It was perhaps inevitable that the memorial to the dead and missing soldiers in this most contentious
and criticized of American wars should have been nearly as controversial during its design, construction, and the
first year or two after its dedication as the war that it commemorates. The simplicity of the design, the absence
of romantic, vainglorious statuary and paeans to heroic deeds -- so often part and parcel of such monuments --
are utterly absent. Except for a trio of splendid bronzes depicting the common soldiers involved that were added
later as a kind of afterthought as a sop to those who disliked the principal elements of the monument, it is but
a simple marble wall built into a gash in the earth like a bandage used to staunch blood from an open wound. On
this polished stone are etched the names of each soldier and officer, more than 58,000 of them, who died in action
or were -- or are still -- missing in action. Significantly, the names are listed in the chronological order of
their deaths or disappearances.
A visit to the memorial is a moving experience, much more so than I ever expected. We approached from the direction
of the Lincoln Memorial on a cool and very misty, dreary morning. The wall sort of sneaks up on you, seemingly
growing out of the earth just a few inches high. Almost at ground level is the first name, a soldier who died in
1963. As you walk along beside the wall, it gradually and inexorably grows taller and taller until it's over 10
feet up to its top. And each block of marble is covered with names and more names of the fallen. Very soon you
feel the need-- at least I did -- to run your fingers over the names, for this monument speaks with an intimacy
I've rarely experienced. Most war memorials dwarf you with their grandiosity; this one mesmerizes you with its
quiet, almost introverted dignity.
One of the purposes of our visit was to look for the name of a brother of a college friend of my wife's. We were
only vaguely aware that it might be possible; however, it turned out to be very simple, for conveniently located
at the beginning and end of the wall are little enclosed "desks" with indexes listing each and every
name, their origins, and their units, thereby enabling the visitor to look up the name of someone they knew who
fell. The indexing system is very well thought out and the explanation is very clear, so we were able to find the
name. We won't soon forget the experience.