The writing on the wall

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.

Photo courtesy WNC Veterans Memorial

“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.”

Conflicting visions

Credit where credit is due?

Here’s the poem chosen for inclusion in the WNC Veterans Memorial:

It is the Veteran

It is the VETERAN, not the preacher, who has given us freedom of religion
It is the VETERAN, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press
It is the VETERAN, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech
It is the VETERAN, not the campus organizer, who has given us freedom to assemble
It is the VETERAN, not the politician, who has given us the right to vote
It is the VETERAN
Who salutes the flag
Who serves under the flag
Whose coffin is draped by the flag.
Thank you Veterans.


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.”


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31 thoughts on “The writing on the wall

  1. ashvillian

    I believe that THE US CONSTITUTION guarantees most of the rights, the writer inaccurately gives credit for to our veterans.

  2. No, the US Constitution still exists because veterans defend and support it and give their lives so that YOUR and MY rights continue.

    Have you served in the Armed Forces, Ashvillian? When one is inducted an oath is sworn to protect and defend the Constitution.

    Be glad so many have and give credit where credit is due.

  3. Young Veteran

    The Veterans are accurately credited, for the constitution would be nothing but a notion if it were not for those who fought to see it become the law, and those who have since protected the freedoms it guarantees. The paper alone does not ensure your freedom.

  4. travelah

    amen young veteran …. without a nation willing to protect the rights contained within it, the paper Constitution is nothing more than a historical document.

  5. Ed

    The poem alone sounds ridiculous to me, but not nearly as much as the idea of spending nearly half a million dollars on a piece of stone to sit in the park. If this city truly wants to thank veterans for the profound sacrifices incurred by those that served, then consider spending it on the vets. Many local vets need housing, counseling, artificial limbs, in home nursing care, auto conversions for disabled drivers, the list goes on and on…And the poem, well I’m not a historian nor a literary critic but I am a vet and I’d like to offer my critique. To my knowledge the only veterans that helped “give us these freedoms” fought in the revolutionary war, one might also argue that WW1 and WW2 vets helped us keep these freedoms. The problem lies in the fact that the great majority of our military incursions have little to do with protecting our freedoms. Unless of coarse it’s referring to the freedom of large corporations to exploit foreign labor force and liberate their natural resources.
    Or maybe it’s the freedom of corporate executives to make 3 to 4 hundred times that of a soldier without taking any real risks.

  6. Nam Vet

    I like the poem a lot. It says it all. I wish many in the younger generations who have not served in our military (since the draft was discontinued) will try to appreciate the sentiment. The veterans have done such a good job of defending our freedoms that those coming behind have grown comfortable and forgotten why we have the great country we have today.

    My family has also fought in the military for eons. Starting with the first war at King’s Mtn, to the CSA in the 1860s, to The Spanish American War, to WWII (I’m sure someone was in WWI I just don’t know the details), and me in Viet Nam. I would like to see compulsory national service for all able bodied young people. Choose the military, Americorps Vista, the Peace Corps, whatever, just do something to pay your debt to the freedoms bought by those who have gone before.

    Thank you veterans who have given your lives and wounded bodies so that we all have the freedoms and opportunities we have today in the USA.

  7. I agree with Nam Vet… my family has served in of America’s wars, too. I am descended from at least three men who fought in the American Revolution, gaining us our freedom–two of them buried right here in Buncombe County. I had direct ancestors who fought on both sides of the War for Southern Independence (the Union vet’s daughter married the Confederate vet’s son). War World I and World War II were supported by my family as was Vietnam, where I personally served.

    THIS is what made and keeps America free; the willingness of its people to take up arms.

    If you have not served that is your right, we won it for you. Just say ‘thanks’ to a vet.

  8. Rob Close

    I have mixed opinions.

    It’s true that our soldiers are the ones who defend these rights, and commending them for such seems appropriate. Reminding us that we enjoy these rights over the blood of our fore-fathers is not too much.

    However, the TONE of this poem seems to imply that they’re better than the rest of society. That the struggles of the common-man are nothing. And it’s through means like this that patriotism is swept up into sentiment, and used as a tool.

    Words are powerful. I’d say these words are a little too disrespectful of civilian contributions, at an attempt to over-glorify the armed services.

    (oh rob it’s so easy for you to say that – but how would YOU present these ideas, to maintain honesty & balance?)

    It’s the preacher who gives us Freedom of Religion – While our Soldiers defend it, regardless which vision.
    It’s the reporter who embodies our Freedom of Press – While our Soldiers puts brave words to the test.
    It’s the poet whose thoughts turn to Freedom of Speech – While our Soldiers they thank put it within our reach.
    It’s the youth’s fight for justice, the Freedom to Organize – While our Soldiers patrol those unfriendly skies.
    It’s the politicians who urge upon our Freedom to Vote – While our Soldiers fight for democracies hope.

    See? I’ve spent about 20 minutes here writing, and…
    A) It’s (somewhat) original.
    B) Respectful of both sides, I believe.
    C) I tried to make it rhyme.

    And thank you Veterans, I’m just a nit-picky devil’s advocate. Glad I’ve got the right to be one. I’m curious though – do any veterans out there understand the objection to the language?

  9. ron ogle

    Ed has hit the nail on its head. $400,000. for a piece of stone while veterans themselves get the shaft.
    Robclose, I am now collecting alternate versions of the pre-selected poem and I will certainly add yours.

    Here’s one from Donovan:
    “He’s the universal soldier and he really is to blame.
    His orders come from far away no more.
    They come from him and you and me,
    and brothers can’t you see?
    This is not the way to put an end to war.”

    Ron Ogle, US Navy Veteran

  10. Rob Close

    thanks Ron – like i said, i spent 20 minutes (at most) on that, not exactly proud of it enough for consideration, just wanted to make a point about imagination (and the lack thereof).

    However, looking back, you’re right; Ed has really nailed it. There is honor through stone, and honor through action. And Ed’s point about corporate exec’s reminded me – how little do we respect our soldier’s that we’ve sunk to using mercenaries (who get paid much better).

    People worry about protests hurting our soldier’s morale, but most sentiments expressed by the anti-war movement have matured into being respectful of our soldiers who honor us. If there’s anything going on today that is actually harming troop morale, it would be the presence of mercenaries.

    Are they necessary? Well, we could institute a draft, or ask for international help (if we intend to stay as nation-builders). The draft has a lot of downsides, and although it’s unfair for our armed forces to be so burdened, blaming it on civilians is a red herring.

    We don’t have sufficient forces to fight our war on terror because we’ve snubbed international help. Why? Because our leaders want to go it alone, regardless of the cost on our troops. Why? Well, what PRACTICAL DIFFERENCE does it make that we’ve denied the U.N. the role of peace-keepers?
    1) we get to make the laws, and thus divy up the resources.
    2) The U.N. may have succeeded. By failing in Iraq, Bush gets a long war that gets us to fight terrorists on their own turf. we also get a permanent war-economy, and the corporations that placed him in power have all grown exceedingly richer. Whether its local elections or national, dems or repubs – follow the MONEY.

    Am I saying Bush intentionally screwed the pooch in Iraq? Yes. Because it was OBVIOUS that a purely American presence would get exactly what we have today – a war against America in Iraq. Sure, they hate each other. But we know how they reacted to permanent bases in Saudi Arabia – 9/11. They hate us more than each other, and it’s because our policies treat their lives as worth less than their resources.

  11. ron ogle

    I am attempting to get these lines from the November 12th New York Times to rhyme:

    “A higher percentage of wounded soldiers are surviving the current conflicts with grievous injuries, their lives saved by body armor, advances in battlefield medicine and prompt evacuation.

    A study issued last week estimated that the long-term costs of their medical care and disability benefits could exceed the amount spent so far in prosecuting the war in Iraq.”

  12. Thunder Pig

    Without Veterans, all you anti-Americans wouldn’t even be having a cow over the tribute to Veterans.

    You’d be living under some form of Totalitarian government…and you’d probably prefer it that way.

  13. free speech

    I agree with Ron and Rob. There is a way to give credit to our veterans while not discrediting those who also uphold and strengthen the fabric of our society–civil servants, educators, artists, trash collectors, librarians, etc.

    I am thankful to veterans and against the horrible decisions and manipulation that has led us to war. That makes me American, I believe, because I can express my thoughts and feelings and not be called anti-American.

  14. NCHarleyHardtail

    Hey Jason one of your old inline Hockey buddies here. What is up with the C student comment?Are you saying me as a Vet is C student?? Hey I hope you are well and I was D student. Hope to talk to you again sometime has been awhile 2 yrs is too long!! Mike

  15. michael Ireland

    as a vet i served overseas in countries that had dictorships and dam near communist. i sat in a square and watched chilaen troops run over there college kids for voicing there opinions. The monroe document states we will not have communist rule in this hemisphere yet its there. stopping communist from spreading there crap is apart of our way of life so it could never come here. Im insulted that another vet would say that only the revolutionary war@ wwI and II were the only real wars that give us our rights. Try traveling around the world and see whats out there and how they live. you would kiss the ground we walk on. i do agree that the money could do some good helping vets who need help, but a place for a vet to remember and maybe get some tranquility if only for a few moments is immensly benificial

  16. michael parker

    Not 50 years ago, a totalitarian superpower was building missile bases on Cuban soil. It’s a good thing we had a military.

    Long before that, a king wanted forced funding of his state church, and your headless body in a mass grave if you criticized him. It’s a good thing we had soldiers then, too.

    It’s a sad thing that we have people who think they are intellectual when they over-analyze a simple poem with the goal of finding something they say will hurt someone else’s feelings.

    If the poem pleases the vets, let them have it. What’s it to you?

  17. Richard Bernier

    If they want to use the poem then let them. Wally, dont you have something else you could do???

    Shame,Shame,Shame on you Wally….

    I bet I could find something you wrote that wouldnt sit well with me & others…

  18. Nam Vet

    Well I think my original post says it all. So here goes.

    I like the poem a lot. It says it all. I wish many in the younger generations who have not served in our military (since the draft was discontinued) will try to appreciate the sentiment. The veterans have done such a good job of defending our freedoms that those coming behind have grown comfortable and forgotten why we have the great country we have today.

    My family has also fought in the military for eons. Starting with the first war at King’s Mtn, to the CSA in the 1860s, to The Spanish American War, to WWII (I’m sure someone was in WWI I just don’t know the details), and me in Viet Nam. I would like to see compulsory national service for all able bodied young people. Choose the military, Americorps Vista, the Peace Corps, whatever, just do something to pay your debt to the freedoms bought by those who have gone before.

    Thank you veterans who have given your lives and wounded bodies so that we all have the freedoms and opportunities we have today in the USA.

  19. Astralaea Lovey

    It is the Veteran not the peacemaker who kills innocent children, men and woman in foreign countries.

  20. ron ogle

    “If the poem pleases the vets, let them have it. ”
    How do we know that poem “pleases the vets” ?
    And why will it cost $450,000. ?

  21. Harry Hamil

    For the record: I am a U.S. Army,Viet Nam era veteran, not a veteran of the conflict in Viet Nam so that part of my service to my country wasn’t very hard and merits no great praise. Like most veterans of the armed services, what matters more is how I’ve lived the rest of my life.

    It seems to me that the first, and one of the best ways, for you, who are reading this, to honor us, veterans, is to use your actual name when posting comments, particularly about articles like this one.

    In the military, we were required to stand up and be counted. You honor us when you, also, stand up and allow yourself to be counted.

    My thanks to those of you who are using your actual names. That way, if I want to, I can look you up. Or, maybe we’ll be introduced one day and I’ll be able to say, “I recognize your name, but I can’t place it. Have we ever met?” And you can respond something like, “I seem to recall yours, too, but don’t know why.”

    Then, if we honor each other by taking the time to share a bit of our history, one of us might say, “Oh! I know who you are! You’ve made posts on the Mountain Xpress’s website!”

    Maybe I understand this a bit differently because I have a such common sounding English name that is similar to that of the actor, Harry Hamlin, but is, in fact, so very rare that it makes me easy to find. Oh yeah, and I stand up frequently so that I’m easy to count.

  22. medix

    The poem is 100% accurate. It is the constitution that gives us these rights, but it is the veteran that protects those rights so that we can still have the freedom afforded by them today. I think that is is Bowen that has a screwed up version of history (or at least his interpretation of that history). As a vet, I would be proud to have that poem posted at any memorial.

  23. ron ogle

    For a “version of history” I recommend A PEOPLES’ HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES by Howard Zinn.
    Ron Ogle, U.S. Navy, Viet Nam era veteran.

  24. Richard Bernier

    Wally Bowen is just wrong, however I am glad he has open his mouth to this issue!!

    Yes, I did say that…..

    However, since Wally has open his door – I see no reason to look inside & see what he is doing with his non-profit.

    Will Wally open his books up for public review?

    Then they are issues that will also be coming forth with Wally, so you see – Im glad Wally has come out in the open.

  25. ron ogle

    New Poem for the new monument:
    If we cannot do them honor
    while they’re here
    by improving Veteran’s Hospitals and other services for them,
    then at least we can buy them a $450,000.
    piece of granite
    with these words on it.

  26. Rob Abbot

    Technically it is the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution, which guaranty’s the citizenry’s rights as you have described above.

    These amendments limit the powers of the federal government, protecting the rights of all citizens, residents and visitors on United States territory.

    The Bill of Rights also restricts Congress’ power by prohibiting it from making any law respecting establishment of religion and by prohibiting the federal government from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.

    In addition, the Bill of Rights states that “the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,” and reserves all powers not granted to the federal government to the citizenry or states.

    It is the Soldier, Airman, Seaman, or Marine, amoung other government employees (not the Veteran) who are sworn to defend (and uphold) the Constitution of the United States. Veterans, depending on your definition, can still be active soldiers or can be discharged former soldiers.

    Therefore, I think it would be fair to say that it is the Veteran, who has insured these freedoms.

    Thank you Veterans!

  27. Rob Abbot

    One last thought…

    “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments,

    but what is woven into the lives of others.”


  28. Kelli

    I must say as a vet and the daughter and grand daughter of vets I am very proud of ALL who serve this beautiful country and keep the freedom for all of us. Everyone has theyre nitch and makes a difference both good and bad. It just so happens that as someone serving in the armed forces you should be very thankful to do what you do. I thank all of you both past and present for the time youve given to the rest of us!

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