Jonathan pointed me to this post, about a school in California which is not sure it wants to keep the A-4 Skyhawk which has been on display out front for many years. This got me thinking.
A generation or more back people had few qualms whatever about weapons and war as matters of public celebration and commemoration. The period from the end of World War II until the late Sixties was one in which there was an unusual consensus about the rightness of America’s cause and the wars it fought during that period. Liberals had supported WWII because it was against fascism, and the old time, main street Republicans had supported it grudgingly because we had been attacked and Southerners supported it because it was a war and they always support America’s wars. The various tanks and howitzers in town squares or in front of VFW halls come from this era. This also partly due to the fact that there was a mountainous heap of surplus tanks, etc. which could be gotten easily, welded in place, and painted green. (And you Chicagoans should note next time you are strolling downtown that the State Street bridge is the Bataan-Corregidor Bridge.) The consensus era continued in the early Cold War, which was led initially by Democratic liberal internationalism, so liberals supported it, and main street conservatives supported it because it was against Godless communism, and Southerners supported it because it led to a larger military and the possibility of a war as well as because they didn’t much care for Godless communism, either. So, war and the threat of war and our recent victories were in the air at this time, and monuments featuring weapons were not particularly controversial.
Airplanes had a special appeal. There were lots of surplus planes, for one thing. Also, added to the general willingness to use hardware for commemoration, there was a romanticism about aviation, especially jet aviation, which it is hard for us to conjure up. My Dad got his pilots license when he was 16, in1945, and he was taught by true first-generation pilots. So I have tasted that pioneer-era excitement in hearsay fashion. But you only have to look at the popular culture of the late 40s and 50s and you see aircraft and jet imagery everywhere. Chuck Berry even had Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer “zooming like a Sabre jet.” So, airplane monuments were doubly appealing during that period. Airplane monuments were in large part a celebration of American know-how and technology and speed and energy and vitality — at least as much as they were of an instrument of war.
Previous eras have had a more ambivalent public response to our nation’s wars, and little or no technophilia such as we saw in the Jet Age. WWI produced very few public monuments. In fact, the Yankees of New England and the Upper Midwest had opposed the war, grudgingly supported Wilson once we got in, and then turned against the whole thing the minute it was over. There is a World War I monument in Oak Park, Illinois which is massive, impressive and quietly tasteful — but it is a memorial to the dead, not a celebration of victory. The Spanish American War was met with genuine public ambivalence, and was so badly botched in its execution, that there was little desire for commemoration. The Civil War produced the many cannons and soldier statues in county seat squares, on both sides. In New England and in the upper Midwest every old town square has its white-steepled Protestant church, often a brick late Victorian Catholic church, old trees and large houses on the surrounding streets — and a civil war statue or cannon. But the tone of these monuments tends to be somber or stoic rather than celebratory. Most monuments to the Revolution were put up many years after the events, like the Minuteman statue at Lexington, a stark and beautiful work, and the somewhat less powerful statue at Concord. Saint-Gaudens’s equestrian statue of George Washington in the Boston public gardens is a magnificent and frankly martial work, but it was more a celebration of American national identity and unity than of the war per se. The Mexican war was a land-grab by the Slave-ocracy, which was not popular in the North. U.S. Grant participated in it, and said it was the most shameful chapter in our history. I’ve never seen a monument to it. Of course, the very popular Vietnam monument in Washington DC is anything but celebratory. Its very abstractness allows each visitor to bring to it and take away from it what they want and need.
Anyway, the people who are blessed with an A-4 Skyhawk in front of their school should be grateful to have it. It is a relic of a different time, and we should respect, or at least try to understand charitably and sympathetically, what earlier generations were trying to do by putting it up. The people at the school should understand and appreciate their history. Like it or not, this is a nation built and sustained by war. For all its faults, it is a proud and worthy history. And whether you agree with that or not, we should all be able to squarely face that history, and its tangible relics, and preserve them for the next generation.
Update. Jonathan sent me a link which shows that the Washington statue was not by St. Gaudens. A little research discloses it was in fact sculpted in 1869 by Thomas Ball. So much for Lex’s feigned omniscience.