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. There were parents and grandparents; there were bikers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, and active soldiers. Some carried children on their shoulders. Disabled veterans came in wheelchairs, on crutches, and leaning on canes. Two men led the column of marchers: a Green Beret with the Medal of Honor around his neck; and General William Westmoreland, former commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. Spectators cheered, waved flags, and held signs thanking the veterans for their service.

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.

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.


In 1969, Jan Scruggs had gone to Vietnam as an infantryman directly out of high school. During the following decade, he found himself frustrated by the way the deaths of his fellow soldiers—13 of them had died in a single explosion—were brushed aside, as if they didn’t matter, by Americans anxious to forget the war. Other veterans shared his frustration. Roland Kunkel, who served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam, wrote bitterly: “The war was unpopular, friends left at home were on the verge of completing college or beginning careers, the hippie generation was emerging, even the veterans did not want to talk about it. Therefore we buried our burdens. Worse yet, veterans organizations such as the VFW spurned us.” Diane Carlson Evans, who served as a nurse, described the grotesque reception that she received upon returning home: “The attitude of the public was beyond belief. The protesters, rioters, draft dodgers met us at the airport and spit on us, threw eggs at us. Friends, co-workers—even some families—did not want to talk about the war with us. . . . I was bitter, disillusioned and felt like 22 going on 80.”

Scruggs envisioned a Vietnam War memorial that would focus attention on the lives that were lost, thus transcending divisive debates about why the war was fought. His idea attracted a group of like-minded veterans who realized that creating such a memorial would depend on their own initiative. With help from two of them, Robert Doubek and John Wheeler, Scruggs established the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund to raise money. Senators Charles Mathias, Jr., of Maryland and John Warner of Virginia helped secure congressional approval for a three-acre site on the western end of the National Mall. Then the group launched a national design competition.

The competition specified four criteria: the memorial had to be “reflective and contemplative in character”; it had to harmonize with its surroundings; it had to contain the names of all who had died; and it had to avoid political statements. By focusing on remembering those who died and avoiding questions about the origins and prosecution of the war, Scruggs and his fellow organizers separated the memorial from the contentious political issues dividing the nation. They defined their mission in simple but profound terms: it was to remember the dead.

After considering 1,300 submissions, a prestigious jury of professionals unanimously selected the design submitted by Maya Ying Lin, a 21-year-old Yale undergraduate with no formal training. Her work stood out for its elegant simplicity and disarming directness. More than any of the other artists who had entered the competition, Lin understood the veterans’ goals and embodied them in her design.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a symmetrical, chevron-shaped wall made of separate panels of black Indian granite. Each of its two arms measures 246 feet, 9 inches, and they are set at an angle of just over 125 degrees. This angle is not accidental; it aligns the arms so that they point directly to the Washington Monument on one side and the Lincoln Memorial on the other. A paved pathway, now part of the system of walkways on the north side of the Mall, runs parallel to the wall. The entire composition faces south, onto a gently sloping amphitheater-like space that has been precisely carved out of the terrain but also appears to be a natural part of the Mall’s topography. The lowest section is at the apex of the V, where a visitor is ten feet, eight inches below grade. The rear of the wall is different: there, the Mall’s natural contours have not been disturbed.

The granite is polished to a mirrorlike reflectivity. Recorded on it are the names of all Americans who lost their lives in Vietnam. At the western end, the wall starts as a narrow, pointed triangle of stone. By the third panel, there is space enough to record a single line of names. As the pathway descends, the four-foot-wide panels increase in height and accordingly accommodate an increasing number of names. Soon, the height of the wall rises above eye level, and we stand in a realm dominated by the black stone. The names of the dead are now an all-enveloping presence. An unusual stillness pervades. The presence of the dead is palpable, and the immediacy of the war is conveyed by our physical proximity to the names.

Lin lists those names in order, starting with the first soldier killed and ending with the last. (Philosopher Charles Griswold likens the V form of the memorial to an open book with pages and lines of text.) Death is presented in chronological sequence, one life at a time, just as it occurred in the jungles, rivers, and plains of Vietnam. But the sequence does not start at the wall’s western end and end at the eastern one; it begins instead at the intersection of the two arms. There, at the top of the first panel of the eastern arm, we see the year 1959 and the inscription:


The names proceed down from the top of each panel, day by day, as the chronology moves remorselessly uphill, line by line, granite panel by granite panel, toward the easternmost tip of the wall. It ends with a single name. The sequence resumes at the western tip, nearest the Lincoln Memorial, and then proceeds downhill, toward its ending at the base of the panel that forms the apex, adjacent to the panel where it began. There, the year 1975 is inscribed, along with these words:


NOVEMBER 11, 1982

On her competition drawings, Lin explained that the walk down the ramp to the intersection was a “descent to the origin.” For her, it was important that “the war’s beginning and end meet; the war is ‘complete,’ coming full-circle . . . . As we turn to leave, we see these walls stretching into the distance, directing us to the Washington Monument, to the left, and the Lincoln Memorial, to the right, thus bringing the Vietnam Memorial into an historical context.” The memorial committee added the two inscriptions over Lin’s objections. She felt that the wall of names said all that was necessary.

The black stone of the memorial signifies mourning and allows the names to be read without the glare that would mar a lighter stone facing south. The highly polished surface, meanwhile, reflects images of visitors, Mall, and sky, layering an ever-changing montage over the static rows of names. The poignant contrast between names and reflections, between the dead and the living, effectively lifts the viewer’s thoughts and emotions above the war’s divisive legacy. Lin’s silent black wall harnesses the mute forms of architecture to facilitate the release of feelings that cannot be expressed in words.

Veterans and the general public have embraced the memorial, despite early controversy. (BETTMANN/CORBIS)
Veterans and the general public have embraced the memorial, despite early controversy. (BETTMANN/CORBIS)

The use of logos—word or idea—as an integral part of classical architecture goes as far back as ancient Rome. Great text panels are part of buildings as different as the Arch of Titus in Rome (AD 85), the Lincoln Memorial (1922), and the U.S. Post Office in Washington, D.C. (1934). The Romans also used image, or imago, as logos. A long, continuous bas-relief of images that scrolls around the 98-foot-tall Trajan’s Column (AD 106–113), from its base to its top, memorializes Trajan’s military victories in the Dacian wars. Alternately, logos may operate as imago, as in Sir Edwin Lutyens’s Mercantile Marine Memorial in London. There, more than 12,000 names of sailors whose bodies were lost at sea are cast onto the surface of the bronze blocks that support the memorial, whose superstructure suggests a ship’s bridge and steam funnel.

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.

Soon after Lin’s winning design was made public, a small, vocal, and well-organized group mobilized in opposition. Its attack began in October 1981 at a routine hearing of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, a federal advisory agency. Led by Tom Carhart, an infantry platoon leader who had won two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, the group characterized Lin’s proposed memorial as “a black scar, in a hole, hidden as if out of shame.” The memorial, Carhart said, honored only those who had died, not “the millions who served and came home alive.” The group proposed replacing Lin’s design with a memorial built out of white marble and placed at ground level.

The commission’s members oddly failed to answer the group’s challenges at the meeting. They could have explained that honoring veterans who survived the war wasn’t part of the memorial committee’s competition requirements. They could have added, indeed, that most war memorials (as their name suggests) recognize the dead, not the living; one thinks of the 1954 Marine Corps Memorial, usually known as the Iwo Jima Memorial, and the Cenotaph, Britain’s official memorial for the two world wars. The opponents’ desire for a memorial built of white stone, moreover, ignored an equally valid tradition of black stone memorials—for example, the Iwo Jima Memorial and the nearby Seabees Memorial.

Eventually, a compromise was brokered. A sculpture created by a member of the critics’ group, Frederick Hart, was erected on one side of Lin’s wall in 1984, along with a flagpole bearing the seals of the five armed services and a plaque. The inscription on the plaque reads:


The flagpole’s design is banal, and its placement and scale seem arbitrary and unrelated either to the wall or to the nearby Lincoln Memorial. Further, it is mistaken to assert that the American flag can represent “the service rendered . . . by the veterans of the Vietnam War.” Rather, it represents the nation for which those veterans fought, as well as the unity of the states that make up the nation.

Hart’s sculpture, Three Soldiers, is nine feet high, larger than life-size but not overwhelming. The men appear to have just completed a mission or patrol; their weapons are carried casually, but the center figure has neither weapon nor helmet. One man’s ammunition belt is upside down. The group includes a white soldier and an African-American one; the third soldier’s ethnicity remains ambiguous, though Hart’s written description informs us that he is Hispanic. Not since Saint-Gaudens’s Robert Gould Shaw memorial was unveiled in 1897 has a public sculpture shown Americans of different races collaborating on a joint enterprise; it may be the first that shows them as equals.

There is an obvious relation between Hart’s commitment to realism—you can count the eyelets on the combat boots—and the sculpture’s lack of psychological depth. Nation art critic Arthur Danto wrote that the figures were “intrinsically banal. . . . They look too much like specimens for a military museum, at least when considered alone.” But he conceded that they were “greatly enhanced by their relationship to the great walls.” Similarly, commentator Howard K. Smith felt that “the bronze soldiers unite with the granite Wall in one haunting theme. It is as if a disembodied voice has said to the figures, ‘Soldiers, before you is the roll of those who shall not return alive. Read it and know your fate.’ ” And Hart explained, “I see the wall as a kind of ocean, a sea of sacrifice that is overwhelming . . . . I place these figures upon the shore of that sea, gazing upon it, standing vigil before it, reflecting the human face of it.”

Standing at the memorial, though, one finds it difficult to discern the interaction that Hart describes. The elemental power of the wall is so deeply affecting that the three soldiers are relegated to the periphery. Like the rest of us, they are observers, overwhelmed by the silent questions that Lin’s design raises.

Had Hart’s sculpture not been added to Lin’s memorial, it’s unlikely that the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project would have formed in 1984. But for many of the women who had served in Vietnam, mostly as nurses, the new monument to men who had survived shunted aside women’s considerable contributions to the war effort. Many nurses had spent time in bunkers serving battle sites and dealt with appalling injuries; some had been wounded themselves. Like their male counterparts, they were typically in their twenties and later committed suicide in troubling numbers. Further, many male veterans were slow to accept nurses as fellow survivors.

In 1993, a second sculpture was added to the memorial site to recognize the role of women in the war. Glenna Goodacre, the sculptor selected for the project, created a pietà group of four figures. The central figure, called Charity, is a nurse with a wounded soldier lying across her knees. The soldier is very tall, perhaps even slightly overscaled in comparison with the women around him, which renders his helplessness more palpable. Another nurse, Hope, the tallest figure, stands directly behind Charity and watches the sky for the helicopter that will take the soldier to a base hospital. She has one hand on Charity’s forearm. Behind the group, a third nurse, Faith, kneels and prays. She is the most enigmatic figure—perhaps because in Goodacre’s initial design, she was holding a Vietnamese baby. Deeming the baby too political, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project asked Goodacre to remove it. Sandbags form the base of the composition.

Goodacre’s sculpture, unlike Hart’s, shows only minimal details of uniforms and instruments, so as not to distract from the expressions on the faces, the articulation of the hands, and the interactions among the figures. The sculpture is gentle and compelling, closer to the spirit of Lin’s memorial. Because it is located some distance from both the wall and Three Soldiers and is partly hidden in a glade of trees, we focus on the interaction of the nurses as they struggle to save the young soldier’s life. It is fitting that the group is separated from the aura of death that emanates from the wall.

Two significant criticisms have been made of Lin’s memorial. The first concerns the arrangement of names on the wall. Danto noted “an incongruity between narrative and form” in which “an effort has been made to make the slight angle meaningful by having the narrative begin and end there . . . as though a circle were closed, and after the end is the beginning. But a circle has the wrong moral geometry for a linear conflict. . . . As it stands now, we read from the middle to the end, then return to the other end and read our way to the middle.” A simpler arrangement, with the names beginning chronologically at the memorial’s western end and ending at its eastern, would have let the memorial “acquire the direction of time and, perhaps, hope.”

Danto’s criticism is obvious; indeed, Lin wrote that she “initially had the names beginning on the left side and ending on the right.” But “a professor asked what importance that left for the apex, and I, too, thought it was a weak point, so I changed the design.” In the final version, the apex is important, but the ends lose their significance. That both versions have strengths and weaknesses suggests an unresolved question of form and meaning in Lin’s conceptual structure.

The second criticism is by Robert Morris, the minimalist sculptor and anti-form artist. Acknowledging that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is “the most successful war memorial of our time,” he nevertheless asks: “Could there ever be a more ingenious act of substituting private grief for public guilt? Has political criminality ever been more effectively repressed than by this weeping wound to the will of the critical? Has there ever been a more svelte Minimal mask placed over governmental culpability?”

Perhaps one does have to ask if the memorial is too indirect in its recognition of the war’s political and moral questions. As Charles Griswold points out, not only do “war memorials by their very nature recall struggles to the death over values”; they are also “a species of pedagogy” that “seeks to instruct posterity about the past.” Is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial too solicitous of those who prosecuted the war, too wary of the soul-searching debates needed if the nation is ever to come to terms with the war’s legacy? Put another way: Are the very qualities that enabled the Vietnam memorial to rise above divisive debates and capture public imagination part of its limitation?

Nevertheless, Morris is plainly more interested in assigning blame than in remembering victims. He has defined a problem different from the one that the memorial competition set out to solve. His approach would have resulted in a fractious, and probably unresolvable, national debate and done nothing to help veterans find solace. Such a debate should certainly take place with the benefit of the passage of time, so that scholars and citizens can calmly evaluate the pertinent issues—and Morris’s concern is probably aggravated by his awareness that such cool, objective assessments don’t always happen. The Second World War, for instance, displaced public debate and scholarly studies of the causes and conduct of the First.

The trauma of the Vietnam War remains with us, however, and so do the breaches that the war created, which are evident in the daily press, in debates about school curricula, in congressional disputes, and in our perception of the American role in the world. 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.”

Top Photo: SeanPavonePhoto/iStock


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