Last week I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. The visit is my fourth, the first since 1988 and earlier visits in 1986 and 1983. I visit because the memorial remembers for me the war I fought. Those names are the fate that so easily could have been mine. At the Wall I imagine my life not lived. I recall the many friends, places, joys, sorrows and adventures that would not happen. Death in war leaves gaping holes in a nation, in life itself. I go to remember that lesson.
Following the path through the memorial is a linear metaphor for the war. My friend, Pat Doyle, and I enter from the east, walking into the glare and reflection of a late afternoon sun. The wall starts out very small, ankle-high. It grows as we descend. A few names to start, more and more with each panel. Now the panels are at eye level and soon they tower over us at the wall’s apex. Names and black granite taper to the horizon in each direction. Those many, many names seem to flow to this center. Here we are deep in the war, feeling its encompassing weight. We ascend toward the west, the wall diminishing with each step. Emerging from war. I feel a sense of relief that it’s over, that the war is behind me.
At the west entrance, I look back to see a simple form that commands attention. The black granite flows and moves, carving a small space for remembrance. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial works for me because of its simplicity. Names only. No rank. No service. No heroes. Just dead soldiers, the missing pieces of so many families. The memorial is a quiet honor. A martial statement would be out of place for the Vietnam war.
Visiting the memorial is not a cathartic or highly emotional experience for me. It has meaning, though. It recalls a tragic period for my nation that affected me very personally. These honored dead are my comrades. Like them, I served but I was fortunate enough to return. I feel a bit guilty that the spirits favored me and not them. I spot Deacon’s name high on Panel 4-W. I remember the day he died on that mountain. But mostly I am saddened by the war’s losses, America’s and Vietnam’s. Other than a salute, I give little outward sign of what The Wall and the war it memorializes means to me.
The memorial is busy but not crowded. My last two visits were after dark, only a few were there. Today I am among the late August tourists, visiting in a time of war and national frustration. A young Asian couple pose for photographs at the apex. For them the memorial is just another destination. They don’t seem particularly cognizant of the dead, just getting the picture. A visitor asks about the panel numbers and I explain how the memorial is organized. A large crowd of Chinese tourists follow a guide holding aloft a folded umbrella.
Pat and I head for the Korean War Memorial. The sculpture of a poncho-clad infantry patrol is visible at a distance. Up close, the figures are white-gray, with minimal detail. The stainless steel forms lean into their steps. Heads turn, scanning for danger. Ponchos flap in an eternal breeze. Faces and rifles are smooth–just enough size, shape and detail for definition. The eyes look vacant. The scene is haunting; it feels wet, foggy and cold even on this bright summer afternoon. The haunted, cold feeling seems right, given the nature the Korean War and the 53 year stalemate that has followed it. Behind the sculpture is a black granite wall, etched with scenes from the war. At this distance the images are sharp and clear. Closer, they are more abstract, also appropriate for this inconclusive war. In front of the sculpture, to the east, is a reflecting pool, a small gentle waterfall and war statistics. The overall feeling to me is hardship and sacrifice borne by a few in an uncertain cause. As John Prine
sings, “We lost Davy in the Korean War/And I still don’t know what for, don’t matter anymore.”
No uncertainty lurks at the World War II Memorial. It is brash, big and all encompassing. Much like the war it memorializes. Columns, arches, bas-reliefs, inscriptions, winged figures and laurel wreathes surround a shallow amphitheater with a reflecting pool and fountains arcing water into the pool. The entrance opens to the east, the Washington Monument and in the distance, the Capitol dome. The north side celebrates victory in the Atlantic-European theater, the south side celebrates Victory in the Pacific-Asia theater. It feels as if everything that could be incorporated into a memorial was incorporated here. The memorial is very busy–all that’s missing are a calliope and dancing bears.
I mean no disrespect when I say that but the scale and ambition of the World War II Memorial invites over-reaction. To me, at least. That may be a remnant of the hostility I felt toward veterans of this war, comfortably perched on the bar stools at VFW and American Legion posts, sending my generation to war in Vietnam. I resented them for putting me at risk for no good reason. My feelings toward these veterans only mellowed years later when I saw Edward Steichen’s photographs of naval operations in the Pacific. The photos showed these veterans to me as I was in my war–young, scared, determined. The images helped me see our common bond. Their support for the Vietnam War in the 1960's was simply part of who they were, the experiences that forged them.
Snark and memories aside, the World War II Memorial is appropriate. If Vietnam and Korea rate expression on the National Mall, then should not the incomparable effort of WWII? And I don’t think you can understate that effort. Nothing at this memorial is understated. Everything is there. My biggest objection to the memorial was that it would break up the mall, making large scale gatherings like the 1963 Civil Rights March or the 1969 Moratorium impossible. After walking the Mall and seeing the memorial, I think any mass demonstration would just engulf the memorial for the duration. It looked to me that plenty of space remains.
Returning to Vietnam Memorial, we locate the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, which is . part of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and located in a nearby copse of trees. It is a sculpture of three women tending a wounded soldier. One cradles him, another kneels behind and the third looks skyward. My initial reaction is that it’s hokey, that the image is not real since it looks like a battlefield situation, hardly a common one for most women in Vietnam. But upon reflection, I think it works as a metaphor for women’s service in Vietnam: rescue, healing and comfort often under difficult and dangerous circumstances (See Linda Van Devanter’s Home Before Morning
My biggest reservation about the Women’s Memorial is that it is needed at all. Women, like the rest of us veterans, are commemorated by the names on The Wall. But it’s easy to overlook their service–only eight women are among the names–hence the desire for a specific representation. I had the same reaction when the Three Soldiers statue was added. Suddenly the names had a specific image that was not always correct. So much better the abstraction of The Wall where all are individuals, equal in their sacrifice for the nation.
Pat and I make a final pass along The Wall, this time from the west. I look up two names from my hometown. In the process, I see a Navajo name and look up two other common Navajo names. We find all the names. Each recalls a memory.
Throughout the visit I wonder if a World War I memorial exists somewhere in Washington. Pat and I speculate on what a future Iraq-Afghanistan memorial will look like. Pat comments that the WWII Memorial is martial, in a way anticipating the “robust” militarism of the neo-conservatives. Maybe it’s an opportunity to counterbalance the quiet understatement of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
That would be a mistake. Vietnam sucked but it left this nation a legacy and a lesson. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a powerful reminder that war is death and loss only fully redeemed in the most extreme circumstances. We forget that lesson at our peril.