Mirror to a Nation's Soul


Member Rating 5 out of 5 by BawBaw on August 1, 2010

The polished stone surface of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial reflects moods and memories as easily as it reflects images. It is, I believe, the mirror to our national soul with regard to the Vietnam War. This is particularly true for Americans of my generation--the Baby Boomers, the generation to which the vast majority of those names inscribed on The Wall belong.

For the rest of us--the survivors--it is one of the few touchstones of unity for a contentious era. For each of us whose values were shaped by the magnificent turbulence of the 1960s, The Wall is ours. Whether we supported the war or opposed it, whether we fought in the war or protested it, whether we fled to Canada and held firm here at home, The Wall symbolizes our past--personally and as a people.

As a Washington-area resident, I have been to and past The Wall many times. Regardless of the occasion or the circumstances, this dignified and evocative memorial never fails to elicit an emotional response. No matter how jaded I may become toward the many memorials found in our magnificent capital, The Wall makes me feel something--a response that seems to be shared by virtually everyone for whom the Vietnam War was a pivotal event.

An actual visit to the Vietnam Memorial is always a pilgrimage. Discretely tucked into a corner of the National Mall, The Wall consists of two triangle-shaped surfaces of polished stone, each roughly 245 feet long. The Wall's two segments meet to form a 125-degree angle. Where the two triangles meet, the sheer face of The Wall is 10 feet deep. A path runs a few inches away the face of the polished black granite, guiding visitors into a gentle descent, which is deepest at the point where the two triangles meet. Then the path rises again.

This path takes visitors past rank upon rank of names, the names of more than 58,000 servicemen and women, as well as past dozens of impromptu tributes to the fallen--including copies of letters written home from the battlefield, occasional single red roses, old photographs, small flags, well-loved teddy bears, and military decorations. In the past, the path at The Wall almost always led past aging veterans wearing faded military garb. Nowadays, these veterans are likely to be old men, many with a faraway look in their eyes. One can only imagine their memories. Some veterans are reduced to tears at The Wall, and still others seem about to erupt with barely suppressed anger. The path is also a place to encounter elderly women still grieving for their lost children. Nor is it uncommon to see grown children gently touching the names of fathers they scarcely knew.

For me, the descending path of the memorial serves as an apt metaphor for the painful national debate engendered by the Vietnam War. I can personally recall the names and faces of classmates who died before they truly had a chance to live, of teachers who quietly served as conductors on the underground railroad to Canada, and of the young man who tendered my first proposal . . . replacing romance with the argument that marriage represented his last, best hope for deferment. I am reminded of my despair over the news from Kent State Univeristy, where American soldiers fired on American students who were demonstrating against the war. And I remember the deep divisions caused by this new kind of war--divisions within families and within the nation as a whole. I remember viewing the battle daily on the evening news; I mourn again the lives lost; and I am saddened by the lingering traumas that still affect so many Vietnam-era vets.

Conversely, the ascending path represents a return to dialog, a sometimes grudging reconciliation between parents and children, and a season of healing and hope--though scars remained--and still remain--plentiful. The ascending path provides an opportunity to remember both the return of our prisoners-of-war and the general amnesty that made possible the reintegration of draft resisters into the life of the nation.

After many visits with a variety of companions, I have concluded that the deep emotional impact elicited by The Wall is largely a generational response.

- European friends I've taken to The Wall are full of questions: How had America gotten itself involved in such a conflict? What caused it to become so divisive? Why had it come to dominate our geopolitical interactions with other nations? They experience The Wall much as I experienced a Soviet cemetery in East Germany during the mid 1980s--as a political curiosity.

- My own children were toddlers when the Vietnam War ended, and they have no memory of the turmoil it provoked. For them, the experience of visiting The Wall is moving but not necessarily personal.

- As for my parents, theirs was the generation that watched its children march off to battle. They are, however, still deeply perplexed by Vietnam. They successfully waged and won the Second World War, and the notion that America somehow failed in Vietnam is, at the very least, disquieting.

- But when I visit The Wall with another member of my own generation, it resurrects the shared memories of our youth. Much is understood and few words are needed. The Wall becomes a place of loss and pain and hope. This was, after all, our war--as the memorial is Our Wall.

Like the Vietnam War itself, the history of The Wall is tinged with controversy. When Maya Lin's design was selected for the memorial, a hue and cry arose within significant parts of the veterans community. Some thought that a young female architect who had little personal memory of the war was an inappropriate choice. Others objected because they wanted a memorial that was somehow grander--or at least more traditional. The continuing debate on The Wall's suitability delayed its dedicated from 1982, when it was completed, until 1984.

Because of that debate, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial now includes two traditional bronze statues. The first, completed in 1984, depicts three male soldiers sculpted to represent a cross section of America's racial diversity. The placement of "The Three Servicemen" statue gave rise to its own controversy. Partisans on one side insisted that unless the statue was placed near one end of the footpath in front of The Wall, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial would lack the dignity it deserved. The other side maintained that such a placement would seriously detract from the simplicity and impact of The Wall. In the end, the statue was placed in a small grove of trees close to but separate from The Wall itself. In 1993, it was joined by a bronze sculpture of three servicewomen. Each of the two statues has its corner of the grove, and neither can be seen from the other. Thus the Vietnam Veterans Memorial consists of three distinct elements--any one of which could easily stand alone.

I have noticed in recent years than the crowds at The Wall have become smaller. Part of the explanation, of course, is that the Baby Boomer generation has begun to decline. We are aging. Our numbers are beginning to thin. But more than that, there are now new wars accompanied by new controversies and new questions. The angst of our generation has fallen to our children and grandchildren, and no doubt new memorials will be raised to these more recent wars. The lessons we boasted of learning from Vietnam were clearly incomplete, and the ancient cycle of war and peace continues.

- BawBaw/DAnneC/LovesTravel
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Bacon Drive and Constitution Avenue
Washington, D.C., United States
(202) 426-6841

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