(A Veterans Day piece posted on this site three years ago, for possum. And posted three years before that, on StormKos. Still, today, from me, 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?