The Vietnam Veterans Memorial turns 30

November 13th, 2012

“On the chilly, blustery morning of November 13, 1982, thousands of Vietnam War veterans assembled in the nation’s capital to march down Constitution Avenue. Some had donned army fatigues, camouflage suits, or dress uniforms; others wore business attire, with raincoats or jackets. They came from every state. […] The long line moved west down the avenue and gathered on the National Mall near the Lincoln Memorial. There, the marchers took part in the unveiling of the most remarkable memorial built in the United States since the 1920s. It was dedicated to their fallen comrades—the 58,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, doctors, and nurses who gave their lives in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.”

So begins Allan Greenberg’s essay in City Journal about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which turns thirty years old today. In his account, Greenberg explores the meaning of the memorial and the significance it has to Vietnam veterans, and in the process raises some very good questions about the role of memorials and remembering in civic life. It is particularly appropriate to discuss the Memorial today, as we return to work after commemorating Veterans Day

As Greenberg, a former professor of architecture at Yale and the author of Architecture of Democracy, explains, the memorial was the idea of Jan Scruggs, a Vietnam veteran who wanted a memorial to focus attention on the lives lost in the conflict. Scruggs began the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which hosted a national design competition for the creation of a memorial that would be “reflective and contemplative in character,” avoid political statements, harmonize with its surroundings, and contain the names of all those who had died in the conflict. Out of 1,300 submissions, 21-year-old Maya Lin’s design was chosen as the winner.

Greenberg continues:

Like the war itself, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial seemed destined to be a site of controversy and division. Yet soon after it was unveiled, employees of the U.S. National Park Service, which administers the National Mall, noticed that visitors had begun leaving an extraordinary variety of objects there. These objects revealed the depth of public response to the memorial and to the very private conversations between the dead soldiers whose names are on the memorial and those who remember and love them. The Park Service collects and stores these tributes to the dead in a warehouse and hopes eventually to display them in a museum. They testify to the enduring intensity of feeling about the Vietnam War—and to the remarkable power of the memorial, which marks its 30th anniversary this year. […]

At the Vietnam memorial, Lin rejects the convention of listing names within an elaborate architectural framework. But she goes still further and effects a singular transformation: the names themselves, the logos, become the primary architectural feature, the imago, while the stone wall—whose materiality is undermined by its polished surface, which suggests weightlessness—and its reflections become the background. In an ironic reversal of roles, the names of the dead are unchanging, permanent, and appear to assume the materiality of stone, while the living are transformed by their reflections into a weightless, ever-changing panorama, a distinct but illusory world that exists in its own plane somewhere behind the names. Thus the names become the very substance of the wall.

This transformation may help explain why so many Vietnam veterans find solace there. In his remarkable book Echoes of Combat, cultural historian Fred Turner cites Terrence Keane, a specialist in the study of trauma and chief of psychology at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Boston, who explains that for combat veterans, “going to the Wall becomes a metaphor for confronting the events that caused their deepest pain.” Turner concludes that “since its inception, the memorial has been a place where the traumatized veteran’s search for integration, his need to bring past and present together into a coherent and useful story, has overlapped with the national need to incorporate the Vietnam war into the set of legends and myths that give America its identity.” The catalyst in this process is the powerful presence of the names on the wall. […]

The legacies of Vietnam may even be more far-reaching than those of the vast Second World War. The antiwar movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and those who opposed them, have solidified into distinct political groups. Today, more than three decades later, their differences in outlook have consumed the nation to such an extent that sometimes we seem to have lost our primary, shared commitment to being Americans.

Lin said of her work, “All I was saying in the piece is that the cost of the war is these individuals and we have to remember them first.” As a student at Yale, she had often passed the university’s memorial in Woolsey Hall, with its list of alumni who had died in America’s wars. She remembered that “I had never been able to resist touching the names cut into these marble walls, and no matter how busy or crowded the place is, a sense of quiet, a reverence, always surrounds those names. Throughout my freshman and sophomore years, the stonecutters were carving in by hand the names of those killed in the Vietnam War, and I think it left a lasting impression on me . . . the sense of the power of a name.”

As you continue reading Greenberg’s essay, ask yourself what qualities you think make a memorial successful. What is the purpose of our nation’s monuments? How do they help us remember? What role does the architecture of the memorial play? 

Related: Read WSPWH co-editor Diana Schaub’s essay on memorials in civic life in The Weekly Standard: “Monumental Battles: Why we build memorials.”

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