Over the past few years, a colleague of mine has often mentioned Cantigny Park. It is a 500 acre park in Wheaton IL formerly the residence of Col. Robert McCormick, the Chicago Tribune owner and publisher. He became a colonel in World War I and was involved in the U.S.’s first victory in The Great War at the end of May 1918 at Cantigny France, hence, because of his lifelong obsession with his experiences in the war, the name of his residence and the present park. There is a military museum on the grounds along with formal gardens, prairie, and the former residence of the McCormick family. I teach World War I and thought it might be an interesting field trip for my students so JB and I drove out there today to check it out.
I think I expected the grounds to be more spectacular, more “planted.” Though lovely, the grounds pale next to the Chicago Botanic Gardens. And there were way too many mowed grass areas, places hungry for intentional plantings. It was intriguing to tour the McCormick mansion seeing how the rich thrived even during the Depression and the tour guide was quite engaging with anecdotes about McCormick, his two marriages, and his circle of friends. But it was the First Division Museum (the Division in which McCormick served) that was the most unsettling.
This museum is surrounded by tanks, at least a dozen. Yes, military tanks, in what is literally called a tank park, climbed on by kids who came from day camps and summer schools. There were families on the tanks taking photos of each other, straddling their main guns, smiling, laughing, somehow normalizing the original intention of these war machines. Mothers pushing strollers with young children were everywhere. While looking online for images of Cantigny, I found numerous photos of wedding parties atop the tanks, gleeful and ecstatic, one with the bride astride the major gun muzzle.
Inside the museum, which records the history of the First Division, one strolls through replicas of a World War I trench, Omaha Beach, a jungle in Vietnam, smoothly transitioning from one military conflict to the next with interactive displays, movies, and relics—all presented without a stitch of context. It is almost as if war exists as an organic force of nature without any connection to the complexities of politics, economies, or culture. In front of us, a father with a young 2 or 3 year old boy was lifting up his son to touch guns and other war paraphernalia. There were lots of kids running through the displays on a “treasure hunt” provided by the Cantigny education department, looking for specific war heroes and battle names.
In the gift shop two young boys were shooting a life-size toy machine gun for sale, their grandparents clearly uncomfortable and the boys reassuring them that they have guns at home. “Really?” the grandmother responded.
We beat a hasty retreat. When we got into the car to return home, JB said, “Well, that’s one on your to-do list we’ll never have to visit again.”