the military being under civilian control. The rule of law is what ensures our freedoms. This flips that on its head.”
The veterans’ memorial is planned as part of the new Pack Square Park, now under construction. The memorial will include a bas-relief showing members of each branch of the military, pillars displaying each of their seals, a statue of a seated woman representing the loved ones soldiers leave behind—and the poem, etched in stone. Founded in 2000, the nonprofit Pack Square Conservancy is overseeing construction and overall fund raising for the park; the WNC Veterans Memorial board is responsible for the design and fund raising for the memorial. Bidding for the project opened Nov. 6.
The city and county have each kicked in $25,000 for the memorial, and both the Buncombe County commissioners and the Asheville City Council have signed off on the design. Weaverville’s Town Council also contributed $500. The memorial board has so far raised $400,000 of the $450,000 cost, the rest from private donors, including a $125,000 matching grant from the Janirve Foundation, a private nonprofit based in Asheville that supports assorted projects in Western North Carolina. The city’s Public Art Board signed off on the details of the design (including the poem) this spring. The idea of including the poem came from Army veteran Walter Plaue, who serves on the memorial’s board of directors. “I heard it at a patriotic event a long time ago,” he said. “I liked it, so I showed it to the rest of the board, we voted on it and approved it.” Plaue said the exact location of the poem in the monument has not been decided yet.
Although the poem is not attributed to any author, it appears to be a modified version of an earlier one—“It is the Soldier” by Charles Province, an Army veteran who is president of the George S. Patton Jr. Historical Society. Province’s poem uses the word “soldier” instead of “veteran.” It also contains the statement that “It is the soldier, not the lawyer, who has given us the right to a fair trial,” and it concludes with the line “Who allows the protester to burn the flag,” both of which were omitted from the version planned for the park.
Asheville resident Richard Griffin, a World War II veteran who chairs the memorial board, calls the poem “very definitive. It is a tribute to the people who serve their country and have done it many services. It’s very true.”
The board, he says, had decided on the poem several years ago. The group of veterans submitted a design for the memorial, one of several presented to the Pack Square Conservancy. The Conservancy chose the veterans’ design, which was then passed on to the Public Art Board for review. While a separate group from the conservancy, the board has since worked under them, modifying the design and raising funds for the memorial’s construction.
Asked about Bowen’s concerns, Griffin chuckled and said, “Well, people will say all kinds of things.” Griffin also observed, “I don’t see how anyone could criticize it.”
Plaue, meanwhile, says the poem “elaborates a basic truth a lot of people seem to forget—that some people had to pay a price for the life we enjoy, for the preacher to preach or the newscaster to report.” Both the city and county, he notes, approved the project, adding that “a lot of people are looking to ride on the coattails of this project. But you just can’t please everybody. I’m aware there’s an element of the citizenry that feels this way; we’ve gotten criticisms that the one monument on the park is devoted to veterans. My usual comeback is: ‘What have you done for your country?’ These are people who have put their lives and careers on hold to serve—and what’s more, they accepted the risks that came with it, instead of staying safe in an office job.”
Another veterans memorial is planned for the renovated Memorial Stadium, a half-dozen blocks away. According to the city’s Web site, this one will include “interpretive exhibits and memorials to honor veterans from all U.S. conflicts. The monumental granite World War II memorial currently located on the campus of Mission Hospital will be moved to the stadium and integrated into the plan to create a moving, interpretive exhibit that honors and remembers those who served their country.”
Groundbreaking on the Pack Square memorial was originally slated for this fall, but the entire park project has faced extended construction delays since work began in August 2005. Completion is now slated for the spring of 2009, and the projected cost is $20.5 million. The city and county have each contributed $2 million to date, and the federal government provided an additional $6 million. Now, Griffin said, after two years of fundraising, things are ready to proceed forward.
Carved in stone
This is not the first time the memorial has sparked controversy. When the design was first submitted two years ago, the city’s Public Art Board was unhappy about what it saw as a failure to represent the variety of the people being honored. “We tried to explain to them that we don’t look at it that way and that this is not a war memorial, but a service memorial to all those—past, present and future—who serve, whether it’s overseas or a National Guardsman putting up sandbags in a storm,” Plaue explains. In response to those concerns, the bas-relief was added depicting a diverse array of service people—including, he notes, the female pilots in World War II who shuttled bombers and equipment overseas. Other modifications included changes to the statue of the young woman. The Public Art Board, Plaue recalls, “wanted the figure of the woman to represent all eras in her dress, appearance and hairdo. So we designed it to be as neutral as possible.”
The veterans are “really excited” about the memorial’s construction drawing near, noted Donna Clark, information officer for the conservancy. She said that the memorial is a vital part of the park and that the veterans have a sense of urgency about it.
“They’re part of a generation with a unique voice that is dying out—and I think they’re very aware of that,” Clark said.
For his part, Bowen says he doesn’t question the memorial board’s motives, but he feels the poem is not an appropriate way to pay tribute to the area’s veterans. “I’m bringing this up because I believe in honoring our veterans,” says Bowen. “But we should be putting something in granite that’s a representation of our laws and constitutional system. I’m trying to do [the WNC Veterans Memorial] a favor by calling attention to this.”
Thomas Jefferson, he notes, consistently opposed the whole idea of a standing army, calling it an “engine of oppression.” And if the poem goes up as planned, Bowen says he worries about the implications.
“It’s a dangerous message for young people to see, to think that this is just part of American history—to think that all the liberties they enjoy are due to the military, when that’s just not so. They’re due to a history of struggle by many Americans.”