I’ve been a long term resident of Virginia, and we live fairly close to the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico. During my many years here I never once visited it. I always reasoned there wasn’t any time. One day I decided with my wife to bring my step-sons to the museum because we felt they were approaching an important of remembering and understanding complex things. They could get a grasp on what being a member of the service meant to me and I also felt it was important to understand what it meant to others; service people from all walks of life who chose the discipline and sacrifices that came with living the military way of life. My sons have always loved the military but I believed taking them with me would connect us more deeply. I always wanted them to understand and respect how great this country is, and to respect all service members.
The National Marine Corps Museum is a state-of-the-art exhibit that uses interactive technology, multi-media exhibits and many artifacts to give an immersive experience to the viewer. The Museum is about 181,000 square feet of fascinating history on display. The museum notes, “The mission of the Museum is to collect and preserve in perpetuity, artifacts that reflect and chronicle the history of the Corps. The more than 60,000 uniforms, weapons, vehicles, medals, flags, aircraft, works of art and other artifacts in the Museum’s collections trace the history of the Marine Corps from 1775 to the present.” Well done fellas, well done…
I’ve visited many museums around Europe, but I have never been in a museum that incorporated so much symbolism in its architecture in order to evoke emotion. For example, the museum terrazzo floors depict the transition from ocean to shore, representing the Marines mission of amphibious assault, the rear of the gallery is a three level observation deck and elevator tower resembling a ship superstructure, and the 210 foot stainless steel spire upon the roof of the glass atrium symbolizes many things: a sword at salute, the mast of a ship, or an aircraft climbing high. The spectacle of this piece of architecture is not lost upon any commuter passing along the museum as they coast down Interstate 95, for it can clearly be seen behind the tree-lines near Quantico Marine Corps Base.
For our trip, we gathered our kids and drove to the museum, parked in the visitor lot and approached the heavy doors of the structure. Commemorative bricks, with the names of Marines etched into them, line portions of the pathways through the decorative park. Excitement built within me, and I felt waves of emotion. I was not prepared for this. I was beginning to feel multiple emotions at one time and I suspect I was trying to grasp the largeness of visiting such a hallowed place. Here I was, trying to give my children a lesson on honor, and I was getting a lesson all to myself. The museum has two decks (levels) and the exhibits are set up in a circular pattern, with one exhibit leading the visitor into another until at the finish line the visitor ends where he had started his tour. This works well, for the visitor upon experiencing an event, is able to come back to the starting point and consider, to reflect upon what was discovered on display and what was uncovered within him/herself.
Upon entering the museum I began to explain to the boys what being a Marine meant to me because the honor of becoming one took hardship to obtain that title. Before we even cleared the glass doors of the lobby I found myself choking back tears. I wanted them to see my face and try to understand the love I have for this country and for my fellow man, and for the Marines who have served this nation; in order that others can worship who they want, that others can vote for who they want, and so much more. All of this was due to those who have served our nation.
The exhibits were very hypnotic and engaging to my eyes and mind. My wife thoughtfully let me wander alone. I was lost in thought. So many conflicting emotions hit me. The boys followed behind as I embraced all that lay before me. I was born in Vietnam to a veteran father. I’d read, heard and seen so much about the massive troop buildup of American Forces in the region during the 1960’s. I recall the stories my father told of arriving in 1962 and departing Saigon with 4 children and a wife in tow, in 1972. We lived easier than most whom fled the country in 1975 when Saigon fell, but we had deaths in our family too from the war.
My boys got to try out the pull-up bar. knock out reps, and fiddle with the laser shooting range. As I regained my composure, we laughed and talked, and whispered and pondered many things. We ambled along the many displays as we shuttled through the corridors. I felt closer to my family.
The museum has numerous exhibits: World War I, II, Global Expeditionary Force, Defending the New Republic, the Making of Marines Gallery, Korea War Gallery, and the Vietnam War Gallery. I recommend that you start the tour with the movie theater first. You’ll be able to watch a movie on what it takes to become a Marine. Marines are captured on celluloid sharing their thoughts and I believe those who watch it will feel the memories, from their many experiences, flooding back. This will set the tone for the rest of your stay.
We slowly went through every single display, but there is so much to see. I’m not surprised that some make multiple trips in order to see it all. There are some iconic items there: The Mount Suribachi Flags, Daniel Daly’s Medals of Honor, and Major General O.P. Smith’s M1911 .45 Pistol from his time commanding the 1st Marine Division in Korea.
I found things that spoke to me: From the Vietnam era was a watercolor painting on display by Major John Dyers called Company Patrol. It depicts two men patrolling through rice paddies in 1967. The work is lulling. I describe these two men walking beneath grey clouds and plodding through dark waters as sad playfellows; we cannot guess what their future will be and what their past was. Will they die? The hugeness of the sky and the smallness of the men illustrate their displacement in this foreign country. There isn’t any psychological integration for them because they are intruders who are discordant in their feelings. They are alone through no fault of their own; plodding in mud and water gray in color but the cool colors of Dyers watercolor belies how hot, humid and miserable Vietnam was, even for the native. The viewer can relate in some way to his art.
We happened upon another painting. James Butchers painting Raid on Thielt depicts two WW I era planes flying over trenches somewhere in the Western Front. One of my favorite eras to read about. I’d read Wilfred Owens’, Dulce et Decorum Est many years ago. People the world over have discussed Owen and the poet Horace; Owen remarked that ‘poetry is in the pity’. Horace wrote that it was sweet and fitting to die for one’s country, however Owen was being ironic as he referenced Horace and wrote that war was horrifying. I have so many books on WW I; Western Civilization lost a lot of great writers, poets, artists, philosophers, doctors and more; a great educated lot from Oxford, Trinity, Cambridge and more who are not coming back; they are never coming back; all young men, all gone forever…
Butchers painting, The Raid, is at once romantic with the flying planes yet it too belies how rough war is. Humanity? Where is the humanity in losing life, and seeing the destruction of a culture? War then, is haunting for the many who survive, as written in Erich Marias novel, All Quiet on the Western Front. We can relate to wars destruction but out of it comes beauty too. And it can inspire those to write about their experiences which in turn inspires others to change things; James Jones the Thin Red Line, Phil Caputo’s A Rumor of War, Tim O’Briens The Things the Carried, Marcus Luttrell’s Lone Survivor.
Clearly there is far too much to describe here, far too much to bombard a hapless reader with description of my simple museum experience, however that is not my place to tell a story. The troops that have lived through these traumatic experiences have that right to tell their stories. For they have served and served more, and given more than myself. Self expression not only comes out of the ‘men of thought’ but it comes out of the ‘men of action’ too, for it is through the pressure of living and dying through which pensiveness, maturity, depth and beauty may develop. Their experiences give us the opportunity to view the beauty of the art they create. The museum has many wonderful displays and we loved all of the time spent their and together. One of the most memorable moments I have had with my family.
I believe it might be for you too.
Thanks to the (Marines, Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Coastguard, Police, Fire, EMS and their family and supporters) and anyone who works to raise up this nation regardless of what job role you’re in, or where you came from.
cover pic from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Museum_of_the_Marine_Corps