I worked as a journalist in Washington, D.C. during the 1980s, but until I spoke at a conference here toward the end of June, I hadn’t been back since 1993.
In his recently published book, War Beyond Words: Languages of Remembrance from the Great War to the Present, Yale University historian Jay Winter makes the case that war memorials have gradually shifted in design from the vertical, which suggests heroism, something we look up at, to the horizontal, which results in the downward gaze of mourning.
One such structure, he indicates, is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which is said to be the most visited site on the Mall. The memorial is maintained by the U.S. National Park Service and receives around three million visitors each year.
I’d recommend two excellent scholarly articles, “The Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Washington Mall: Philosophical Thoughts on Political Iconography,” by Charles Griswold, (1986), and “The Wall, the Screen, and the Image: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial” by Marita Sturken, (1991), which I have used in courses and draw upon here.
The Vietnam veterans who organized the construction of the memorial stipulated only two things for its design: that it contains the names of those who died or are missing in action and that it be apolitical and harmonious with the site.
Dedicated in 1982, it was designed by Maya Lin, after a national competition, and she eschewed conventional ideas towards memorial design.
She was a 21-year-old undergraduate at Yale University, not only young and un-credentialed but Chinese-American and female — something not everyone was pleased with. But as the years have gone by, the memorial has attained iconic status.
Situated on the grassy slope of the Constitutional Gardens, it consists of two walls of black granite set into the earth at an angle. Together, they form an extended V almost 500 feet in length, tapering in both directions from a height of approximately ten feet at the centre.
The walls reflect the towering Washington Monument and face the imposing Lincoln Memorial.
The reflective surface allows viewers to participate in the memorial. They see their own images in the names of the dead. It is, for many, an extremely emotional experience, and many break down and weep.
There are no heroic images, no swords or flags. This is not a memorial that glorifies war.
Much of the memorial’s power is due to the effect of the almost 60,000 names inscribed on its walls. They are listed not alphabetically but in chronological order.
The listing of names begins on the right-hand side and continues to the end of the right wall. It then begins again at the far end of the left wall and continues to the centre again.
Thus, the name of the first American soldier killed in Vietnam in 1959 is on a panel adjacent to that containing the name of the last American killed there in 1975.
The memorial has taken on all of the trappings of a religious shrine. There is a pathway along the base of the wall, where visitors walk, read names, make a pencil rubbing of a particular one, or pray.
People bring personal artifacts, flowers and pictures to leave at the wall as offerings. They take photographs of themselves standing next to and touching the name of a friend or relative.
It is a somber place, as one ponders the fate of the mostly very young men, whose names are inscribed here.
Mind you, not everyone likes it. Former World War II pilot and Princeton University literature professor Samuel Hynes, in his book, On War and Writing, contends that the wall “says nothing except dead, dead, dead — 58,000 times.”
My wife, Pat, who grew up in Juneau, Alaska, during that period, knew two young men from her high school whose names are on the wall. One was a good friend.
It is no surprise that this is a very different form of commemoration. After all, how does a society remember a war for which the central narrative is one of division and dissent, a war whose history is highly contested even now, more than four decades after it ended?
The monument also speaks to the pain and subsequent marginalization of the Vietnam veterans, who came disproportionately from the ranks of the poor and minorities.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a fitting tribute to all who fought and died. Anyone visiting this beautiful city should make it a point to see it.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.