(This one’s for possum.)
Today marks the 28th anniversary of the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the finest piece of public art in the history of this country. The vision of a haunted ex-Army infantryman, realized by a 21-year-old Asian refugee, The Wall has become a place of pilgrimage, a secular shrine, something unprecedented, unrivaled in our country. Tens of millions of people have brought hundreds of thousands of mementos, gifts, talismans, offerings to The Wall.
Among them, this letter:
The little baby you never saw turned 17 in August. She looks like Scotty now; she used to look like you when she was younger.
This was all such a waste. Maybe your sacrifice means this won’t happen again.
Oh, vain hope. Not to be, not to be . . . .
The Wall began with Jan Scruggs, former Army infantryman. Up one night in the wee hours, nursing a bottle of Scotch, alone with ghosts in his Maryland apartment, he saw again twelve of his friends blown apart while unloading an ammunition truck, how he’d wandered, helpless, among them, watching their lives drain away.
He decided that night that he, a 29-year-old ex-corporal, a struggling American University student—in short, pretty much a nobody—would see to it that a memorial was built in Washington, DC that would list the names of all the US servicemen and women who had died in Vietnam.
Scruggs began with $2800 of his own money; ultimately the project attracted ten million dollars. What Scruggs, and those who joined him, sought was a memorial that, besides listing all the names of all the military personnel who had died in Vietnam, would also be reflective and contemplative, harmonize with its surroundings, and make no overt political statement about the war.
From the 1400 submitted designs, that of Maya Lin, a 21-year-old Yale architecture student, was selected . . . and the forces of reaction then screeched into overdrive in opposition.
First, the racists objected to an Asian designing a memorial honoring Americans who died in an Asian war (that Lin was Chinese, from a family that had fled Mao, made no difference to these people).
Then there were complaints that the design she submitted was black—aren’t war memorials supposed to be white? And anyway, isn’t black “the color of shame”? That objection was answered by General George Price: “Black’s really not the color of shame. I’m black myself.”
Then there was hand-wringing that “it’s a hole in the ground”—dark, dreary, depressing, a wallow in despair.
So, finally, all the blathering and the clattering—from the same sort of people who succeeded in smearing paint over the genitalia in The Last Judgement—forced into the entry of The Wall a wholly unnecessary bronze sculpture of three soldiers.
Doesn’t matter. The Wall overcomes it.
Everything about The Wall is right. As Lin has said, it is:
a rift in the earth—a long, polished black stone wall, emerging from and receding into the earth . . . The memorial is a moving composition to be understood as one moves into and out of it; the passage itself is gradual, the descent to the origin slow, but it is at the origin that the meaning of the memorial is to be fully understood.
Names are listed in perfect equality, general to private, in chronological order of passing, on polished black granite that reflects those gazing upon it, uniting the living and the dead. Each reflecting upon the other, blurring the distinction into the indistinguishable. Little wonder that so many people bring so many living offerings to The Wall, speak to the names upon it as if they were still sentient beings, leave them letters, cigarettes, food, flowers, clothing, drink.
My friend R. used to go to The Wall to share with his buddies books to read. He’d sit there, crosslegged, smiling like the sun, chatting away as if they’d all made it back together, to cluck like cynical, wizened magpies over the supreme tomfoolery of us folk who’d never known Vietnam, but only “the world.”
One lieutenant left at The Wall a long letter to all the guys in his “Sporting Crew,” peckishly concluding:
I feel better writing this. Why don’t you shitheads ever write?
Scruggs’ vision of a memorial listing all the names of a war’s victims was revolutionary. Heretofore the typical war memorial consisted of some huge imposing edifice, or a statue of some “statesman” or general, often astride a horse (there are dozens of such statues scattered throughout DC). But Scruggs wanted not to feature any “statesman” or general—the sort of person, as Kenneth Patchen observed, “whose reputation is built on corpses”—but, instead, the corpses themselves.
There is no artifice, no bullshit about The Wall. These are the people the country sent into death: they’re on this wall because they were killed.
How different The Wall is, then, from the two memorials towards which point the “arms” of The Wall: the phallic spire of the Washington Monument, and the faux Temple of Zeus that is the Lincoln Memorial.
Standing in 1962 before that Lincoln Memorial, reading the words of the Gettysburg Address, this is the reaction of WWII combat veteran James Jones, as recorded by his friend William Styron, who had earlier that morning joined Jones in a tour of the battlefield of Antietam:
Jim’s face was set like a slab, his expression murky and aggrieved, as we stood on the marble reading the Gettysburg Address engraved against one lofty wall, slowly scanning those words of supreme magnanimity and conciliation and brotherhood dreamed by the fellow Illinoisan whom Jim had venerated, as almost everyone does, for transcendental reasons that needed not to be analyzed or explained in such a sacred hall. I suppose I was expecting the conventional response from Jim, the pious hum. But his reaction, soft-spoken, was loaded with savage bitterness, and for an instant it was hard to absorb. “It’s just beautiful bullshit,” he blurted. “They all died in vain. They all died in vain. And they always will!”
Later that day Styron and Jones met with people in the Kennedy White House. The significance of the juxtaposition of the visits to Antietam, the Lincoln Memorial, and the White House, did not strike Styron until some years later:
Many years went by before I happened to reflect on that day, and to consider this: that in the secret cellars of the White House, in whose corridors we were soon being shepherded around pleasantly, the ancient mischief was newly germinating. There were doubtless all sorts of precursory activities taking place which someday would confirm Jim’s fierce prophecy: heavy cable traffic to Saigon, directives beefing up advisory and support groups, ominous memos on Diem and the Nhus, orders to units of the Green Berets. The shadow of Antietam, and of all those other blind upheavals, was falling on our own times.
So too, even as The Wall was dedicated out there on the mall in November 1982, down there in “the secret cellars of the White House,” Ronald Reagan, Ollie North, Wild Bill Casey, et al, were up to “the ancient mischief.” Just as Vietnam began as part of the mad “great game” against the USSR, so too began the Reagan administration’s financing, arming, assisting of the mujahideen of Afghanistan. Which contributed to the expulsion of the Soviets, and the concomitant increase in power, in respect for the mujahideen. Which emboldened the mujahideen to believe they should be selected to defeat Saddam Hussein in Gulf War I—then, infuriated when their offer was spurned, the mujahideen inspired to declare holy war against the US, as “infidel” troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia in their stead. Which eventually resulted in the attacks of 9/11. Which provoked George II to embroil his nation in one, too, many Vietnams, against the mujahideen of Afghanistan, and the people of Iraq. Yet again—”blind upheavals, falling on our own time.”
One of the books my friend R. dropped at The Wall for his friends to read was Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato. I ran across my copy of Cacciato the other night, and was disheartened, though not really surprised, that so much of it speaks to the experiences of Americans today in Iraq and Afghanistan, just as much as it did of the experiences of O’Brien and his buddies, in the jungles of Vietnam, in 1969-70.
Not knowing the language, they did not know the people. They did not know what the people loved or respected or feared or hated. They did not recognize hostility unless it was patent, unless it came in a form other than language; the complexities of tone and tongue were beyond them. Not knowing the language, the men did not know whom to trust. Trust was lethal. They did not know false smiles from true smiles, or if a smile had the same meaning it had in the States. They did not know if it was a popular war, or, if popular, in what sense. They did not know if the people viewed the war stoically, as it sometimes seemed, or with grief, as it seemed other times, or with bewilderment or greed or partisan fury. It was impossible to know.
They did not know even the simple things: a sense of victory, or satisfaction, or necessary sacrifice. They did not know the feeling of taking a place and keeping it, securing a village and then raising the flag and calling it a victory. No sense of order or momentum. No front, no rear, no trenches laid out in neat parallels. No Patton rushing for the Rhine, no beachheads to storm and win and hold for the duration. They did not have targets. They did not have a cause. They did not know if it was a war of ideology or economics or hegemony or spite. On a given day, they did not know where they were, or how being there might influence larger outcomes. They did not know the names of most villages. They did not know which villages were critical. They did not know strategies. They did not know the terms of the war, its architecture, the rules of fair play. When they took prisoners, they did not know the questions to ask, whether to release a suspect or beat on him. They did not know how to feel. Whether, when seeing the dead, to be happy or sad or relieved; whether, in times of quiet, to be apprehensive or content; whether to engage the enemy or elude him. They did not know how to feel when they saw villages burning. Revenge? Loss? Peace of mind or anguish? They did not know. They knew the old myths about the place—tales passed down from old-timer to newcomer—but they did not know which stories to believe. Magic, mystery, ghosts and incense, whispers in the dark, strange tongues and strange smells, uncertainties never articulated in war stories, emotion squandered on ignorance. They did not know good from evil.
We will need another memorial, for Iraq this time. And I’m thinking that The Wall of Scruggs and Lin, as great, as sublime as it is, was maybe too subtle. For the concentrated ghosts empowered by The Wall should have been enough to prevent another Vietnam. But they weren’t. So, this time, I think, we should hold nothing back.
The Iraq Memorial should be located on the grounds of the White House, in full view of the Oval Office. Its centerpiece, in marble, and as tall as the White House itself, should be this fellow, the one there to the right, the crucified christ of Abu Ghraib. At his feet, puny, as is appropriate, in the only material of which he is worthy—plastic—should be George II, smirking, inserting a firecracker into the anus of a frog. On one side of George II there shall be a fountain, spouting blood. On the other, an eternal flame, fueled by dollar bills. At his feet, an inscription of the verses that, rather than “Hail To The Chief,” should have been played every time he came into view:
the killer awoke before dawn
he put his boots on
he took a face from the ancient gallery
and he walked on down the hall
Finally there shall play, loudly, from an eternally recurring tape loop, 24/7/365, a reprise of all the lies, uttered by all the liars, that stampeded Congress, and hoodwinked the American people, into going to war.
And, so long as military recruiters are permitted to parade their propaganda through the schools—as they did in my grandfather’s, and my father’s, and my, and my daughter’s time—it is only just and fair that a photograph of this memorial should be permanently affixed to a wall in every classroom in the land. With below it the final lines from “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” by Wilfred Owen, the British poet and soldier, killed but one week before the 11th minute, of the 11th hour, of the 11th day of November—then dubbed “Armistice Day,” when it was believed that that conflict, WWI, had been “the war to end all wars.” But today is just “Veterans Day,” as that conflict proved to be just the first of many mad orgies of senseless bloodletting to stain the 20th Century . . . and, now, the 21st.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.