The memorial that no one wanted built except the veterans
May 24, 2013 8:18 PM   Subscribe

Although ranked tenth in "America's Favorite Architecture," compiled by the American Institute of Architects, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial - sometimes referred to as simply 'The Wall' - was the at the center of political and artistic controversy and opposition from the time of its announcement in 1981. The Wall, situated in Constitution Gardens adjacent to the National Mall, is "...often referred to as the veterans 3rd battle. The 1st being survival in Vietnam. The 2nd, was dealing with the rejection experienced upon returning home from war. And, the 3rd, building the Wall."

The Memorial consists of two walls sunken into the landscape and arranged in a chevron shape: the East wall (facing the Washington Monument) and the West wall (facing the Lincoln Memorial). Each wall is a giant black slab measuring 246 feet 9 inches (75.21 meters) long, the total length measuring 493 feet 6 inches (150.42 meters). The polished, highly reflective stone is black granite sourced from Bangalore, India -- at the time, one of only three known places in the world where it was possible to source pieces of granite this large. Inscribed by machine are the names of service members who were either confirmed to be KIA (Killed in Action) or remained classified as MIA (Missing in Action) when the walls were constructed in 1982. The font used was Optima, and symbols next to names are used to describe the status of each individual. (Further information about the technical specifications of The Wall.). The names are arranged chronologically, not alphabetically, as was specified in the original proposal.

The Wall was designed by Maya Lin, who was a 21 year old Yale senior architecture student at the time. As she tells in the documentary, "Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision" (brief trailer), she was creating a course on funerary architecture, and one day a student came in with a flyer about the competition to design a Vietnam memorial in Washington D.C. She thought, "what a great idea!"

More generally, Maya Lin has explained, "My sculptures deal with naturally occurring phenomenon." In the same PBS video clip, she can be seen working in her studio and on site, discussing her approach to creating a piece, and the seeming conflict between her roles as monument architect and artist.

Among the many controversies surrounding the proposed design and construction of The Wall, Tom Carhart's impassioned plea stands out. On October 13, 1981, at The Commission of Fine Arts meeting (where Lin can be seen in the footage sitting in the audience), Carhart speaks of being spat on in an airport when returning from service in Vietnam, explains why he objects to the design, and calls Lin's proposal for the Memorial "a black scar." Carhart wanted the VVMF committee to re-open the selection process for the design contest and have a panel consisting of exclusively of Vietnam veterans to determine the winning proposal (The entire statement to the U.S. Fine Arts commission in PDF format).

Many at the time objected to the memorial's stark, minimalist nature, favoring a more traditional memorial that was perceived as more dignified and appropriate. James Webb commented on the design: "I never in my wildest dreams imagined such a nihilistic slab of stone." Ross Perot, an early supporter of the memorial and major financial contributor, withdrew his support after seeing the proposed memorial, and James Watt, Secretary of the Interior, refused to issue a building permit.

Maya Lin herself received harassment regarding her ethnicity and believes that if the competition had not been "blind", with designs submitted by number instead of name, she "never would have won". From the documentary already linked, and included in this dissertation's footnote: "it took me months to realize that obviously a lot of people were going to be offended that the creator of the American Vietnam Veterans is not only not a veteran, but she is a she, she is an Asian..." (footnote 309, pg. 200, "Remembering Through the Corpus: The Intersection of (Moving) Bodies with Architecture at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial).

In the end, so radical was Lin's design for a memorial that a more traditional component was agreed upon as part of a compromise. This piece, a bronze sculpture in the Iron Mike tradition by Frederick Hart (titled The Three Soldiers) is situated across from (and appears to be looking at) The Wall. Lin was not happy about this addition to her original vision.

Elizabeth Wolfson summarizes the difficulties that memorial architecture presents:

"As memorials are objects of public commemoration, we demand a lot of them. They serve as testaments to lives lost, as repositories of grief, and to facilitate processes of mourning. We expect them to do the work of history writing, to draw single comprehensible narratives out of a Gorgon's nest of individual, often contradictory, experiences. These meanings serve as unifying forces, reinforcing the idea of a shared national identity and healing rifts in the communal experience of nationhood.

By endowing memorials with the ability to accomplish these tasks, we bestow them with an extraordinary amount of power and authority. Thus, it is unsurprising that the first skirmish of the culture wars of the 1980s can be traced back to the public debate that broke out in reaction to Maya Lin's design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
" (The "Black Gash of Shame": Revisiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Controversy)

The Wall was funded by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) and the money raised through private donations. The principal founder, Jan Scruggs, is a Vietnam veteran who was inspired to create the fund partially by the 1978 film The Deer Hunter.

The other principal founder of the VVMF was Jack Wheeler, who was chairman of the non-profit organization from 1979 to 1989. He supported Maya Lin's then-controversial design, which was opposed by Ross Perot and Jim Webb, who tried to oust him as chairman of the memorial. Wheeler, in a compromise, agreed to the addition of The Three Soldiers, mentioned above, and an American flag.

To this day the U.S. National Parks Service collects items left at The Wall. Visitors commonly leave hand-written notes and sentiments, rubbings from the names, Prisoner of War/Missing in Action commemorative bracelets, uniforms and bits of uniforms, including boots, and according to a top ten list.

In November 2012, all 58, 283 of the names were read out loud at the Wall - the fifth time this has been done (previous years: 1982, 1992, 2002 and 2007). The timing was coordinated to complete the reading just prior to Veteran's Day. Some of the readers' profiles at

In 2009, the Memorial had 4,437,771 visitors, and " is still far and away the greatest memorial of modern times — the most beautiful, the most heart-wrenching, the most subtle, and the most powerful."

Jan Scruggs has stated more recently about the Memorial:

"The idea of having all these names permanently displayed in Washington a few blocks from the White House, a block from the State Department, down the street from the US Congress — to me, this was poetic justice. These were the people everyone wanted to forget. They wanted this whole thing to go away, and I didn't want it to go away."

Donation page for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) | Information on The Wall That Heals | Further reading | Alternative Reading List | Documentary: Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (58 comments total) 81 users marked this as a favorite
You really don't understand until you see it in person how very tiny they had to make the names so they'd all fit.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:29 PM on May 24, 2013 [15 favorites]

I saw the VVM in person for the first time last year, and was stricken at how poorly most of the popular images of it convey it. It's not just a wall, it's a retaining wall backing up a wall of earth against a hole in the ground. You could watch a hundred movie scenes featuring the VVM and think that you could walk around it and see more names on the other side of the slab. Not so; the other side is dirt up to the top of the wall. None of the movies that use the wall as a backdrop portrays this at all.

Because it's so long you can never see the ends in a movie clip but the Wall starts and ends just a foot or so high, with just a few names per foot in the earliest and latest stages of the conflict. It swells though to become a true wall as you descend into the center of the timeline.
posted by localroger at 8:32 PM on May 24, 2013 [10 favorites]

I've never seen this in person and didn't even know how it was all laid out until I read the description above. Wikipedia has panoramas and aerial views that helped put it in perspective. It's way bigger than I thought.
posted by mathowie at 8:32 PM on May 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

You really don't understand until you see it in person how very tiny they had to make the names so they'd all fit.

Yeah, and even when you approach it, the size of it and the tiny names combine for a real sense of "oh holy shit."
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:36 PM on May 24, 2013 [10 favorites]

Thanks for this.
posted by freakazoid at 8:45 PM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have been to DC numerous times. Most of the "Person" memorials give the effect of walking up to a fountain: you look up, maybe admire the statue, read some words, take a picture, go on your way.

The World War II memorial is overwhelming in scope and size (like the war itself) and how you feel on viewing it depends on how much you go for grand drama. The Korean War memorial is more affecting. The giant soldiers rise out of the grass and water like ancient ghosts and the result is haunting and beautiful.

But the Vietnam Memorial is a real gut-puncher. It is deceptively simple and the effect is subtle. At first you need to crouch onto the ground to read the few names written out at the points of each wall. But by the time you've walked down the slope and are at its juncture, the black stone towers over you and the names pile up. The effect is completely overwhelming, very visceral, and despite having no personal connection to the Vietnam War whatsoever I was having trouble not crying. I've yet to see another monument that has a similar effect.
posted by Anonymous at 8:49 PM on May 24, 2013

Such a great post, such an unfortunate title. The objections of veterans to the memorial---which continue to this day---was the biggest roadblock in getting it built!
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:53 PM on May 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've always found that memorial by far more powerful than any other save perhaps the equally embattled To The Struggle Against World Terrorism, and the Cross of Sacrifice.

The stark, horrible beauty of the thing is what always hits me first. It reminds me so much of many of the machines of modern war - harsh, slick, deadly - but it sucks in your eye so powerfully. The positioning that localroger mentions is also really key, and it makes me very sad that so few images really capture this part of it.

To see those names, and know those who nearly were on it who are still alive, and to think of it in such absoluteness of the thing - that is the point of a memorial to a war, I think. Others seem to celebrate it, even the Three Soldiers near to it seems to laud and praise the existence of war. The Wall is a black wound, alright - a memory of an injury that cut to the bone, and one whose scar we shouldn't ever forget.
posted by strixus at 8:56 PM on May 24, 2013

I don't have any family who died in the Vietnam War. I still wept when I saw the wall.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:57 PM on May 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

Fantastic post.

It's really amazing The Wall got built. It is easily the most affecting monument in the mall. It really is perfection.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:57 PM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

localroger: "Because it's so long you can never see the ends in a movie clip but the Wall starts and ends just a foot or so high, with just a few names per foot in the earliest and latest stages of the conflict. It swells though to become a true wall as you descend into the center of the timeline."

I've never seen anyone else describe it this way, but to me the memorial felt like drowning. You start with it so shallow, just a foot high, and then you're in deep, over your head and just drowning in the horror and sorrow of it, and when you finally resurface, gradually, on the other side, you're gasping for air. Literally gasping. It's so powerful and physically moving, pictures can't convey the physicality of the experience of it at all.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:00 PM on May 24, 2013 [15 favorites]

I've only seen it once, when i was a teenager in DC on a trip to a "leadership conference" thing for teenagers. I was a pretty stoic sixteen-year-old, and a pacifist, and all "yeah, whatever, people shouldn't fight wars if they don't want to die" -- and the Wall shook me to the roots. I went blurry from tears within about five seconds, and I have never forgotten it. I'm going blurry again right now just remembering it. It is a fucking masterpiece, and Maya Lin was one amazing 21-year-old.

Emily Dickinson famously defined poetry as follows:
"If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?"
The Wall is poetry. That's all.
posted by adrienneleigh at 9:05 PM on May 24, 2013 [13 favorites]

I never understood the fuss about the Wall - I never understood why its design made people so irrationally angry.

I visited it in the summer of 1987 with 150 other CBYX students. We were spending 2 weeks in DC doing the Close Up Foundation before leaving for Germany. I was still 16.

The Wall was...overwhelming. It starts so small, so close to the ground that you have to stoop to read the names. As you move along, you don't quite notice that the Wall gets taller and taller until you reach the middle and it's ten feet tall and you can't even streeeeetch to touch the topmost names and you're sobbing because there are just. so. many. fucking. names. Lives cut short too soon, potential just wasted, sacrificed on the altar of war, and for no good reason. And people leave things there...medals, combat boots, flowers, stuffed toys, letters...oh dear sweet gods, the letters, the heartbreaking missives to lost sons and brothers and friends and lovers. Baby pictures juxtaposed with Senior portraits and notes to the fallen..."Look at our son, Jimmy. He looks so much like you.", stuck in the cracks or left at the base or tied to balloon bouquets.

The baby/Senior pictures were my undoing. All these kids my age who had never known their Dads or had known them but barely remembered them. It wrecked me. Sixteen, under a summer sky, sobbing my heart out for people I had never known but felt broken-hearted for all the same. That feeling of overwhelming, shocking grief is something I've never forgotten.

I'm not ashamed to say that I cried for all of those strangers and the loved ones they left behind. And I don't think many would take it amiss if I said that if you stood there and didn't at the very least have a hard time seeing, you might not have a heart.
posted by MissySedai at 9:05 PM on May 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

Ugh, that's what I remember most when it was chosen: the stupid, ugly, predictable culture war skirmish that played out, a hint of bigger, dumber nontroversies so valiantly fought (and usually lost) to this day.

Seeing it in person, it easily became the most moving memorial I've ever seen.

Great post.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:10 PM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

To see those names, and know those who nearly were on it who are still alive...

That reminded me of my rather technical objection, not to the monument, but to its name: Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There are no "veterans" there, only casualties. And dammit, it should be much more straightforward, these are the names who DIED in this war. I can see how Veterans may have objected, it really offered nothing to those who returned and had to try to rebuild normal lives, except for the harsh memories of those they left behind. But as a true monument to the horrors of war and the losses incurred, yes, it is brilliantly, incredibly moving. I'd honestly prefer to call it the Vietnam Victims Memorial. Then its true message would be even more clear.

I also have a pet peeve for the interchangeability of the Memorial Day and Veterans Day holidays. The one in November is for those who came back, the one this Monday is for those who did NOT.
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:21 PM on May 24, 2013 [9 favorites]

Dunno. Maya Lin is the only reason why Newport isn't in open revolt - the city council ramrodded through plans to "revitalize" an already vibrant and beautiful park, Queen Anne's Square... suspicion is that this is to brutally disrupt the harmonious park so highschoolers who go there to play folk music and chat will go home and play X-Box instead.

My brother was beaten up by Newport cops when he was in Highschool at that very same park, for politely asking for a badge number when they broke his buddy's guitar. There is a segment of the city's Old Guard who resents Newport's renaissance as a resort town rather than a Navy shore leave, and they'd rather destroy one of the most beautiful city parks in the US than let teens have a space to gather.

But, then we heard Maya Lin was going to be the architect, and while a lot of us are still angry beyond all bounds, most of us are in tentative wait-and-see mode. We trust her.

She better not be fucking us over. She better put in place a more human-friendly and beautiful space, and not a gruesome space oddity... because there is enough money in this town where we will rip it out by the roots and put the old park back after the next election. The kids getting bludgeoned by the cops are now all old enough to vote and run fundraising campaigns.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:22 PM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

There are even half-size and 3/5 scale replicas that tour the country and veterans' events.

But yeah, the real wall is impossible to ignore when you're near it. It has a presence.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:35 PM on May 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't think I can fully explain how much the wall meant to my family when it went up. My Dad's a Vietnam vet. Before the wall, I didn't really have any sense what that meant, and he didn't talk about it very much. Probably I still don't have a great sense, really, but the wall was one part of a general opening up about the war which I suspect happened in many more families than mine.

I have vivid memories of visiting with my dad, and slowly walking through the whole thing. I'd like to visit it again with him, though I don't know when that'll happen, since we've all long since moved away from D.C.
posted by feckless at 9:39 PM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've often thought the Vietnamese should produce one as well to list their war dead. Of course, it would have to be a lot larger - likely over 3 miles long.
posted by bowline at 9:40 PM on May 24, 2013 [10 favorites]

. The objections of veterans to the memorial---which continue to this day---was the biggest roadblock in getting it built!

No, some veterans. My experience was like feckless'. It changed so much for my Dad and those he served with.
posted by Miko at 9:46 PM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I can just barely remember visiting the wall for the first time, looking at how immense it is and hunting for name I would recognize. This was just about when I had to submit the registration for the draft. Looking at the wall, it says that you don't come home. The wall is bleak and black and cold and certain.

I wish those who vote us into war would be forced to stare at the wall, and read the names aloud until they got too tired to continue, and then be forced to start over until they could complete the reading.

This is a great post.
posted by timfinnie at 9:56 PM on May 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

I visited DC for the first time a few years ago on a work trip. My dad, a veteran of the war, asked if I would take a few pictures of the wall for him during my visit as he had long wanted to see it for himself but had not yet traveled there. The photos and videos I had seen of the memorial over the years could not prepare me for how overwhelming it was; I think Eyebrows McGee's sense of drowning gets closest to that feeling for me. All those names, all those lives cut short, all the families and communities devastated... I just cried and cried. I tried, I did, but the pictures I took for him were inadequate and could not convey the immense ache I felt standing before it.

Although I was able to take him to a lecture, maybe a year or so after that trip, where Maya Lin talked about her career and spoke movingly of the project, my dad still hasn't made it to DC yet.

Really excellent post, thank you.
posted by vespertine at 10:00 PM on May 24, 2013

Nice. It's a nice memorial. But the National Mall is getting awfully cluttered. Scenes like this can never happen again. I suppose I should blame Nixon.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:24 PM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

My Dad is a Vietnam Veteran. He never talks about it. The first time I ever saw him cry was at the Wall. He grew up in a small town and I think he knew too many names. The only other time I've seen him cry since was when his Mother died. It's a powerful piece of art.
posted by backwords at 10:32 PM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Definitley a powerful memorial.

Not to detract from the power or message of the Vietnam memorial at all, I am reminded that the Menin Gate lists a similar number of names, 54,000, but rather than being the total dead of a war they are merely one part of the Commonwealth dead from the Ypres salient of the First World War who have no known grave (there is a sparate memorial, Tyne Cot, listing another 35,000 missing), out of a total toll of 300,000 dead. And that's just one side on one battlefield, albeit multiple battles. The Menin Gate was also praised for its simplicity and derided as a "sepulchre of crime."

The memorials may help us remember the dead and their sacrifice, but they don't seem to stop us from repeating the mistake.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 1:13 AM on May 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Excellent post. Thanks, joseph conrad is fully awesome.
posted by homunculus at 1:14 AM on May 25, 2013

Carhart speaks of being spat on in an airport when returning from service in Vietnam

While it is impossible to prove that no veterans were spat upon ever, it's at least analytically interesting to note that sociologist Jerry Lembcke wrote a book about his investigation of such claims, and suggests that they bear the hallmarks of urban legend. Slate's Jack Shafer followed up several accounts and came to a similar conclusion, with one possible exception. Lembcke, of course, was not concluding that these were lies, as many people alter their own memories in the wake of emotional events (notably, something even Shafer's own find admitted), but that the stories themselves reflected divided and confused assessments of the war and its aftermath.

I say this because, first, younger readers may accept this uncritically, and second, I have seen the same story told by Vietnam Veterans locally and, as with the others who have studied this, found a curious vagueness and consistency. For instance, very few of these stories become tales of confrontation or argument. Nor do these stories square with the acceptance, if imperfect, that anti-war veterans such as John Kerry found within the peace movement. It was well understood that most of the troops were drafted.

Related to this is the individual deployment process the Pentagon favored during the war, which led to staggered "short time" dates, and many lone soldiers flying into the US as ordinary passengers on civilian flights. The Pentagon returned to emphasizing unit cohesion in later years, and particularly since the Gulf War and slight drawdowns in the numbers of active-duty troops, has used National Guard and Reserve troops in ways that bring them home with many others in their units, which are often met at military bases with their families en masse. This likely has reduced the alienation that Vietnam-era vets felt emerging, startled, into an ordinary civilian scene.
posted by dhartung at 1:24 AM on May 25, 2013 [21 favorites]

I wish those who vote us into war would be forced to stare at the wall

From aerial views it looks like the wall would have the alignment of a letter V when viewed from the direction of the Department of State—except that the names of the dead are out of view.

Because it's so long you can never see the ends in a movie clip but the Wall starts and ends just a foot or so high, with just a few names per foot in the earliest and latest stages of the conflict.

Isn't it the other way? I haven't been to it, but from the descriptions, if you're in the middle of the monument facing the join of the walls, the timeline starts in front of you on the right and ends in front of you on the left. So if you follow the timeline from start to finish, you lose track in the middle and in the end you're back where you started.
posted by fleacircus at 2:03 AM on May 25, 2013

joseph conrad is fully awesome, excellent post, thank you.

dhartung, thanks for that comment, it's important that people hear what you said. As both a peace activist in the 60's, and a vet in the early 70's, I was on both sides of this, as a result I believe it is important to not extend the "spitting" legend beyond whatever truth there is to it, if any.

When I left basic training in 1970, most of the unit was being deployed to Viet Nam, I was one of the exceptions that was going on to advanced training. I never saw a single one of those young men after graduation. In 2006 I went to D.C. for the first time in my life, ironically for another peace event. Visiting the wall was, without doubt, one of the most moving moments of my life, reading the names so very fearful of finding one that I recognized. Photos are located here.
posted by HuronBob at 3:30 AM on May 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've seen it. It's the only monument on the mall that subdues tour groups into uneasy hushed voices. Powerful and controversial - just like the war - it's the perfect memorial.
posted by klarck at 3:55 AM on May 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I also sobbed like a baby at the wall. Then again, I'm a veteran, and also got choked up at the WWII memorial, but it was different. This is a fantastic and well appreciated post.

As both a peace activist in the 60's, and a vet in the early 70's, I was on both sides of this, as a result I believe it is important to not extend the "spitting" legend beyond whatever truth there is to it, if any.

Peace activists have had complicated relationships even with anti-war veterans, as do others. I know an anti-war veteran who had manure flung at him. And I know anti-war veterans who have been physically confronted by peace activists, I can't remember if spitting was involved but I do recall shoving. Generally it was with the harder line ones - those upset by the prominence of those who participated in war crimes within the anti-war movement.

But it's a really intimate thing. I think it's something you only do to people you know, or know a little something about.

So I wouldn't say no one was ever spit on, or even that it didn't happen more than a few times. But once that's done, that stuff can spread like wildfire, and veteran's habit of identifying with other veterans can make it "we" were spit on rather than "This guy I know said he was spit on" or "This guy I know said a friend of his was spit on."
posted by corb at 4:15 AM on May 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

It was well understood that most of the troops were drafted.

It was? Not my experience. Or maybe the people who disrespected, and yes, spit on me did not care that I was drafted. You can believe what you want, based on some sociologist's book and on the details you don't find in the stories of people who are reluctant to even talk about humiliations they experienced. Go ahead, keep saying nobody did that to me. I suggest you don't say it to my face.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:51 AM on May 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

I just visited it for the first time this week, near dusk as the Mall was clogged with junior high-aged tour groups. The memorial wasn't subduing this batch of the kids- as I approached, they were all putting on glowstick necklaces to help the chaperones keep track of them. Yet even with the crush of neon kids and me walking through the thing backward, I got choked up. Coming to it after all the sparkling white marble rising out of the grass, and then sinking down the path at your own pace, it seems to gather power from everything around it, no matter what is happening at the moment.
posted by bendybendy at 6:27 AM on May 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

The objections of veterans to the memorial---which continue to this day---was the biggest roadblock in getting it built!

Let's not do this or the spitting thing1 or any of the rest of the Us v Them thing, just for today. Not trying to quell debate, it just can happen somewhere/ somewhen else.

When they added The Three Soliders, my parents took my sister and I from RI to DC via rail2. My Dad had really never spoken of his experience (what he would have explained to an 8 year-old, I don't know). It was clear somehow before we got there the Wall was an important and powerful thing, but to be 8 and see grown, grizzled men, guys with big beards who looked like bikers openly, physically weeping, to see adults making rubbings like we did in class and hold them like a treasure, I still don't have words for the experience, but I felt like I understood a little better. I saw it once again as an adult with my wife and it affected me again, a little more wistfully because it was like those people from 20 years before had never left and were still tracing names with their fingers hoping to bring the dead back. If nothing else, the Wall is a reminder that names are a primal thing.

1. It used to be a red rag to an otherwise fine Mefite who would charge into every thread and decimate it with FACTS about how no one ever spit. Whether correct or not, he apparently remembered the late '70s as an incredibly dry time when saliva was at a premium.
2. Discovering along the way that 8 year old me would eat his way through a trip of any length which is probably why we flew in the future.

posted by yerfatma at 6:40 AM on May 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

But the National Mall is getting awfully cluttered. Scenes like this can never happen again.

What, you mean scenes like this? Or this? Like this? This? I don't quite get your point, as the WWII Memorial essentially disappears in a crowd, and monument construction on the mall has retained the space needed for public assembly and even for that particular view of the reflecting pool and monument. Maybe I just don't get the particular sight line you're critiquing, but it doesn't see as if the scene you are missing has been lost.

There have certainly been those who grumble about the Mall's being "cluttered," but anyone who has done the hike to view them all certainly doesn't come away with the impression that there's not enough wide open space. The City Beautiful ideas enshrined in the 1901 McMillan Plan for the mall are not only a bit inhospitable to actual human experience - they were never fully realized, as the desire for added monuments on the Mall began immediately, derailing their visions of perfect classical order. In fact, the first argument about a memorial was in 1909, about the placement of the Lincoln Memorial, which most Americans can hardly imagine the Mall without. It is still possible to cram a few more hundred thousand people on the Mall than the Park Police are willing to count.
posted by Miko at 6:45 AM on May 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Drowning. Yes.

My father too is a Vietnam veteran. When I went to DC many years ago to see the Wall, I didn't know what to expect. I was nervous, anxious. As I approached it, it didn't seem that big... but as I crested the hill, it just grew and grew and grew. It rose, like water. The sobbing started before I finished getting there. And then I just stood there drowning, drowning in names, drowning in scope, drowning in all the things my father has never said, drowning in flowers and photos and mementos and single hands pressed against black glossy stone, rubbing, looking for connections in carved-out names.

For me, words like "art" and memorial" don't suffice. It's not a thing. It's a presence, a body of emotional water which demands drowning.
posted by flyingsquirrel at 6:55 AM on May 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

One of my relatives was a sculptor who did a lot of war memorials, which seems like such an odd profession. He died quite young, long before I was old enough to ask him about his work. At one point, his design was what was proposed for the eventual Vietnam Women's Memorial, though it doesn't have a lot in common with the chosen design. (Per the Wikipedia article for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, it seems to have been 'deemed unsuitable'.) I'm not really going anywhere with this, except that, as someone who wasn't born for the controversy over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, it's kind of odd to think of memorials being designed by individuals, even when you knew someone who made them.

One thing to note is that names still get added to the memorial periodically, though families have to fight for it.

"is still far and away the greatest memorial of modern times — the most beautiful, the most heart-wrenching, the most subtle, and the most powerful."

The Denkmal für den ermordeten Juden Europas in Berlin is about on par with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for me. Its downfall might be that it's too subtle. Technically, the 'place of information' underneath the stelae is part of the memorial and the two together are affecting beyond belief, to the point I wouldn't go to it alone.
posted by hoyland at 7:00 AM on May 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

USN vet here, 74-78. Knew folks who were in country, from my neighborhood as an adolescent and as fellow squids while I served. Shitty mothergrabbin' war. (Mostly) honorable people involved though, at least as far as I experienced.

Went to the wall in the 80s. Looked in the book and found Go to that section and look at the line. There it is. Dead at nineteen. Cried like a baby. Wanted to howl at the many layers of injustice going on.

It's 30 years later. And sometimes I still do.

posted by CincyBlues at 7:21 AM on May 25, 2013 [9 favorites]

It's been profoundly moving reading this post and the comments. I went to the Menin Gate as a youth and the effect of all those names is overwhelming, drowning is right. Thanks everyone for sharing.

posted by arcticseal at 7:38 AM on May 25, 2013

My son is surrounded by a culture that mostly tells him war is awesome. We don't, but then he's seven and there is only so much about the horrors of war that we can tell him. This post reminds me that when he's old enough, the memorial is something he needs to see. He's possibly only alive because his grandpa ended up working on a local base and his other grandpa was slightly too old with too many kids to be drafted..his dad and I were both born at the tail end of the war.
posted by emjaybee at 9:11 AM on May 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have been to the Wall etc a number of times. I guess I am among the few who diswlike DC. Fopr me, it is a city of the after memorial for all our many wars. And then the museums put up to honor those we had sort of neglected: Holocaust Museum, American Indian Museum, African American Museum etc...
The WWII memorial is so large and so focused upon each state that it in a way (for me) depersonalizes the horrors of that war. Finally, the life-sized statues representing those who died in the Korean "police Action" resonated with me since I had been there sent there early on.
But I had seen the many who visit the Nam Wal;l;, weep, kneel etc and it means so much for them. I had taken pictures of that Wall for a vewt or two who still suffer from PTSD.
posted by Postroad at 9:12 AM on May 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

James Watt, Secretary of the Interior, refused to issue a building permit.

He's Reagan-appointed Interior Secretary who replaced the Beach Boys with Wayne Newton because they "attracted the wrong element" - and stated that indian reservations are proof that socialism doesn't work!!

The culture wars did have their absurd moments, especially when our undeservedly-crappy "leadership" was doing everything it could to walk away from decades of miserably demented foreign policy. Just as they're still doing. Meanwhile, our national attitude towards those who choose to serve remains equally demented.
posted by Twang at 11:37 AM on May 25, 2013

I've often thought the Vietnamese should produce one as well to list their war dead. Of course, it would have to be a lot larger - likely over 3 miles long.

At similar scale, the Vietnamese memorial would be over 1700 feet long and 70 feet tall in the middle. The population of Vietnam was decimated by the war - roughly 1 in 10 were killed.

I've only seen one of the traveling walls, but even at a smaller scale it has impact. The mirror-like surface is striking.
posted by and for no one at 12:30 PM on May 25, 2013 [5 favorites]

Huron Bob, thanks for posting pictures. They reminded me of the mirror-effect of the stone, which is so harsh. You cannot stand there and look at those names without thinking There, but for the grace of God...
posted by mumimor at 1:36 PM on May 25, 2013

I've been to the Wall many times, including almost every December for the last decade with grade school kids from rural Maine. Thanks to the remarkable efforts of their teacher, on our trips we meet up with many interesting and unusual people: folks like Christo, Philippe Petit, Christa McAuliffe’s mother, John Spillane (pararescueman from The Perfect Storm), Francoise Mouly at The New Yorker, the Marines of HMX-1 (who fly the President), the tomb guards at Arlington National Cemetery, etc.

We always visit the Lincoln Memorial at sunset (where General Anthony Taguba often talks with us), and then we walk over to the Wall. One year we met Colonel Gordon Roberts, until recently the youngest living recipient of the Medal of Honor, whose citation is a mind-boggling tale; another year, Jan Scruggs himself came and talked to the students about how the Wall came into existence at his kitchen table, in his mind at least, long before Maya Lin got involved.

This past December there I witnessed a remarkable thing. The 5th- and 6th-graders were looking for a specific name on the Wall, connected with a story the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had told their predecessors on an earlier trip, when the group became aware of an older woman standing nearby. It turned out that she had come from Arizona to find her brother on the Wall, but had gotten to the memorial too late in the day. Before long the kids had showed her how to use the nearby directories to locate him, lent her a flashlight so she could see his name, and then — on their own, without prompting from the adults on the trip — many of them filed past her, taking her hand and saying “I’m sorry for your loss.” Ten minutes earlier this woman had been standing (literally and figuratively) in the dark, and suddenly these children had turned her world around completely.
posted by LeLiLo at 1:44 PM on May 25, 2013 [13 favorites]

I've often thought the Vietnamese should produce one as well to list their war dead. Of course, it would have to be a lot larger - likely over 3 miles long.

The Other Vietnam Memorial by Chris Burden.

Review in the LA Times. I saw this at the Lannan Foundation in 1991 when it was first displayed, it is quite a powerful work. It's currently in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
posted by charlie don't surf at 1:51 PM on May 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Haven't had a chance to visit Washington D.C., but Portland, Oregon has their own wall and even that is too much for me.

I'm a Vietnam Veteran. I lost neither relatives or friends, but posts like this still bring me to tears after nearly 50 years. Someday maybe we'll learn.
posted by jgaiser at 2:14 PM on May 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

posted by sevensixfive at 2:44 PM on May 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Carhart speaks of being spat on in an airport when returning from service in Vietnam

I can believe it. In the lead up to the last war in Iraq we had a picture of shrub in the rear window of our van. Not very high above my Viet veterans license tags. Under shrub's pic was the caption, "Daddy, can I have my war now?"

Another van with a young woman and three or more small children pulled up along side us at a light. With true venom she cursed us and spat upon our car. Presumably because we were displaying our opposition to going to war in Iraq.
posted by notreally at 3:08 PM on May 25, 2013

LeLiLo, I just read your story about those kids, and all the hair on my arms and legs stood on end. Amazing. Kids are better than we sometimes give them the chance to be.
posted by wenestvedt at 3:33 PM on May 25, 2013

Seeing the wall always makes me weep --completely involuntary, and I know only a couple of names on the wall. The sheer volume of loss just overwhelms me. If you want to look up a name, here's a good resource. One of the more disturbing discoveries is the term "misadventure" which turns out to be friendly fire.

And to the veteran who says he was spat upon--I'm sorry that happened to you. Some day we'll figure out why there was so much animosity directed at some veterans when many were draftees (though I also remember vets being welcomed into anti-war organizations). I think the reason is so many people doubt the many spitting statement is that it is a claim made too often by chickenhawk politicians using it to attack those who oppose war. I'm also sorry that peaceful protesters were set upon so many times and beaten by those who thought they were supporting the troops by continuing to send them to war. Or even murdered those on college campuses in the name of patriotism.
posted by etaoin at 6:15 PM on May 25, 2013

> The 2nd, was dealing with the rejection experienced upon returning home from war.

Except that this "2nd" is more or less an urban legend as far as I can see - at least in the United States (Australians did apparently treat their returning veterans badly).

I've had this discussion quite a few times with people both in real life and online. Interestingly enough, not one vet that I know or ever talked to online ever claimed to experience any sort of negative homecoming and several commented that they were quite shocked when hippies would come up to them and say, "I'm so sorry for what you went through" - but you can find a ton of people who tell you for sure it happened to "someone they know".

This article is the first time I've ever heard of anyone claiming personally to have been spat upon, either literally or figuratively. Searching found a few others - but not one single police report, not one official document, nothing except a few people telling anecdotes. (However, when it comes to people on the anti-war side being spat on, beaten, arrested, and occasionally killed - there we have copious documentation of all types...)

I don't doubt that a few people got spat upon - but the true narrative was in fact that the anti-war groups unanimously tried to get the Vietnam veterans on their side and treat them as well as possible. The strategy of US anti-war activists has been almost exactly the same for over 50 years now - to absolve US soldiers from all moral responsibility for their actions and pin the blame on "the government".

And what has the result been? Complete and utter failure. The anti-war movement has gone from being a vital part of our political discourse to being a marginalized and despised group. The US news media presents an entirely sanitized picture of warfare - during the start of the Iraq War, it was quite shocking even going back and forth from European CNN to US CNN. They will not cover anti-war demonstrations - we had the largest international demonstrations in the history of the planet against the Iraq War and yet it barely made the papers - I'm constantly being confronted with people saying, "If the Iraq War was so bad, why did no one demonstrate against it?"

And worse yet, the majority of Americans are quite convinced that the "peaceniks" systematically did exactly what they were so very careful never to do - spat on and rejected veterans. This lie has become so much a part of our culture that it's ubiquitously quoted as fact without anyone even bothering to check any more.

What should we do? Well, I have a lot of pointless ideas about what should have been done, but the horse has left the barn, had foals, died, and been buried long ago. As long as the United States is alternately ruled by members of either of the two pro-military political parties that have dominated the political process within living memory

The Wall itself is a stunning monument - I was choked up the only time I saw it, 30 years ago - but America learned nothing from it - nothing at all. You walk down and drown in a sea of names of dead people, people who died for absolutely nothing - anyone remember "The Domino Theory"? - and the only thing that I personally could ever think is "What a waste. What a waste. What a waste."

But America's response is very different to mine. It seems to be, "We could have won this one if it wasn't for the hippies," I've heard this so many times by now - and the country continues to blunder into failed ware after failed war.

Even though in 2013 almost two-thirds of Americans believe that the Iraq War is a mistake, it seems that a majority of Americans favor military action in Iran. America has learned nothing. You're going to keep doing this again and again and again until your country can't afford to do it any more.

I would be interested to see what the Iraq War monument will look like - perhaps a smirking chimp sitting on a pile of Arab bodies?

And again - I consider the Wall to be one of the most moving monuments ever created. It's a terrible shame that its stark message has been so completely ignored...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 6:32 PM on May 25, 2013 [9 favorites]

I haven't been there yet. But thank you for this post; it's a really great Memorial Day weekend post. My brother had PTSD after serving in and being wounded in the Vietnam War. A war that was wrong, but that we asked our citizens to fight. It was hard to give them the thanks that was so well deserved, but the Wall has done that.
posted by theora55 at 9:43 AM on May 27, 2013

Sebastian Junger: Veterans need to share the moral burden of war

Charles Pierce: Memorial Day
posted by homunculus at 1:45 PM on May 27, 2013

The strategy of US anti-war activists has been almost exactly the same for over 50 years now - to absolve US soldiers from all moral responsibility for their actions and pin the blame on "the government".

I'm going to be a touch blunt, but it's Memorial Day, which always puts the nerves of veterans a bit on edge.

No, the anti-war activists have not welcomed veterans with open arms, taken them seriously, absolved them of responsibility, and embraced them upon return.

Hi, I'm an anti-war veteran. You know what I found upon coming home? Nobody, absolutely nobody, who had any interest in actually making the lives of veterans actually better or of taking them seriously.

I found lots of anti-war folk who were willing to use veterans as charismatic props to show they cared or "the troops were with them." Who wanted us to march at the front of their marches because the cops were less willing to gas or shoot at us. Who would pat us on the head and tell us not to bother about strategy because they had it all well in hand. Who talked about how when the revolution came, we would be their soldiers on their front lines, they knew it would be totally different when it was a class war and we would love to fight then. Who would tell our buddies to go AWOL and they would take care of them, and then when those buddies were less fresh, new, and shiny, thousands of dollars in debt and unable to take real jobs, abandoned them. Who didn't feel like dealing with the actual problems of veterans. Who offered veterans jobs only to strand them when they became less sexy, again, thousands of dollars in debt because of the peace movement itself. Who wanted us to talk about war crimes whether or not we actually participated in them. Who told us we should have come home in coffins instead. Who told us when we deployed they hoped we were killed.

Fuck the peace movement's supposed commitment to treating anti-war veterans well. It does not and has not. More of my anti-war veteran brothers have been more screwed by the peace movement than they have by the Army. At least with the Army, you know what you're getting into.
posted by corb at 8:28 PM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yes, there are reasons the veterans formed their own antiwar organizations.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:00 AM on May 28, 2013

In college, a professor referred to this memorial as an example of when to break rules. He said that going below-grade was against the rules for the design, but I don't see that in the four design criteria:
1. be reflective and contemplative in character;
2. harmonize with its surroundings;
3. contain the names of those who had died in the conflict or who were still missing;
4. make no political statement about the war.
Perhaps it wasn't seen as "harmonizing" in design? Regardless, the design criteria themselves are appealing.

Thanks for this post.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:50 AM on May 28, 2013

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