America’s Nurses Memorials and the Politics of Remembrance
At the Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C., there is a small wedge-shaped section where military nurses are laid to rest. It is called “The Nurses Section,” and overlooking it stands a looming ten-foot tall marble sculpture of a nurse. The image is not a of specific person who worked as a nurse rather the feminine personification of the “spirit” of the profession itself. The figure’s classical but nonspecific features were intended to represent the “spirit of nursing,” as its sculptor Frances Rich described it to The Washington Post in 1938: the “gentleness, kindness, and willingness to serve which nursing represents.”
As an early effort to recognize the contributions that American women have made to the military, the nurses section and the memorial are commendable sites of acknowledgement and remembrance. But the limitations of the personification of a profession, in this case, and of whole groups of people in others, are an impediment to creation of cultural memory around historically marginalized people. For military nurses, the personification of the emotional and affective aspects of their work in such memorials, rather than their skills and expertise, reinforces the image of nurses as mere caretakers.
The monument was installed in what was then a corner of the Spanish War section where more than a hundred nurses who had served in the Army and Navy in World War 1 and previous conflicts were buried. In a 1938 article, The New York Times reported some 300 people attending the November unveiling, alongside Amy and Navy nurses and high-ranking officials.
Half a century after Rich’s sculpture was installed at Arlington, a new nurses memorial was added to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington D.C. The memorial was originally designed by architect Maya Lin to be two 75-meter walls of black granite, joined at an oblique angle, and set into a slope on the National Mall. The names of every American who was killed or declared missing in action in the Vietnam War were carved into the polished stone panels that make up the walls.
Lin intended for the VVW to be surrounded only by the landscaped grounds of the Mall, and to offer a place for quiet reflection. The harsh geometry of the wall, which Lin thought of as a “cut” that represented the violence of the conflict, was among the features that most upset a group of veterans and politicians who protested the design. The resulting compromise, reached after escalating ugliness that involved racist criticisms of what detractors called the “Asian aesthetic” of the design, was the addition of a figurative bronze sculpture of three soldiers placed some distance from the VVW.
Frederick Hart was commissioned to create the bronze sculpture, and unlike the classical, abstracted figure of Rich’s monument to nursing, Hart’s soldiers are rendered in a realistic style. But the sculpture is just as symbolic. Each figure is meant to represent a demographic of men who served in Vietnam, with the center figure standing in for white soldiers, flanked by an African American and a Latino soldier. Like Rich’s nurse figure, as with all such personifications, the Three Servicemen reify certain aspects of the people they were made to represent and reduce their individuality to a select set of characteristics and categories.
It was the inclusion of the Three Servicemen that prompted a group of nurses to advocate for the Vietnam Women’s Memorial. While Lin’s wall represented all of the war dead, including eight women military nurses, proponents of the Women’s Memorial argued that the Three Servicemen marginalized women veterans by concretizing the image of the Vietnam veteran as a man. An additional sculpture representing those women, they argued, was only necessary in light of the erasure enacted by the Three Servicemen.
The Vietnam Women’s Memorial consists of a bronze sculpture, designed by Glenna Goodacre, in which an injured male soldier is draped across the lap of one uniformed women while two others look on with stricken expressions. In contrast to the Three Servicemen, who are portrayed as active figures with stoic expressions, the Women’s Memorial is, like Rich’s understanding of the profession of nursing, all about emotion.
Visual culture scholar Marita Sturken has written about the VVM and the politics of this selective representations in memorials and argues that the limitations of the form are part of the politicized and often strategic nature of forgetting that must accompany any attempt to remember. What is left out of these memorials matters as much as what is included. Beyond the clumsy aesthetics of both the Three Servicemen and the Women’s Memorial, which is a particularly inelegant riff on the Pieta, the success of the Women’s Memorial as an object of representation for women military nurses is limited in the same way as Rich’s personification of the profession. The limitations of these memorial objects and the way they foreclose certain imaginations of the past — who nurses were and what they did, who served in Vietnam — are part of the ongoing process of determining who is American and who is worthy of remembrance.
But there were also real world consequences to the limitations placed on nurses by such representations. Sturken argues that “by reinscribing the archetypal image of woman as caretaker, one that foregrounds the male veteran’s body, the memorial reiterates the main obstacle to healing that women veterans face [...] the only option many [women veterans] had in trying to deal with their memories was to go to support groups of male veterans — where, inevitably, they wound up taking care of the men.”
Sturken writes about war memorials and monuments as technologies for producing and enacting cultural memory, especially where it concerns the construction of the nation and the idea of Americanness. One of the arguments advanced against the inclusion of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial was that if the women got their statue, the Mall would soon be filled with statues dedicated to every ethnic group, profession, and military speciality, right up to scout dogs. In a way, that protest closes part of the distance to realizing the limitations of these technologies of memory, but it never quite connects to a larger truth. The creation of public memory in America has long been about forgetting the people and circumstances that don’t conform to a hazy, idealized image of Americanness where brave men fight wars and gentle women salve their wounds.