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Americans Remembering Vietnam … The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall

Carried to the wall (University of California Press, 1998) by Kristin Ann Hass is an exploration of how Americans come to terms with the memory of losses experienced by our participation in the Vietnam War. In order to examine this in detail, Hass explores the creation and ensuing response to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., arguing that the memorial changed the way we experience national loss, and how we actively participate in cultural mourning.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, which Hass dubs the Wall in her book, was created in 1982 as a memorial to the 58,000 men and women who lost their lives or were missing in the Vietnam conflict. Now a national memorial run by the National Park Service, the Wall is free to visitors and is open 24/7, 365 days a year. [Continued by clicking the link below the image]

 

The Wall is a black granite structure that forms an elongated V-shape wall. Designed at the time by Yale architecture student Maya Lin, the Wall proved controversial because of its simplicity. At this memorial, you will find no statuary of young American soldiers or heroic prose, no images of combat. One can’t help but compare it to the Korean War Memorial in D.C., which features 19 haunting soldiers made from stainless steel appearing to float through a rice paddy, wearing ponchos as protection from the cold and rain of Korean battle. The memorial feels poignant and deeply personal compared to the stark black granite walls of the Wall. The difference in the memorials is stark.

Hass argues that the unusual design of the Wall, and the controversial response to it, contributed to a change in the way America memorializes our fallen, and that the Wall will reflect fluidity in marking loss as old generations pass and new generations stand before it. After the opening the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, visitors began leaving physical things behind as signs of respect and offerings to the fallen. From bottles of beer to medals and everything in between, including personal notes and toilet paper, items large and small were left and all have been saved by park staff as a spontaneous collection of material culture. “Together,” Hass writes, “all of these things are a potent testament to the will of these people to make their mark in this conversation about the war, the bodies, and the nation.” Hass argues that leaving something at the wall is a communication act, a form of speech. Visitors want to be heard through their offerings.

What changed, then, for mourners and the nation by the creation of the Wall in 1982? The long physical structure of the wall encourages things to be left. It feels like a grave, in a geographic sense, Hass argues. Statuary doesn’t feel that way. Statuary doesn’t encourage the leaving of mementoes. At the Wall, “national pride, the names of the dead, and personal mementoes are refigured in the making of public memory of American’s longest war,” says Hass.

She then takes us on a journey through the ages of funerary practices, especially for battles and wars and those lost in them, from Ancient Rome and Egypt on up through the Civil War and into the 20th century. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, argues Hass, does not celebrate the nation. “It turns, for substance, to the names of the dead … it opens up the space for people to claim the memorial as their own with personal and public offerings, and to make themselves part of the process of defining the nation.”

I myself visited the Wall in 2015. What I remember about that tour of D.C. is loving the Korean War memorial and being indifferent to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Not disrespectful, just not engaged. The black granite wall left no impression on me, no desire to consider the conflict for further answers or reflection. I felt that way, however, with the beautiful soldiers that appeared to slink by me for eternity at the Korean War memorial. I took several pictures of the Korean memorial and none of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.

The conversation about Vietnam, writes Hass, “is impassioned and unfinished, and gives us tremendous opportunity to witness the process of Americans struggling to make meanings of, to make sense of, the Vietnam War and all of its difficult and complicated legacies.” She believes that people carrying their things to the Wall are “answering, and asking, questions about society’s obligations to its soldiers.”

Any memorial that serves to honor the fallen and ask the living to question our choices that send our nation to war, and send good men and women to battle (and possibly to an early death), deserves respectful contemplation and ongoing care.

 Stock photography: Vietnam Veterans War Memorial, Washington, D.C.

 One of my photos of the Korean War Memorial, Washington, D.C. 2015