(Photo credit: Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, courtesy Jeff Kubina, Flickr Creative Commons)
The third occasion on which I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC it was dark. I was with my wife, and we were at the memorial wall, trying to find her uncle’s name, which is inscribed on that wall along with 58,255 others. We knew generally where it was—an index book near the entrance to the wall provides location information for each name—but in the dark and with spotlights creating awkward shadows we were struggling to find it. Suddenly a small LED flashlight beam cast clear, white light onto the wall. It wasn’t ours—we’d neglected to bring one with us. I turned to see a small, slightly built park ranger aiming his flashlight at the section we’d been looking at. With the flashlight in my eyes I couldn’t see his face or much of his uniform, but I could make out the shape of his ranger flat hat silhouetted against a spotlighted section of ground behind.
“Do you know the panel and line number?” he asked. We nodded and told him. Every name at the memorial can be located first by its panel number and then by the line it’s on. Most of the wall’s 144 panels have hundreds of lines and thousands of names. This is especially true of the largest ones near the deepest part of the wall, which is where we were. Having checked we were at the right panel, the ranger started to help us search. “What’s his name?” he asked. My wife told him. He reminded us that every tenth line on the panel is marked by a dot, to speed the process of counting. I think I’d learned that back on my first visit to the wall but it had somehow slipped my mind in the intervening years. Suddenly the search seemed much easier. As the ranger looked with us, slowly scanning down the panel with his flashlight, I glanced over at him and suddenly became aware that he appeared to be of Southeast Asian heritage.
“There he is,” my wife said. She pointed to the name at the exact moment my own eyes fell on it. We stood for a moment in silence. The ranger kept his flashlight on the name for another couple of seconds before switching it off. There was enough ambient light around the wall that we could still see the name. We thanked the ranger profusely. He smiled, said “no problem” and moved on. We could see small clumps of visitors at various points along the wall, and some of them probably needed his help as well.
Hard as it is for me to believe, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is now more than 30 years old. I remember, back in November 1982, the unveiling of the memorial making news even in the UK. At the time Britain was still in the afterglow of a successful military campaign to retake the Falkland Islands (albeit with substantial covert U.S. assistance). That short, sharp war, with its clear mission and clear goals, had largely united the country behind its armed forces and given people something to celebrate at a time that was otherwise dominated by recession, mass unemployment, and economic stagnation. It was odd to consider a memorial to another, much bigger, more divisive and more tragic war that the United States had fought with no clear goals and which it had effectively lost when the country disengaged from Vietnam in the early 1970s. By that point the war had killed almost 60,000 Americans and wounded hundreds of thousands more (not to mention more than 1 million Vietnamese). Back at home the war had torn the country apart, and the after effects were still very much in evidence in the early 1980s. How was a memorial going to be able to heal those kinds of wounds?
That must have been a question on the minds of many in March 1982, when the design and plans for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial received final federal approval. The design was for a simple memorial wall, cut in a V shape into the earth and placed at a 2-acre site near the Lincoln Memorial. It originated with an American architecture student at Yale, Maya Ling Lin, who won a national competition. The design quickly became a site of controversy, however. It was called a “black gash” in the earth, a “nihilistic slab of stone,” and a “wall of death.” It certainly looked very different from more traditional memorials to war. Instead of focusing on columns or obelisks or heroic figures thrusting up toward the sky, this memorial was literally digging down into the ground.
In spite of the controversy, construction went ahead with the memorial. However, as a compromise to assuage those who weren’t happy with the wall design, it was announced that a more traditional statue would later be added to the memorial site, near the entrance to the wall. This sculpture, known as “The Three Servicemen,” was unveiled on Veterans Day, 1984. It depicts three combatants representing the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps. Although this addition takes a more conventional approach to commemoration, its slightly larger-than-life figures still depart somewhat from traditional approaches in that they are placed close to ground level, albeit on a raised section of ground, surrounded by shrubs. There is no pedestal, only a small bronze slab that provides the base for the trio. The result is a sculpture that allows visitors to get close enough to the figures yet still maintain a respectful distance.
Two other pieces were later added to the original memorial site: a flagpole and, in 1993, a monument commemorating the 265,000 American women—most of them nurses—who served in Vietnam during the conflict. This sculpture depicts three military nurses caring for a wounded soldier on the battlefield.
With these additions and the passage of time, tempers cooled and most people have come to accept and then admire the Vietnam Memorial. It has become a place of pilgrimage for millions of Americans who lost a family member in Vietnam or who just wish to pay respects to those who did not return alive from that bloody yet futile conflict. Americans have become familiar with images of family members and veterans—some in uniform—at the wall, heads bowed, hands holding flags or resting on its panels, as they remember the ones they lost. For all of us, this strange, stark, black-paneled wall dug into the earth has somehow succeeded in providing a direct connection to those who served and died in the Vietnam War. It allows us to take in the thousands of names on that wall, or to focus on just one name that maybe has a special connection to us. My wife never knew her uncle, who died in Quang Tri five years before she was born. But his name on that wall provides her a very personal link to a national community of remembrance, as it does for her father, who also served in Vietnam (and, happily, survived). That’s what makes this wall special.
Most of the wounds from the Vietnam War have healed over time, and, perhaps surprisingly given its early controversy, the memorial wall has helped that healing process along.
Kent Garber (2007). A Milestone for a Memorial That Has Touched Millions. U.S. News & World Report, Nov. 7.
Three Servicemen (sculpture). Art Inventories Catalog. Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS). Available at http://siris-artinventories.si.edu/ipac20/ipac.jsp?profile= .
Vietnam Women’s Memorial (sculpture). Art Inventories Catalog. Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS). Available at http://siris-artinventories.si.edu/ipac20/ipac.jsp?profile= .
Denise Kersten Wills (2007). The Vietnam Memorial’s History. Washingtonian. Available at http://www.washingtonian.com/articles/people/the-vietnam-memorials-history/ .