[I was playing with the Wayback Machine, and found a paper I’d thought was lost long ago. I wrote it for a California American Studies Association conference in May of 1997. The audience for the paper was small, but I think I did right by the words I had written, and more than one person told me it was a strong piece. I hadn’t read this in 15 years; in 2013, it still seems good enough to post here. I present it, unchanged.]
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, popularly referred to as "The Wall," stands between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.. The decision to locate it between these two enduring testaments to America was a conscious one, and the design of the Wall reflects the importance of its presence in such honored company; the instructions for the original design competition which resulted in the wall required that it "harmonize with its surroundings, especially the nearby Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial." Maya Lin's final design is a two-winged wall, with each wing pointing to one of the other monuments. However, despite the intentions to connect the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial to Washington and Lincoln, a visitor is quickly aware of key differences between this memorial and the others.
Most obviously, the Wall is a testament to death, a list of 57,709 Americans dead or missing in action in the Vietnam War. There is little celebratory about the Wall; one does not experience it and think fondly of "The Father Of Our Country" or "The Man Who Ended Slavery." Instead, one enters into a personal relationship with Americans who died in the service of that country. The Wall invites us to contemplate the awfulness of all those deaths, to wonder what lives were lived by the tens of thousands named on the Wall, to wonder as well how our own lives are different because of the presence of so many dead.
While the Wall is a public memorial, to be visited alongside other people, it evokes many private feelings. For all the seeming endlessness of the names, there is nothing expansive about the Wall. Visitors turn inwards, alone with their thoughts and memories. The interactions are personal, not necessarily communal. The Wall does encourage interaction, in a way the monuments to Washington and Lincoln do not; one listens to tour guides at the Lincoln Memorial, but tour guides seem out of place at the Wall.
However, the Wall also draws individuals out of their shells. Your experience with the Wall might be private, but the presence of so many gifts, trinkets, war memories, letters, flowers, all left by visitors to the Wall, presents for the dead to be sure, but also presents for the living, are a way for us as individual visitors to be a part of the Wall community. When we leave something at the Wall, we are becoming co-creators of the work of art (and the Wall is, among other things, very much a work of art). In her competition submission, Maya Lin wrote, "The Memorial is composed not as an unchanging monument, but as a moving composition to be understood as we move into and out of it."
We come to the Wall as individuals or as families; we experience it in private, inwardly; yet we leave it as part of the community of America. The Wall has a tremendous, mysterious ability to make us feel part of something larger than ourselves, even as we confront it with our silent thoughts. The Wall brings us together. Bill Clinton, speaking at the Wall, once said, "Let us continue to disagree if we must about the war, but let us not let it divide us as a people any longer.... At this monument, can any American be out of place ... ? I think not."
One often hears talk about "healing" when the Wall is discussed. A particular, specific, example of this came recently when a half-size replica of the Wall came to Berkeley as part of a nationwide tour. Longtime Berkeley resident, anti-war activist, and veteran Country Joe McDonald was one of the organizers involved in bringing the mini-Wall to Berkeley, and his participation emphasized the contradictions many found in the appearance of this memorial in such a leftist hotbed as Berkeley. This "Wall of Healing," like the original Wall, marks a new era in America's relationship to the Vietnam War, one where we reach the time of healing. (Jan Scruggs, the veteran who came up with the idea for a Vietnam veterans' memorial after watching The Deer Hunter in 1979, said that his hope was that it could "bring about some healing for the country.") This awful national nightmare, to borrow a phrase Gerald Ford used in a different context, needs to be over; we as a community must move beyond partisanship and recognize our common losses. The war itself was bad enough; what it did to the U.S. was frustratingly inescapable. We should not have to sustain our agony forever. We should finally be able to accept that time moves on, that in allowing the war to retain its power to fragment our society, we are still in effect "losing the war." As long as we let the old feelings gnaw at our national psyche, we will remain "losers." And so we move on, and the symbolism of the Wall's presence in Berkeley seemed to be an especially useful version of this needed reconciliation with our past. If a city of so much anti-war activism could finally open its arms to the Wall of Healing, then surely we have moved to a new and better place.
If, indeed, that is what is involved. We do desire closure, we do need to move on, we do need in some ways to bury the hatchets. There is something heartbreakingly human about these needs. However human those needs seem, though, they should not be accepted uncritically. We should not be too eager to buy into this latest attempt to corral us as a culture into believing the version of events presented to us, just because it makes it feel better. Feeling better may have everything to do with being human; it is unclear how much feeling better has to do with history, or with our future.
The design for the memorial was chosen via a competition, the rules of which were fairly simple. Contestants were told that the design must be "apolitical," to heal, not reopen old wounds. From the beginning, the memorial was seen as a monument to reconciliation. Again, the need for such a reconciliation is understandable, but the assumption that healing could be "apolitical" is problematic, since the desire to remove political content from the memorial was in itself a political move. The question becomes, what political purpose could it serve to insist upon apolitical meaning to a memorial to the Vietnam War?
An important part of this process of "healing" is the manner in which a memorial designed to honor the memory of valiant Americans is used to help us forget some of the essential reasons for the existence of the war that killed those Americans in the first place. The Wall eloquently asks us to remember all 57,709 dead or missing Americans, but the intentions of those who put together the Wall is that it be "apolitical," that is, to forget the past, rather than remember it. It places the thousands of forgotten soldiers at the front of our consciousness, and surely this is a good thing. It reminds us that every life is important, that we should never forget those who gave their lives in the name of us as Americans, and surely this is a good thing. It intentionally forgets the "politics" that placed Americans in this war to begin with, though, because this memorial is not only about remembering, but also about healing, and anyone who remembers the terrible turmoil which engulfed the nation during the war knows very well that such turmoil is not conducive to reconciliation, is not a good way to help heal a country and its people, and so the memorial is "apolitical." It brings individual mourners together as a community of healed Americans, with its wings pointing to Washington and Jefferson and our hearts and minds directed away from the disturbing "political" ramifications of the war.
The databases associated with the Wall, which make for easy searching through the 57,709 names, are magnificent tools for individuals obsessing about the Wall, its meanings, the names and the lives and deaths of those listed on it. Our attention may be directed away from the "political" aspects of the Wall and the war, but that attention must go somewhere, and these databases do an excellent job of collating information about all of the names. There are catalogs at the memorial site, where visitors can look up specific names and find their location on the Wall. The combined effect of all these databases is to allow us to bring individual soldiers to our consciousness. The physical and emotional immenseness of the Wall can overpower visitors; the sheer numbers can make it difficult to focus on individual people. ("These names," Maya Lin wrote, "seemingly infinite in number, convey the sense of overwhelming numbers, while unifying these individuals into a whole.") But the database focuses our attention. Let us stop for a second and consider some of the people whose names appear on the Wall.
Private First Class James C. Ward of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was born on January 26, 1948, coincidentally the date of my mother's 20th birthday. (The databases encourage this kind of random personal connection to the names, as if we might better know the lives of the dead if we can just attach them to events in our own lives.) On October 11, 1965, PFC Ward died. You can find his name on the East panel. At his death, he was 17 years, 8 months, and 16 days old. He was the youngest American casualty of the war. Eleven other Americans died in the war at the age of 17.
Kenna C. Taylor died at 62, the oldest American casualty.
Five thousand, five hundred and seventy-seven Californians died in the war. Three hundred thiry-eight men named "Steven" (with a "v") died in the war. Four people named Rubio died in the war. Seventeen Americans from Berkeley died in the war. Seven Americans from my home town, Antioch, California, died in the war. On September 28, 1968, the night of which I first kissed the woman who later became my wife, eighteen Americans died in the war.
You can do this kind of thing forever when poring through the databases. You can get lost in the numbers, the names, the dates, the minutiae. You're drawn in, much as you're drawn in to the memorial itself when you first arrive at the top of one of the two wings. In every case, the haze into which your mind enters insulates you momentarily from the "real world." This is yet another way in which the Wall elicits personal, private responses. This most public of all events, an unpopular war played out nightly on the teevee news, is recalled in solitary, away from the tumult which accompanied the war when it actually happened.
And perhaps this is part of the healing process, as well, although the databases, obviously, are not the Wall. Still, the Wall puts the names into granite, gives them substance, unifies them, in Lin's words, into a whole. The databases, many of them online, at least one, "Beyond the Wall: Stories Behind the Vietnam War," on CD-ROM, allow us to peruse the names at our leisure, to relive our experience of the Wall as the Wall allows us to relive our experience of the war. To the extent these experiences allow us the opportunity to re-examine our ideas about the war, they are fruitful beyond mere healing (although healing is anything but mere, and my intention is not to belittle the need for healing and reconciliation). The problem arises, though, that any honest re-examination of the Vietnam War would necessarily include an appraisal of the political roots of that war, a war that people on all sides seemed to agree was a disaster, although their reasons for thinking it a disaster varied considerably. And once we move to an appraisal of the political ramifications of the war, we've moved beyond the healing process, we're right back where we started, grumbling and fuming and suffering, reliving the antagonisms and the hatreds. It's easy to see why this would be counter-productive to the process of healing. But it should also be clear at this point that we can not just choose to forget the parts of our past that make us uncomfortable, that we can not allow our desire for reconciliation to change how history is written.
The Vietnam war was a terrible thing. This trite statement needs to be said. It was a terrible thing because 57,709 Americans died in it. It was a terrible thing because many, many more Vietnamese died in it. It was a terrible thing because imperialism is a terrible thing, it was a terrible thing because we, as a nation, made some hugely regrettable political decisions about our place in the world and our role in Southeast Asia. Many Americans thought this war was a terrible thing while it was happening, and their public expression of their despair, their attempts to change the political climate of the United States of America, led to near-cataclysmic upheaval in American society. Among the victims of this upheaval were those veterans who returned home from a bad war to find they were underappreciated by their countrymen. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial does its part towards re-integrating those veterans, and the 57,709 who were left behind, into our society once again, and we must welcome them back with open arms.
But we must be vigilant; we must remember. We must remember it all. We can not let the healing process blind us to the political ramifications of our presence in Vietnam. A memorial helps us to remember; we honor the Vietnam Veterans Memorial when we refuse to forget.
One recurring aspect of the various presentations of the Wall is the reading of the names. Speakers working in shifts read the names off the Wall, one by one, from first to last. This marathon of name-reading reminds us, almost as much as the Wall itself, of the enormity of lives lost. In the spirit of those readings, and in honor of all who died in Vietnam, I would like to read here, on May 2nd 1997, as part of the California American Studies Association convention, the names of the 37 Californians who died in Vietnam on May 2nd.
Paul L. Abraham
Terry J. Allen
Jose C. Alvarez
Willie C. Clark
Frank R. Corona
Michael D. Craig
Thomas E. Diefenderfer
Lawrence J. Englander
Edward A. Escobar
John A. Frick
John M. Henderson
Nathaniel H. Jackson
Daniel C. Johnson
Richard R. Landers
Michael D. Lee
Thomas W. Mallon
William A. Mansergh
Glenn R. Mearns
Jon L. Messer
Otto P. Meyer
Willie L. Moses
Lloyd F. Mousseau
Douglas E. Partridge
Dale K. Porterfield
Robert A. Romo
Leopoldo P. Serna
John C. Sherman
Geoffrey R. Taylor
Ismael J. Valdez
Clyde J. Valstad
Thomas M. Walker
Alonzo D. Woods