Traditionally, in Washington, DC, our nation has chosen to remember specific individuals, units, or branches of service in honoring those that have fought for our nation. That all changed in November of 1982, with the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It was the first Memorial in Washington with the stated purpose of honoring all those who fought in the war, with special emphasis on those who died or were missing.
The design is simple, and I'm sure the vast majority of reader have no more need of me to explain it than they do the Washington Monument. But like the Monument, the Wall, as it is often colloquially known, reveals a great deal of complexity under its seemingly simple exterior.
I'm sure most of us know the story of the architect of the Vietnam Wall, that of Maya Lin, a Yale undergraduate who beat out over 1,400 other nominations to get the chance to design the Memorial. In what would become the first of nearly countless controversies, Maya Lin's design was attacked not only for it's unconventional and minimalist design, but, sadly, for her Asian heritage. As a result, the original design was amended to include The Three Soldiers, a nearby statue which is said to represent all those who fought in the war. Perhaps in answer to the ugly racism associated with Maya Lin's selection, the statue very overtly includes a White, African-American, and Hispanic soldier, reflecting the diversity of all Americans who participated in the war.
The Three Soldiers is a fine sculpture, as is the nearby Vietnam Woman's Memorial. Visitors should spend a minute reflecting on both. But to me, they're add-ons to the main show, roughly akin to hanging Christmas ornaments on a Giant Redwood, so as to add beauty to it. The Wall itself is one of those Memorials that continues to stir emotion in me, no matter how many hundreds of times I've seen it, and it will be the focus of the rest of my discussion.
I can use many adjectives to describe the Wall, but simple should not be one of them. Minimalist, of course, and perhaps even stark, but in no way is it simple. Upon entering the Wall, you will either come in from the direction of the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial, done deliberately to ground this work in the fabric of our Nation's Capital. Designed both to blend, and to stand out, the top of the Wall is at ground level, and you descend into it, watching the 58,261 names (as of last Memorial Day) rise above you.
I will leave you to your own thoughts when visiting here, but try to pick out a few of the details Maya Lin chose to highlight aspects of the War. Look for the small diamonds or crosses next to each name, signifying if the person in question was killed or missing, respectively. As we recover remains, many of the crosses have been filled in to from diamonds, but you can still see the original cross underneath. Additionally, as you look at each name that you will see your own reflection. This was not done by accident, and the intent is that you see yourself in this sea of names (hint: take pictures at an angle). And finally, look for the 1959 and 1974 dates at the center of the V. The names are in chronological order from the center, radiating outwards to the east, and metaphorically wrapping around again to complete itself back where they started, forming a circle. Which is, of course, fitting, as a circle is often considered a symbol of life continuing on, albeit broken in this case. Which, sadly enough, also makes sense.
If you have a name you wish to look up, you can do it before you come at TheWall-USA.com, a site set up by veterans that uses the official database of names. It is an excellent resource for more information about folks who are listed on the Wall, as well as general information about the site. You may as well look up names on books at the beginning of either side of the Wall.
A note on rubbings. I haven't heard anything official about continuing or discontinuing rubbing of names on the wall. Several Park Service reps and some of the veterans that volunteer at the Wall have told me informally that they've been having problems with rings and such causing scratches on the granite. So I have not been encouraging my groups to do rubbings unless they have a specific person in mind (family member, someone from their school, etc.). If you do wish to have a rubbing, I would also purchase a graphite pencil at an art store and bring an envelope for the paper so it doesn't smudge. Paper for rubbing is available at the kiosk near the Lincoln Memorial.
What I do encourage my school kids to do, on the rare occasion time permits, is to look up a specific name on the Wall. I think it helps to bring focus to the experience. With the explosion of smartphones with many kids, they can even look up the person in question before they even find the name. This might not be obvious to a fifty five year old, who may have fought in Vietnam themselves, or protested against our involvement in it, or simply lost friends there, but the Vietnam War is becoming increasingly remote. I either have them look a name up at random, or give them one of the following, and we talk about it afterword:
- First Lieutenant Michael Blassie, USAF: Airman shot down over Vietnam who was incorrectly interred as the Unknown Soldier from Vietnam at Arlington National Cemetery.
- First Lieutenant Sharon Lane, USA: only Service woman to die as a result of enemy fire in the war
- Corporal Thomas Bennett, USA: a Conscientious Objector who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
- Captain Sam Bird, USA: Perhaps one of the most televised Army Officers of 1963. He was the Officer in charge of President Kennedy's casket detail from the time he landed at Andrews Air Force Base until final internment. Capt Bird was severely wounded in 1967 and finally succumbed to his injuries in 1984.
- Chief Aviation Boatswains Mate Gerald Farrier, USN: Chief Farrier was the first casualty in the deadly 1967 USS Forestal fire, when he attempted to fight the initial fire on then-LCDR John McCain's A-4.
Obviously, no one of these names is any more important than the others, but they serve to illustrate a little of the detail that many of the younger generation does not have.
A final note about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Perhaps fittingly, for what is arguably America's most controversial war, just about no element of the Memorial has been without some controversy, which continues to this day. It pains me to see it presented so often without acknowledment of that discussion (as the Park Service does on their website), as it is a war without easy answers. Some may take exception to how I interpret the Memorial, and other guides often view some of these elements in radically different ways than I. By all means, add your own interpretation in the comments below as you see fit. It's a difficult subject to tackle, especially since for many Americans it's not history, as it is for me.