San Diego needs a veteran’s memorial. Unfortunately, one as enormous as the proposed Wings of Freedom is not just a veteran’s memorial but, as its sponsors rightly point out, an iconic representation of San Diego. At 500 feet tall, three feet taller than the Manchester Grand Hyatt, the Wings of Freedom will dominate visual presentations of our city wherever they appear. In other words, it will represent all of us and project our city to the world as a military stronghold, or at least a place that worships warplanes. We no more need to advertise a message as narrow as this as we enter the 21st century global economy than install a 500-foot high surfboard on our skyline. San Diego and its varied citizens create and offer far more. We cannot allow our regional image to be hijacked by San Diego’s military-industrial complex.
The gigantism and metaphors of this project are no mistake. Like the pharaohs and their pyramids, our military community wants to erect permanent testimony to its reach and influence. They need to because of their changing fortunes. As San Diego’s economy continues pulling away from its warrior roots, the loss of economic and political power suffered by our military is an anathema to their need for unfettered access to our air, land and sea so they can operate as they please. And, if future projections are right, as the region grows by 1 million people by 2030, the importance of the military will shrink further, if for no other reason than economic reality and the changing nature of war. Make no mistake about it, this proposal is motivated by the need to counter this decline.
Nor is it surprising our military community is blind to the impact this design will have on audiences beyond their brethren. After all, they operate in what is essentially a domestic industry whose overseas connections are either ally or enemy. They have no interest in what those around the world might think or feel when it comes to doing business with San Diegans. They are trained to see threats, not opportunities. It is also not surprising that local hotel, real estate and port interests can’t conceive what audiences beyond our border will think. Their vision barely exceeds downtown. On the contrary, local leaders with a worldview must be groaning at the sight of this edifice on our horizon.
Nonetheless, as I said in my opening sentence, San Diego needs a veteran’s memorial, especially one that is prominent, important, beautifully designed, genuine and functional. After all, we should not turn our backs on the heritage, prosperity and culture the military has brought to our city. In fact, it is striking to me, a relative newcomer here, that no such thing as a permanent veteran’s memorial exists. (I don’t count Mount Soledad because of its isolated location and contentious, exclusionary and dishonest formulation.)
But it is understandable why. San Diego, with its plethora of bases, is a living tribute to those who serve. We so commonly encounter military life here we forget the importance of remembering what the uniform symbolizes. It is also true that familiarity breeds contempt and that unlike other large American cities, constantly bumping up against the military fosters resentment. That at times results in the needs of the greater population taking precedent over tributes to veterans.
A properly scaled veteran’s memorial, located downtown, in a high pedestrian traffic area like the waterfront, capped by an arrestingly designed structure and adjacent to the extremely successful USS Midway Museum is a terrific idea. It will emotionally benefit us all, especially our neighbors who are part of the active and retired military family. It will attract tourists to our tourism economy.
So the challenge is clear. We must curb the size of this threat-inspired idea and build a tribute that doesn’t hold us hostage. How do we do this? One answer is simple: build a significantly smaller version of the Wings of Freedom. A less grandiose installation can just as clearly convey our patriotism and respect for veterans without broadcasting negative intentions to the world that will get in the way of our greater interests region-wide. If something small can be done in New York City like the dramatic waterfalls now at Ground Zero which are 30 feet high, or in Washington, D.C., where the Lincoln Memorial stands at 99 feet tall, it can be done in San Diego. In fact, the statue by the USS Midway representing the famous photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse is only 25 feet tall. No, we cannot turn our backs on our military, but we also cannot turn our backs on the opportunities that exist for us beyond our borders.
Bob Stein lives in University City.