Opinion: New Army Museum tells a vital American story

Gordon C. Morse, The Virginian-Pilot
·4 min read

With all the wide world consumed with politics right now, why do remembrance? Why spend time on Veteran’s Day — it arrives Wednesday this year — or sport a poppy in your lapel this coming week?

Because great sacrifices were made, in years past, in order that we may do politics at all.

Democracy is never self-actuating, nor does it defend itself. We do that, together — the living, laboring souls of the republic.

So we cast our eyes and minds backward, visit the cemeteries, attend the patriotic events of Nov. 11, lest we forget who gave greatly.

But here’s the thing: As important as remembrance may be, it does not automatically lead to understanding. That takes a little more effort.

Thus the good news: Come Veterans' Day, at last, the National Museum of the United States Army will officially fling open its doors to the public.

It’s been a long time coming. “Arguably since the 1820s,” says Army Col. Colonel Robert J. Dalessandro, the former director of the U.S. Army Center of Military History, chairman of the World War I Centennial Commission and currently deputy secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission.

Dalessandro, a first-rate champion of our national values and an exponent of why we must “remember,” is also a neighbor. I came to know him from visiting ABMC facilities in Europe over the past 30 years

It would be hard to find someone more steeped in the management challenges of American memorialization and remembrance — not to mention, the potential of U.S. facilities overseas to tell the stories of freedom and commitment.

The ABMC oversees both American cemeteries and memorials, the first of which were constructed for the remains of American servicemen who fought and died during the First World War.

Similar facilities were later built for World War II burials — the most famous of which, doubtless, is the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial located in Colleville-sur-Mer, France.

All these cemeteries and memorials — many of them located on or adjacent to the very battlefields on which Americans fought — have a great capacity for teaching.

Obviously, a formal museum provides a more concentrated, thematic, curated and well-considered facility for insights, preservation and on-going scholarship.

The Army museum has been well-considered (many stops and starts) over a long period of time. It takes a fortune to build these things and some mind-melding must precede the exhibition-building.

There are of course U.S. Army museums scattered all around the country, including the U.S. Army Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis in Newport News and the Quartermaster Museum at Fort Lee, outside Petersburg.

The West Point Museum at the U.S. Military Academy in New York is our oldest federal museum, with its origins running back to the American Revolution. It is rich with military memorabilia and was opened to the public in 1854 by Superintendent Robert E. Lee.

The new museum, located adjacent to Fort Belvoir, constitutes, it says, “the first comprehensive and truly national museum to capture, display and interpret over 245 years of Army history … [it] brings to life that history in times of war and peace as told through the eyes of soldiers.”

Obviously, because of the draft, we’re talking about a lot of soldiers, a lot of American lives.

“The Army is people,” says Gen. James C. McConville, the Army’s chief of staff. “The National Museum of the United States Army is designed to tell the compelling and heroic stories of our people.”

Or, as Col. Dalessandro puts it, “the museum’s storyline is us.”

I have been through the facility twice, the last time to accompany Gov. Ralph Northam — an Army surgeon, in a previous life. To say this museum has embraced an ambitious, multifaceted agenda would be an understatement.

But all is done; all is ready. Now the public will be able to behold the results.

With relatively close proximity to the National Museum of the Marine Corps near Quantico, the new Army museum offers Virginia — long a military-infused commonwealth — the opportunity to market itself as a center for its martial heritage.

Like all new museums, this sparkling, impressive new facility, will measure public reaction and evolve over time. Save COVID-19, it would have opened earlier.

Yet, in a sense, the new museum found the perfect day to greet the public for the first time. Let the storytelling begin.

On Wednesday, Veterans Day — the 102nd anniversary of the Great War’s armistice — the National Museum of the U.S. Army will immediately become a repository of national pride.

After writing editorials for the Daily Press and The Virginian-Pilot in the 1980s, Gordon C. Morse wrote speeches for Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, then spent nearly three decades working on behalf of corporate and philanthropic organizations, including PepsiCo, CSX, Tribune Co. and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Dominion Energy. His email address is gordonmorse@msn.com.

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