On The Proposed “American Wartime Museum”

by Rich Rubenstein on September 4, 2010 · 0 comments

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Advocates of a proposed “American Wartime Museum” are planning to plant their creation in Prince William County, just outside Washington DC.  They have received promises of private funding and, aided by organizations like the Virginia Conservative Union, have generated considerable public support for project.  They have also provoked some opposition.  When a group of Prince William citizens asked me to testify on the issues before the county’s Planning Commission, I submitted the statement below.  I have also asked to meet with the Museum’s board.  Eventually, if necessary, opponents of the present scheme will take their objections up with the county’s political leaders.

FOR AN AMERICAN WAR AND PEACE MUSEUM

Thank you very much for permitting me to offer testimony on a proposal to create an American Wartime Museum on land in Prince William County described by the Planning Commission Staff in their Report of June 7, 2010.

I am University Professor of Conflict Resolution and Public Affairs at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution of George Mason University.  I teach and write regularly on matters related to war and peace and have just completed a book on why Americans go to war which will be published later this month.

According to the Staff Commission Report on this project, “the 67± acre site will depict Landscapes of War in real scale.  Each major era, including WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan, will feature both indoor and outdoor settings such as WWI trenches, a bombed out WWII European Village and vintage tanks.”  The Report continues, “Visitors will get to view military equipment up-close and in action.  A centerpiece of the museum will be the Outdoor Reenactment Area.  This area will allow the museum to be truly interactive with re-enactments, demonstrations, and visitor participation opportunities.  The Museum will also provide many educational opportunities for school children and will develop programs that reinforce the Virginia Standards of Learning curriculum.”

The Staff then recommends approval of the proposal without discussing the political or philosophical scope and orientation of the museum, the appropriateness of the exhibits for the education of school children, the museum’s cultural role, or any other qualitative issues.  The Report deals almost exclusively with issues of land use, environmental impact, and the like.  This may well be in accordance with the Staff’s primary mandate, but it leaves unconsidered the most important issues associated with this project.

What are these issues?

(1) The first issue has to do with the educational purposes and character of the museum.  Good modern museums do more than present exhibits and stage re-enactments.   They are places for education, not indoctrination, which means that they provide opportunities for the discussion of serious historical, political, and ethical issues.  This is especially important where the subject of the museum is violence, and when many students and young people are expected to be among the visitors.  A museum focused on war – or, as I suggest later, on war and peace – needs to inspire people to think about the causes and consequences of warmaking and the possible alternatives to war as well as the sacrifices made in armed struggle.

For example, consider the National Holocaust Museum, which is one of Washington’s most visited and respected sites.  That museum not only memorializes the events of the Holocaust: it also helps visitors think and talk about why this great tragedy occurred, what was done or not done to prevent it, various ways to understand it, and how to prevent future genocides from occurring.  Like Washington’s Vietnam War Memorial, it is a place where people with widely differing views can meet to learn from each other and from experts.

(2) A second, related issue is the political, cultural, and philosophical orientation of the museum.  To speak plainly, the current descriptions of and plans for the American Wartime Museum make it look like a place for the glorification of war.  It is a fine thing to want to honor those who sacrificed in wartime both on the battlefield and on the home front.  But if that is all that the museum does – if, for example, it lumps together wars that most Americans consider just and necessary, such as World War II, with wars that most Americans oppose, such as our recent interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, then it becomes a glorifier of military action.

Patriotism in our country sometimes involves supporting war efforts.  But great American patriots have often opposed wars that they considered unjust or unnecessary.  And other great patriots have dedicated their lives and careers to peacemaking.  A museum that conflates patriotism with support of war efforts is engaging in propaganda, not reasoned discussion.

(3) The third and last issue I want to mention is the need for a museum that

honors the role of Americans in peacemaking as well as warmaking. Indeed, sometimes those who are heroic fighters in wartime, like Virginia’s General George Catlett Marshall, author of the Marshall Plan, become heroic peacemakers when the war is over.  The heroism of others lies in helping to terminate wars.  Nobel Peace prizes were awarded to three American presidents for helping to negotiate an end to major wars.  And still others make heroic sacrifices in opposing wars they consider unjust.  America’s anti-war heroes include Congressman Abraham Lincoln, who fought against the Mexican-American War; literary legend Mark Twain, who bitterly criticized America’s war of counter-insurgency in the Philippines; labor leader and presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, who went to jail for opposing World War I; and Father Daniel Berrigan and many others who sacrificed their own liberty in order to bring the troops home from Vietnam.

Prince William County should have a museum dedicated to the sacrifices made by Americans both in fighting wars and in struggling for peace.  Rather than an American Wartime Museum, the County should house an American War and Peace Museum that does justice to all the patriots’ sacrifices, whether those sacrifices were made in aid of United States war efforts or in attempts to end current wars and prevent future bloodshed.

Several of my colleagues and I will be happy to consult with the organizers of the American Wartime Museum in order to suggest practicable and reasonable methods of broadening the museum’s scope and making it truly a place for popular education, as well as a memorial to noble sacrifices.  I hope that the Planning Commission will not issue a final approval of the museum until these consultations have taken place.

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