Vietnam Veterans Memorial


Architect, Maya Lin

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial (VVM) is surely the most radical war memorial in Washington.  It is in many ways an anti-monument, refusing to speak the conventional heroic language of the many other military monuments that bedeck the city.  It would not be too much to call it a rebuke to the windy rhetoric and dull grandeur that is a mainstay of the genre.  It is thus not merely a hugely powerful and successful thing in its own right, but also a bit of an embarrassment to the upholders of tradition.

In form, the VVM does the virtual opposite of most of the monuments before or after it.  It is sited below ground, so that rather than looking up to the sky one is drawn down below the surface.  Moreover, since the visitor’s passageway is slanted, each viewer can be at a slightly different depth of engagement with the site.  The viewers at the VVM thus do not feel like they are a shared public on a common ground, but instead each is at a unique, more private level.  Further, rather than a shining bronze or marble effigy of some exemplary hero to focus on, we are confronted with the pictureless polished wall surface of a supremely dark granite.  In all, rather than emanating light from a source in the sky, we are presented with something more like a black hole, a gash in the earth swallowing our vision, and eventually engulfing us as we move down the passageway.   It’s a little scary and a lot therapeutic.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial confronts us not primarily with a war, but rather the names of its (American) dead, all (at this writing) 58,318 of them.  It provides a focused, cathartic, and intensely personal space of memorialization and indeed mourning.  Rituals thus abound around it, such as rubbings of the impressions of names and the leaving of flowers and personal effects. Virtually all of the objects that are left at the Wall (as it is known) are kept and cataloged by the National Park Service. Thus the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is one that viewers can not only participate in but actually define and enlarge.

The success (and controversy) of this monument derives not just from what it presents but what it withholds. There is barely a word about why these more than 58,000 people died. In fact, two tiny inscriptions state something about their “courage, sacrifice and devotion” but they are placed where virtually no one will see them (and added over the strenuous objection of the designer). A reflection of the Washington Monument appears at one side of the vertex of the monument’s two stone leaves, a sort of ghost of the governmental presence to this, the nation’s official monument to its disastrous war in Vietnam.

The VVM’s unconventional design was deeply disturbing to those who wanted a monument that looked like all the others. One of its early backers stated “I never in my wildest dreams imagined such a nihilistic slab of stone.” The right-wing outcry became so great that two years later Frederick Hart’s bronze sculptural group of three exemplary soldiers was added to the area, and a flag pole placed by them.  Hartt had placed third among the original competitors for the design, but was elevated by the political power of his constituents.  This less-visited addition, sort of an anti-anti-monument, does not neutralize the original memorial so much as confuses it (and visitors).

It is sometimes said that the VVM is a monument like no other because the Vietnam war was a war like no other.  More exactly, the VVM owes its unique nature to the unique openness of government to the governed that took place between Watergate and the election of Ronald Reagan. What is most remarkable about the monument is announced in the title itself.  This is far more the veterans own monument to their experience than that imposed by any governmental overseers.  It was funded by a grassroots network led by Jan Scruggs, an Army mortarman during the war.  As such, veterans had a major voice in chosing the final design and seized upon that of Maya Lin, at the time a first-year graduate design student at Yale.  Signed into law by Jimmy Carter in July 1980, the VVM barely negotiated the coming of Ronald Reagan, whose Interior Secretary, James Watt, initially refused to issue a building permit for it.

Yet “The Wall” is so popular that several replicas or versions have been built around America, and a “moving wall” even brings the experience to towns across the country.  There is no other American monument that serves its constituency so directly, or been so influential among modern memorials.