You can spot a military monument or war memorial from a mile away: a heroic figure holding a flag, an eagle spreading its wings in triumph, a classical column atop a pedestal. On the plinth below are words of remembrance and names of the fallen. They are ubiquitous in the U.S. capital.
One of them does not fit this pattern at all, and it honors the fallen in a war that did not fit the pattern of any previous war.
From a distance the memorial is scarcely visible. The thin black line against the surrounding lawn would not catch one’s attention at all, were there not a constant stream of people walking slowly past it. Its shape becomes more distinct as one approaches. Two walls of polished black granite form a wide “V,” each wall ten feet high at the center and tapering down to a point at the outside. The top of the wall, not the bottom, is at ground level. To view it, one walks down into a shallow depression in the earth.
And at the center where the walls meet, the long list of names begins: Dale R. Buis, Chester Ovnard, Maurice W. Flournoy, Alphonse W. Bankovsky, Frederick T. Garside . . . line after line, panel after panel, names are incised in the polished stone in the order of their death or disappearance, beginning in 1959 and ending in 1975. The list jumps from the narrow point of one wall back to the point of the other and continues until, back at the center, we come to the last names: Richard Rivenburgh, Walter Boyd, Andre Garcia, Elwood E. Rumbaugh, Richard Vander Geer.
These are the names of more than 58,000 US soldiers who went to fight in Vietnam and did not return from what was, at that time, America’s longest war. (When U.S. forces left Afghanistan in 2021 their presence had lasted five months longer.)
This unconventional memorial commemorating an equally unconventional war was dedicated forty years ago yesterday, November 13, 1982, as part of a five-day “National Salute to Vietnam Veterans” in Washington, D.C. Planning by a veterans’ group had begun three years earlier. Congress allocated a two-acre site on the National Mall for a memorial, and a nationwide design competition was announced. Displaying the 1421 proposals for jurors’ review required an entire hangar at Andrews Air Force Base.
The proposal by Maya Lin, then a Yale undergraduate, was selected despite its dramatic departure from conventional forms. Some veterans demanded a more conventional figurative sculpture be placed at its center. Eventually the sponsoring organization and the National Park Service agreed to commission such a statue but to place it well away from the wall. “Three Servicemen” was dedicated later in 1982, and in 1983 a memorial to women soldiers was also placed nearby.
I visited the wall a month after it opened, stepping carefully on planks in the muddy ground while work continued on walkways and landscaping. Already large crowds were present, some simply curious to see what had caused the controversy, others searching for the names of family members and neighbors. Even those who were chattering cheerily as they approached fell silent before the somber black expanse.
There is a certain silence in the very design of the memorial. It is set into the ground between the stately columns of the Lincoln Memorial and the aggressive skyward thrust of the Washington Monument. The white stone of both can be seen in reflection on its glossy surface. Nearby are several monuments to the casualties of the Second World War, their gilded swords and marble eagles loudly proclaiming the valor of the departed.
The Vietnam memorial speaks in more modest and restrained tones, neither deifying nor belittling those whom it honors. As mentioned, to read the names one must walk into a shallow depression, a rent in the fabric of the earth, to the depth of a grave. The black wall evokes the darkness of death and violence, of bodies punctured by bullets or shattered by mortar rounds. Yet it remembers these horrors with quiet dignity.
From the time of its dedication, visitors have interrupted the solemn simplicity of the memorial with gifts and gestures of remembrance. On my first visit, in December, 1982, there were Christmas wreaths at the base of some panels with flowers slipped into the cracks between them. Next to a packet of cheese and crackers was a note in a child’s hand: “To my angel daddy.”
Beneath one panel lay a postcard of a Sikorsky military helicopter that is on display at the nearby Air and Space Museum. There was no inscription to reveal its intent. I shuddered – as I had shuddered when I saw the helicopter itself a few days earlier – and recalled Michael Herr’s account in his Vietnam memoir, Dispatches, of sitting in just such an aircraft when it took fire from below. Suddenly he noticed that the uniform of the soldier sitting beside him was stained with blood, his eyes frozen in the blank stare of death. Thousands of stories like this, I reflected, lie behind the names on the endless list.
The memorial stood just a few hundred yards from the site where I had sat one afternoon at the height of the conflict and listened, with half a million others, to impassioned appeals to end the Vietnam War. Perhaps other fellow visitors had been there too. Others no doubt had joined counter demonstrations calling instead for escalation of the war. The nation had been deeply divided over whether our troops were moving steadily toward a just peace or merely propping up a corrupt dictatorship.
These differences seemed irrelevant as I stood before the wall, canceled out not only by the passage of time but also by the tragic loss of 58,000 lives. The names reminded me of who had borne the heaviest burden of death and bereavement. The very first and very last names, I noticed, were of Dutch-Americans, possibly from my own Dutch Calvinist community or another like it. I found the name of a friend’s older brother, for whose funeral service I had sung in the choir.
Names like Toomy Lee, Juan, Sammy, and Carlos were far more common. Twice as many Black men as white men, proportionally, died in Vietnam. But not one graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – so I was informed by another visitor, though I have been unable to verify this – is among the Vietnam dead.
In Vietnam as in nearly every war, it was the poor who died for the rich, the young for the old. A friend who had seen the memorial a few days earlier told me it brought home to him what war is: a way for old men to trick young men into killing each other.
Visiting the Vietnam memorial – at its opening and then several more times, most recently with two elementary-school granddaughters – brings to mind the lessons we can learn from that conflict: that a struggle for nationalism and self-determination can quickly become a proxy war between superpowers; that some wars can be lost in a dozen ways but probably cannot be won; that the weapons of war are able to hold an aggressor to account but also to compound the suffering of the innocent.
The conduct of war is filled with troubling contradictions, between the high ideals of freedom and self-determination we seek to uphold and the greed of war profiteers whose interests we serve, between the extraordinary acts of courage and compassion that war calls forth and the unspeakable horrors of indiscriminate bombing and civilian massacres. Those who served in Vietnam and returned, wrote Peter Marin when the memorial was dedicated (The Nation, Nov 27, 1982), have attained “a particular kind of moral seriousness which is unusual in America, one which is deepened and defined by the fact that it has emerged from a direct confrontation not only with the capacity of others for violence and brutality but also with their own culpability, their sense of their own capacity for error and excess.”
The dead can no longer speak to us, and yet their sacrifice in a protracted and ultimately pointless conflict speaks volumes about the evil that we do in the name of the good. The machismo and arrogance that sustained the U.S. campaign, and the dense fabric of lies that sold it to the public, became evident with the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Many more documents were declassified decades later, and Timothy Weiner’s biography, One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, drew on a wide range of new sources to pull the curtain back further.
Not in our most paranoid fantasies as antiwar activists did we imagine how wide and how deep were the systems of trickery and deceit that our government employed to discredit internal critics, mislead allies, cover up war crimes, and maintain its iron grip on power. Nor did we expect that, when the war finally did grind to an end, it would be a decisive defeat for the United States.
In the decades since Vietnam, American soldiers have been sent into war zones on a dozen occasions, ranging from minor skirmishes to protect American interests (Grenada in 1983, Panama in 1990) to protracted entanglements in regions where our forces – and our weapons and our money – probably made existing animosities more bitter and more violent (Iraq in 1993 and in 2003-2011, Afghanistan from 2001 to 2021). Maintaining the world’s most powerful and most widely dispersed military forces, on land and sea and in the air, has proved to be an enormously expensive yet often ineffective means of protecting American interests and upholding American ideals.
Forty years ago a memorial wall, placed in a rent of the earth’s fabric, spoke eloquently to the American people about both the heroism and the futility of war. May we have ears to listen.
Author’s note: portions of this posting are adapted from my essay, “A Wall for Remembering,” Commonweal, vol 110 no. 13 (July 15, 1983), pp. 397-99.