A week in Washington.

The American soldiers killed in Iraq will one day have a memorial on the Mall in Washington DC like the soldiers killed in the Vietnam War. That memorial, the one to the soldiers fallen in Vietnam, is the polar opposite of a monument to the Unknown Soldier. Professor Mairena said that there was huge irony in the tributes to the anonymous hero killed on the battlefield. If by some miracle the Unknown Soldier were to lift up his head and say, “My name is Pérez,” they would bury him again quickly, saying, “Shut up, this isn’t about you.” The memorial to those fallen in Vietnam would have disconcerted Mairena. The monument is very simple. It is a wall as irregular as a long scar. On that collective black marble tombstone figures the name of each and every one of the fifty-eight thousand soldiers killed in Vietnam, with their first and last names, from the very first fatality in 1959 to the last casualty of the withdrawal in 1975 (each and every one of the fifty-eight thousand Pérezes that Mairena spoke of). At some points you see offerings of dried flowers, personal notes on slips of paper, a medal, the photograph of a woman, a pack of cigarettes. To one side of the field, protected from the elements, are what look like telephone books but are an alphabetical listing of the fallen. If a relative or a friend or simply a curious person wants to verify a name, they can search for it in the list. The democratic heroes are in those thick books like the epic heroes in Homer’s recitations. Each reference in the listing indicates the exact place where the name is carved into the Memorial. The result is a strangely moving monument that, in the end, is as anonymous as the definitive list of the dead printed in the Washington Post. It is a monument to the Unknown Soldier but in reverse, which is to say, with the name of every fallen man. The Unknown Soldier gets his Innumerable Name that Mairena called for.

On the far west of the Mall stands the monument to the memory of Abraham Lincoln. It is a building of solemn proportions and pure lines; it looks like a Greek temple. The three great civilizations of the Old World are represented on the Mall: Egypt in the central obelisk, Rome in the Capitol, and Greece in the temple dedicated to Lincoln. The Potomac, with its Native American name, represents the New World, the time prior to the arrival of the white man. The Potomac is a majestic river, with that appearance of Rimbaud’s impassive rivers that is typical of American rivers. It comes down from the Appalachians and meets the sea not far from Washington, in the Chesapeake Bay. From Alexandria it becomes a branch of the sea. The spring tides are felt in Washington, contained in an artificial lake at the southeast of the Mall. A pleasure boat travels upstream from Alexandria to Georgetown, the old colonial city, in about an hour. In some stretches the banks are dense, loaded with vegetation, like when the Algonquin Indians slipped down the river in canoes. Suddenly from between the trees emerges the tip of the obelisk. At the left bank appears the ungainly fortress of the Pentagon. They say that Potomac in the indigenous language meant “meeting place,” something that, if it is true, would be very appropriate for the capital of a federal state. In Georgetown are the first locks of an old canal that joined the Potomac with the Ohio River.

I believe that the Ohio, in Louisville, is the loveliest river I’ve ever seen.

In his famous monument on the Mall, Abraham Lincoln is represented as a man who has foreseen his fate. It is known that Lincoln believed in the premonitory power of dreams. There are at least two of Lincoln’s dreams that are known. Lincoln’s first famous dream took place shortly after he was elected president. One night he dreamt that he saw himself reflected in a mirror, but the image was doubled, and the second image was somewhat fainter than the first. In the place where the second image appeared, the mirror was a little cracked. Lincoln told the dream to his wife and they both came to the conclusion that it meant that he would be elected to the presidency twice but that he wouldn’t complete his second term. That dream came true.

Lincoln’s other famous dream took place the day before his assassination. There are witnesses to his recounting of that dream. Lincoln explained it in a cabinet meeting. He had dreamt that he awoke at midnight. The house was dark. A distant crying could be heard. Lincoln dressed and went downstairs. There was light coming from one of the rooms on the lower floor. The president headed toward it. He saw silent people in the corners. Others moved aside to let him pass. Then he found his wife. She was crying. He went into the lit room and saw a group of people holding a wake over a dead body. He approached and found that it was his own corpse and the crying was over his own wake. This dream also came true, twenty-four hours later, on April 14, 1865. These two premonitory dreams are referred to often. They are part of Lincoln’s legend, and there seems to be no reason why they should be considered an incidental part.

I’m not sure whether his statue reflects the skepticism of someone who foresees his fate, or the grief of someone who was forced to lead a civil war. It is a magnificent block of marble. Lincoln is seated on a huge, simple throne, surely the only throne in this Republic, the first of the modern republics. He rests his arms on the Roman fasces, symbol of unity. His face is that of an ascetic patriarch. It is a slightly idealized capturing of that peculiar face reminiscent of a simian or a chimpanzee, which has been described by friends and enemies, and can be seen in photographs. Now it is thought that Lincoln suffered a very rare genetic condition that affected his bone structure. His body, described as bony and disjointed, occupies the pedestal serenely, without smugness, even sadly. It is a serene and sad portrait. He has the air of an old mariner, which inevitably brings to mind the famous poem by Whitman, “O Captain! My Captain!” If our reference were Melville we’d say that Lincoln is Captain Ahab’s sensible brother. On one side is engraved the Gettysburg Address, a speech that lasted less than two minutes, that was almost improvised in the midst of civil war, and has become a founding text:

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation …

What we know about America is reflected or contradicted when we come into contact with the monuments in Washington. The knowledge that Europeans have of America is usually superficial, cinematic, or journalistic, even in highbrow media. We know the history of ancient Rome, even if by osmosis, better than the history of the United States of America, even though it is the leading world power. If anyone doubts its inclination toward empire, they should consider three milestones: the genocides against the Native Americans, which cleared the territory; the war against Mexico, which expanded and consolidated it; the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, which announced without niceties America’s entrance onto the world stage. It is a mistake to think that America is a peaceful power. It would be as naïve as thinking that the Hittites were a peaceful bunch of shepherds. Rome’s power wasn’t in its civil engineers, Persia’s was not in its poets. Around 1970, Edmund Wilson noted in his diary that it must be very difficult to be the president of the United States and not feel tempted to start a war. That is power’s natural tendency, once a certain size and importance has been reached. It is certainly true that almost every American president in the years surrounding Edmund Wilson’s generation has had his war: Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, the war in Iraq.

The first American president that I was aware of was Eisenhower, who visited Spain when I was a boy. There is a photo of him in a convertible, circling the Plaza de Cibeles in Madrid. The American president I remember best is Richard Nixon, because, among other reasons, he was in office during my childhood. It seems he had a complex personality. He was distrusting, Machiavellian, and manipulative. He was worthy of an opera by John Adams. Oliver Stone made a movie about him. He had a complicated recording system in his White House office. Historians will be eternally grateful to him for that; his presidency was one of the best documented.

Beneath the Arlington Bridge, the Potomac runs along the rear side of the Lincoln Memorial. On the other side of the river is Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington was where General Robert Lee had his family plantation. South and North were practically separated by the river. When the civil war was imminent, Lee was offered leadership of the Northern troops. But Lee, a Virginian, led his horse toward the South. In Alexandria you can see the house he grew up in, a red brick building that looks like a boarding school. Robert Lee went through Alexandria after his defeat at Appomattox, and he climbed over the garden fence of his boyhood home “to see if the snowballs were in bloom.” One hundred and six miles from Washington is Richmond, capital of the Confederacy during the civil war. The final result of the war was decided in that short distance that separates Richmond from Washington. The confederates were able to see the scaffolding on the Capitol dome, then under construction, and the Union troops maneuvered in view of Richmond.

It is May. The weather is pleasant, humid without being hot. One afternoon a storm breaks out. When it clears, there is an almost tropical atmosphere. The soil is generous and produces abundant vegetation. Trees of exquisite size, forests of American oak in the gardens that surround the Capitol, corpulent magnolias, maples, poplars, and rare trees, a monstrous pagoda tree that must be some kind of Asian acacia. Among the bushes New World birds can be seen the way Audubon would see them: speckled starlings, a more lustrous blackbird than our European variant, and a cardinal with red crest and cape. The sparrows also look more colorful than ours do. Perhaps it’s a phenomenon of the atmosphere following the storm. Everything takes on a special vividness.

In the National Gallery, Manet’s The Dead Toreador, a body frozen in time, like a corpse abandoned in space. Murillo’s Two Women at the Window is exactly the opposite, with its sensation of humor and the ephemeral.

The soul is perceptible only in earthly gifts.

The National Gallery is a comfortable, spacious museum. The East wing, which is an extension of the main building, is a model of contemporary architecture, the best that can be seen in Washington and among the best that can be seen anywhere.

With their backs to the wall are two Catalan Venuses by Arístides Maillol. They can be admired leisurely, like in a slave market. Something is off in the placement of these figures. They shouldn’t be up against a wall. They need air circulating around them.

Dupont Circle is a secluded spot that is reminiscent of London, if you can call a rotunda a secluded spot, and particularly in a city whose large dimensions don’t allow for such things. The idea of a secluded spot in these cities is reduced to a rear courtyard or a dead-end alley.

In Farragut Square there is a concert. The homeless are dancing.

Zola restaurant, on the corner of Eighth Street and F (the nomenclature of the streets brings to mind an old childhood game). It is a hip place (with a French name and a sophisticated atmosphere), located inside the International Spy Museum, a mysterious basement.

From Capitol Hill the overall view of the Mall predominates. (Journalists call the Congress “The Hill” like Spanish journalists call the Chamber of Deputies “La carrera de San Jerónimo,” and that gives a comparative idea of the laconism of the English language).

At the foot of the steps of the Capitol is the monument to General Grant, Lee’s victor, who also has a place of honor on the fifty-dollar bill. The figure of the discreet, tenacious, withdrawn hero has no real legend beyond his alcoholism, which actually is his real legacy. Beside his pedestal are two extraordinary groups of bronze figures in motion, like two film sequences. One of the groups depicts the dragging of a piece of campaign artillery by a team of six horses, and the other a charging cavalry platoon. The two groups are agitated and vibrant, but not heroic in the usual way, if only because of one surprising detail. The soldiers participating in the action look like they are sleeping, stunned, or dead, dragged into the hurly-burly of war less by a lust for combat than by fatalism. Between the groups rises the statue of Ulysses Grant on horseback. He is stock-still. He has the wind to his back, and it slightly lifts his cloak and his horse’s tail. His is a somber figure. The general lowers his head. The brim of his hat practically covers his eyes. There is no reason to be happy over a victory in a civil war.

A high-society lady once told Wellington, “My general, the day of victory should be a wonderful day for a soldier.” Wellington, who was only too familiar with what a battlefield looked like after a battle, responded brusquely, “Ma’am, next to a lost battle, nothing is so sad as a battle that has been won.” The monument to Ulysses Grant has the sadness of victory.

A bit of esotericism.

The last name of the architect who designed the city of Washington was L’Enfant, and he was French. L’Enfant’s urban planning was based on the rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment. Every city that springs up from nothing has the ambition of becoming the perfect city. Paradoxically, this rationalist ambition requires a coordination of symbolic elements that are not rational in the least. The Masonic lodge in Georgetown, the old colonial capital, was present when the first stone was laid at the Capitol and made sure that it was facing the right way. The Mall’s great avenue extends from East to West. The statue announcing freedom that crowns the Capitol dome faces the rising sun, toward the dawn. In the middle of the Mall emerges the tip of the obelisk, the emblem of the sun at its zenith. Toward the setting sun and the kingdom of the shadows is the somber Lincoln Memorial. All of these things can be seen from a single vista. On the side of dawn the Republic’s activities take place, and on the side of dusk lies the cult to the dead.

In this somewhat esoteric vision of the city, the national museums are on both sides of the Mall, like the remains or spoils of life. The White House is off the central axis, perpendicular to the Mall and intercepting it at the point where the obelisk is found. One could elaborate complicated explanations for that positioning. Actually that’s not necessary. I think the White House is there simply because it’s the site with the best views.

Before bursting onto the stage of contemporary history (that which concerns us all) as a featured player, this ever-so-young country had its Iliads and Odysseys. The exploration of the Western territories is described in the Journals of Lewis and Clark. The description of the Indian nations in the Letters of George Catlin. The epic story of the Civil War in Shelby Foote’s monumental Narrative and Grant’s Memoirs.

The expedition of captains Lewis and Clark lasted two-and-a-half years. They set off from St. Louis, at the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi; they traveled along the upper basin of the Missouri and arrived at the Pacific Ocean via the Columbia River, after crossing the Rocky Mountains. These were practically unexplored territories. On their path they met French hunters who were their guides and interpreters, some of them married to native women. This was in 1804. The Napoleonic Wars were ravaging Europe. Those French trappers, heirs to a previous colonization, had chosen the freedom of vast virgin land to the rhetorical glory of the emperor’s war reports. Surely the older ones had fought with La Fayette’s troops. Others were following a libertarian impulse that most probably originated with Rousseau. They all must have been distant, pure incarnations of the ideas of the French Revolution. In fact, one of the hunters that Lewis and Clark encountered had a last name with those roots. He was called “La Liberté.”