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« Ante Up! Paying to get in the Smithsonian | Main | Veterans Day Observances 2010 »

Knocking out the Monuments: Pershing Park

photo uploaded to flickr by wallygThe eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year has become a day we celebrate the sacrifices of all those who have served our nation, from the early days of our country to the present day. But we're going to take a minute on Veterans Day to examine the story of one in particular who is closely tied to the historical antecedents of today: Gen. John J. Pershing.

Situated on Pennsylvania Avenue and 15th Street NW, Pershing Park is remarkably secluded considering its prominent location. It is, in fact, quite easy to walk by and never notice, and even easier to miss if you're driving.

There's a certain irony of this incredibly influential and important man being all but ignored in spite of the august position of his memorial, as it reflects his life quite well. At one point the highest ranking US Army officer ever (George Washington was posthumously promoted over him in 1976), he commanded the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, an incredible logistical undertaking the scope of which we had not yet attempted as a nation. But while names of his protégées; men such as Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, and George Patton; roll off our tongue, the name Gen. Pershing is often met with a blank face, or an "oh, yeah, him".

However, the sedate nature of this Memorial fits the General. Unlike some of the self-aggrandizing military commanders we've had in our history (ahem, Gen MacArthur, I'm looking at you here), Gen. Pershing stayed out of the limelight, insofar as a commanding general can. Evan in death, he eschewed the frippery of so many others, and is buried under a standard government issue headstone well off the beaten path at Arlington National Cemetery. Try and find him sometime; he's in Section 34 at the top of a small hill, near his two grandsons, one of whom was killed in Vietnam. You will almost certainly have the section to yourself.

While the United States was formally at peace for most of his life, Pershing was generally not. Commissioned as a calvary officer out of West Point in 1886, Pershing spent the first decade of his career in actions in the American West, in the dying conflicts with the Apache, the Lakota Souix, and Cree Indians. Sent back to West Point as an instructor, he became known as Black Jack Pershing, a title that started as a slur and grew to an honor, especially after fighting with the all-black 10th Calvary Regiment at San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War.

Gen. Pershing would go on to participate in the Moro Insurrection in the Philippines and the 1916-7 raid into Mexico to chase Pancho Villa. Appointed to command the AEF in World War I, he is famously and erroneously credited with the phrase, "Lafayette, we are here", signifying America's repayment of our debt to France for the Revolution.

After the War, Gen. Pershing would come back to the United States and serve as Army Chief of Staff for several years. Following his retirement, he served as Chairman of the American Battle Monuments Commission, the organization responsible for upkeep of the graves of thousands of Americans interred overseas. A regular feature on the streets of Washington, he ended up living the last few years of his life at Walter Reed Hospital, where the Pershing Suite is named for him.

And so, while we remember all of our veterans on this day, this day was originally known as Armistice Day. Following a worldwide sigh of relief at the ending of hostilities in World War I, many nations picked this day to honor those who fought. Appropriatly enough it was expanded after World War II to Veterans Day, but I find Gen. Pershing's Memorial a perfectly good place to sit in quiet contemplation about the War to End All Wars.

Featuring a statue of the General, the Park is almost walled off from the surrounding traffic by trees and strategically placed walls. Originally designated as Pershing Square in 1957, the General was honored with a bare and trash strewn lot for many years. Grand plans to tear down nearby buildings and build a huge National Plaza fortuitously came to nothing, and the current, more appropriate setting was built in the late '70s. Robert Winthrop White's statue of Pershing holding his field glasses and staring at some distant action was added in 1983. Unfortunately, a main feature of the Memorial, the fountain/ice skating rink, is in a state of almost permanent disrepair. Just across the street stands the Willard Hotel, one of the building once slated for demolition.

Amongst all the other history there, it's the place where Gen. Pershing helped found the Reserve Officers Association in 1921.

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