by Maniza Naqvi
Opposite the White House, and across from the park, an entire block holds the flat and faceless, building of the Export and Import Bank of the United States (here), it is the color of khaki or a dead tree stump. It evokes a sense of a black and white film from the cold war about Eastern Europe– I almost expect subtitles to run beneath my gaze. It is responsible for providing financing for the foreign purchases of American goods and services. And across from it on the same street, hunkered down for the long haul, equally hued but embellished with Greek columns—I think ionic– is the Department of Veterans Affairs. It is responsible for taking care of the consequences of some of these purchases.
On the corner of that block, on some days at the entrance to the McPherson Square metro a street musician plays jazz on a horn— while on most days now, on the sidewalk in front of the building responsible for their welfare, a few stray left over “Occupiers”, veterans of these ongoing wars and past, still protest, looking like a heap of rags or lumps of dumped bodies—or body bags—as they take shelter from rain or cold, covered head to toe in their sleeping bags in the early mornings at the entrance to the Department's building. Nearby, large shiny bullet proof black sports utility vehicles, in the employees reserved parking slots on the street, provide a a sharp contrast to them and symbolize wealth, power and the capability to roll over bodies and crush them. On a large brass plate on the outside wall of the Department of Veterans Affairs the inscription quotes Abraham Lincoln: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.” I wonder if war was Lincoln's definition of battle or was his idea more profound than that—This man who himself was felled by an assassin's bullet and who left behind a widow and orphans. Was the notion of battle for Lincoln, the struggle to care for all on the basis of need and the un-decorated act that these stragglers, these society's lost souls, on the sidewalk were now engaged in?
One day as I walked by the Department of Veterans Affairs, on my way towards Lafayette Park and past the White House, my path was crossed by a trolley cart wheeled out from the building by janitors. The trolley was loaded with about three feet high painted wooden soldiers as though props for a pageant or the Nutcracker ballet. The wooden soldiers, some with broken parts, were being loaded into a truck, perhaps now useless, they were homeless and bound for a Park or perhaps for repair and storage until needed for another occasion. I turned to look back at several people, amputees, in wheel chairs who had come out, for a smoke and the warriors in their sleeping bags, as if discarded and broken props themselves, waiting to be picked up and loaded into a garbage truck.
In the park I walked by the monument to stumps: the cut down tree trunks. One resembled a giant doppelganger: a moth? And where was the flame? Normally, I would have walked on another path but lost in my thoughts I passed by the lady, Ellen Thomas who has held vigil night and day in front of the White House for decades with her protest signs against nuclear bombs. (here and here). I walked passed her, a living monument herself, and on towards the south west corner towards the statue of the French General Comte de Rochambeau who wears a knee length dress coat, tights, hat and high boots and come to think of it, it is my wardrobe minus the sword, eight months out of the year come Fall in Washington. At the base of the statue, stands the sculpture of a woman brandishing a sword. Now at this angle, in the early morning's clouded light, as a storm brewed overhead—the sword seemed poised to slit the throat of the eagle whose wings seemed to me earlier from another angle, as if those of an angel's. Perhaps the artist cautioned at this hour, in this light at this point of view, that when liberty resorts to a sword as its weapon, freedom is threatened? The artist must have depended on the eyes, context and moment of the beholder. Perhaps that is why sculptures are meant to be seen every day, over and over again, come at from different routes and angles, and are meant to be in public parks and other public outdoor spaces and not confined to private homes and museums.
I turned and found myself on the northwest corner of the Park at the statue of Major General Wilhelm von Steuben. He had been entrusted with military justice as the Inspector General for the American army during the War of Independence. He had been George Washington's Chief of Staff and written a war drill manual.
Now as I examined this monument I was taken aback. In the shade of a gigantic tree sits this curiosity—at least so to me. On one of the four sides of the granite base are the two imprints of the profiles of General Steuben's two close friends and aides. On another side is a sculpture of a man and a boy. The man, a soldier, in what appears to be Spartan war paraphernalia, is seated and near him, almost in his embrace, stands a boy. The helmet, with a horn like adornment on top of it, is worn by the seated man and signifies him as an officer while the unadorned head of the boy makes him a recruit and under instruction. The boy is naked. The artist has exaggerated the boy's endowments, gracing him with a rather large penis judging by the size of the fig leaf. The man, his arm almost around the boy, holds the empty sheath of the sword in his hand along with a shield. The man's knee is thrust between the legs of the boy as if in a moment the boy would sit in his lap. With his other hand the man points to the sword. The boy holds the sword at an angle past his own and pointed at the man's crotch. The boy touches the tip of the blade with his finger—which is the focus of both their attentions. Inscribed below them are the words: Military Instruction. Afghan warlords, and the Taliban, would be in throws of agony and ecstasy at this rendition– frowning on the rendering of human figures while one with the sentiments expressed here.
I wonder, how such a sculpture in a rather puritanical country even at that time at the turn of the 20th century found approval at the time of its installation and that too, bang opposite the White House. And more importantly, in the Washington of today, how has it escaped notice? Certainly crowds of school teachers and students do not gather here like they do at the other statues in the park. Perhaps a history lesson intoning the virtues of heroism and glories of war—runs amuck here with this glaring detail, of show and tell—risking accusations of child abuse and perhaps more dangerously those of presenting war as pornography.
Walking Past the White House: