As Mailer’s words attest, the Pentagon is one of the rarest of icons, symbolizing different things to different observers – or different things to the same observer, depending on changed circumstances. One can see whatever he or she is determined to see in it.
In the remarks he delivered at the May 12, 1993 ceremony celebrating the Pentagon’s 50th anniversary, Gen. Colin Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, eloquently described what he saw in the building:
The Pentagon has stood … for more than half a century as a powerful and renowned symbol of America’s convictions, America’s power, and of America’s willingly accepted obligation to the world. In its somber and unpretentious way, it has weathered time, it has weathered wars, it has weathered innumerable crises, and it has weathered the storm of politics.
Less than a decade later, the Pentagon weathered far worse. On Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda terrorists, determined to destroy precisely what the Pentagon represented to Powell, hijacked a passenger airliner and flew it into the western façade of the building. The attackers died along with 59 other people aboard American Airlines flight 77, and the impact and resulting fire killed 125 Pentagon occupants, both military and civilian.
For a brief interval, the terrorists achieved the panic and fear they’d aimed for, and the lingering grief will never leave the dozens of families who lost someone at the Pentagon on 9/11. But in the building that rose from the ashes, and in the memorial dedicated on the lawn in 2008 to honor the 184 victims, visitors will see symbols far different from what the attackers hoped to provoke.
It’s called the “Pentagon Memorial,” but it doesn’t honor the building; it honors the victims and those – from inside the Pentagon and from all over the surrounding communities of Arlington County – who came to their aid. That day’s history, like the history of all the days that have passed in Hell’s Bottom since 1943, was determined by people who chose courage and hopefulness, rather than cowardice and fear. Despite all the newly renovated Pentagon represents, despite all the symbolism that’s been piled onto it over the past 75 years, it’s important to remember that it’s much more than a symbol, as Powell gently reminded visitors in 1993: “ … even though we talk about it as a living thing,” he said, “even though the media quotes it as a living person, I hope no one will forget that the Pentagon really is the thousands of people who work in its offices.”
The Pentagon: A History, by Steve Vogel. New York: Random House, 2007.
The Pentagon: The First Fifty Years, by Alfred Goldberg. Washington, D.C.: Historical Office, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1992.