National Infantry Museum
Fort Benning, Georgia
The soaring atrium of the National Infantry Museum resembles the galactic headquarters of an evil space empire (or perhaps a good space empire with evil empire decorating sensibilities). At its far end, two immense curved walls frame a narrow passage, and within it stands a towering dark monolith, engraved with the Infantryman's creed: "Purchasing freedom with my blood... I am the Infantry!" Echoing off of the walls are audio loops of drums and marching boots, yelling men, somber synthesizer music, machine guns, and subwoofer explosions.
This museum isn't designed for struggle-averse mush-heads (although they are certainly welcome to come look). Its primary visitors are soldiers, former soldiers, and the families of soldiers, who come during the enlistees' basic training at Fort Benning. They reportedly think the place is great.
For the on-the-ground infantryman, it's a surprisingly hi-tech museum ($100 million was spent on it, and even that wasn't enough; the museum remains unfinished). While the old museum had its dusty mannequin charms, this vast expansion joins the military museum elite.
Beyond the monolith is the "Last 100 Yards" exhibit, an ascending ramp that winds past life-size dioramas of historic U.S. Infantry assaults. Fort Benning volunteers served as models for the dummies, including a North Korean being bayoneted. "Hey, there's dad!"
Pondering the obscure "Capture of Redoubt No. 10" or "Air Assault at Landing Zone X-Ray" made us realize that the Infantry lags behind the Marines (Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal) when it comes to battle name recognition -- another reason to have a splashy museum.
Visitors exit the ramp of carnage into the Fort Benning gallery, greeted by a life-size drill instructor shouting from a video screen. "I am a drill sergeant! I will install pride in all I train!" Through a window you can see the Parade Field and the Walk of Honor, where the Fort's historic monuments -- including one for Calculator the Dog -- will be moved once more money is raised. Here, too, is the museum's "All Ages Welcome" shooting range, where for five dollars anyone can fire 30 laser rounds from a retrofitted M-4 or M-16 rifle.
Chronological galleries are downstairs. World War I includes a porthole salvaged from the Maine (not from WWI, but close enough), a replica trench, and a Trench Foot display that calls attention to its "nearly unbearable pain." The mortar explosions and rat-a-tatting machine guns around the recreated No Man's Land seem peaceful compared to the World War II gallery, with its nonstop audio of FDR, Churchill, and radio war broadcasts.
Celebrity artifacts? Why, there's Patton's sweatshirt, Audie Murphy's hat, and a "Spoils of War" case with Goering's diamond-encrusted Reich Marshal baton and the Hitler Head Trash Can, possibly the best-known item in the museum.
In the Cold War gallery, a fake Vietnam jungle fills a walk-through room, made humid as a greenhouse. As lights dim and dry ice fog swirls through the dense foliage, disembodied soldiers can be heard while an unseen helicopter swoops low overhead. "You never knew what was coming up next," says the voice of one infantryman. Then, Boom!! Rat-a-tat-tat! It's an ambush! "We fought for our lives, we all thought we were going to die...." A square pane of glass in the floor suddenly glows from below -- a hole spiked with poison-tipped punji sticks!
The carnage winds down in the "Sole Superpower" gallery, which seems to be more of a recruiting tool than a museum (we recommend the Night Vision display), although it does have the hatch from Saddam Hussein's spiderhole and other War on Terror booty.
Then it's out to the gift shop and the Family Support Gallery, where kids can don drill sergeant hats, sit in a replica Bradley Fighting Vehicle, and peer through binoculars to see -- infantrymen helping kids in Iraq. No bayonet charges here! We like the family-friendly touches. Perhaps when the museum is finished it will have a coin-operated arcade claw where children can grab for prizes out of the Hitler head.