The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall
Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall
What does it really say?
by Samantha Snitow

A Research Paper for Tufts University
dated December 1, 1998

It stands as a memorial to the 58,183 American men and women who never made it home from Vietnam. Those who did return alive came home to a country where they were scorned, spit upon, and looked down on. Instead of receiving a hero’s welcome, they received nothing at all. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is a tribute to the dead and missing of the very controversial Vietnam War, which technically was not a war at all. America’s involvement in the Vietnam War was one of the most controversial events in the 20th century. The country stood as a nation divided: split between those who supported the war, and those who did not. It is no surprise that the memorial that is dedicated to this war is itself shrouded in controversy. The granite wall stretches across 250 feet of land on the Mall in Washington D.C. Situated in a triangle with the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, its stark blackness deeply contrasts with the whiteness of the other monuments. It’s “V” shape is interpreted in many ways, ranging from the peace sign to standing for Vietcong. There are many different opinions of the Wall ranging from admiration to disgust. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall stands as a testament to the Americans who gave their lives fighting in the name of their country, and the controversy surrounding it serves as a reminder of the division felt between those who supported America’s involvement, and those who did not.

The memorial is made of black granite, and consists of 140 panels - it is inscribed with the names of each American that died or is accounted for from the Vietnam War. The wall gets bigger as one walks towards the center of it, and is ten feet high at the centermost point. It is made of two 125-foot branches, which come together as a V to form the center of the memorial. Most of the larger panels contain 685 names - 132 lines with five names per line, and each name is preceded by a symbol. A diamond signifies a confirmed death, while a cross signifies Missing In Action/Prisoner Of War. If an MIA/POW’s death is confirmed, lines are etched over the cross to make it a diamond. If s/he returns alive, a circle is etched around the cross to signify life. The names are arranged chronologically in order of death, beginning with the first in 1959 and ending with the last in 1975. Perhaps one of the smallest controversies involving the Wall has to do with the way that the names are arranged on the wall. Some people do not like the fact that the names are organized according to the year of death; they do not think that it is the correct way to honor the fallen. Ward Just, a Vietnam veteran, wrote in an editorial for the Washington Post, “My other objection, and-it is not frivolous, is that it is an error to have the names arranged chronologically by order of death. The names should be entered at random, because there should be no precedence, not even the benign precedence of chronology”. However, most people do not mind how the names are arranged; the only problem is that it is virtually impossible to find a name simply by combing the wall. To aid those looking for a particular name, there are phone-book like listing at the entrance to the Wall and roaming guides which help people locate the panel that the name(s) they seek are on.

The shape of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial draws a majority of its complaints. So much so in fact, that the project was almost terminated during its opening stages. Originally, when Vietnam veteran Jan Scruggs decided that he and his fellow vets, both living and deceased, needed a permanent memorial, he tried to do it in the most acceptable way possible. He and his organization, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (V.V.M.F.) decided to hold a contest to solicit the memorial’s design. They set a few parameters for the contest, including: 1) it must contain the names of the war’s dead and missing. 2) It could not make a political or military statement. 3) It should harmonize with its surroundings. The entries where judged by a panel made up of architects, sculptors, landscape architects, and critics. Maya Ying Lin, a senior architecture student at Yale University designed the winning selection from a pool of 1,421 entries. The decision was unanimous, and came after a very short period of deliberation. Along with the panelists, there was a lot of positive feedback about the chosen design. John Wheeler, chairmen of the VVMF from 1979-89 said in an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune,

" When we first saw the amateur, pastel sketch of Maya Lin’s winning entry in the open competition for the Wall’s design, we did not fully grasp its power, how the polished black granite would serve as a true mirror, showing colors, faces, the nearby American flag, and how the reflections at the cleft of the Wall switch back and forth from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument."

The design truly did (and does) have a strong effect on those who visited it. Jeffrey Carrithers is a Vietnam Veteran who responded to a post I have on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Web page. An architect himself, he gave me his take on the Memorial:

" The design cuts into the earth. The landscape of Vietnam was pocketmarked by bombs and revised by engineering equipment. It also ties to the symbolism of the grave. It is solemn, overwhelming in the number of names and thoughtfully designed. I can't think of a better architectural solution. Maya Lin's work has balance and impact. The abstract and reality somehow merged."

Many veterans organizations supported the Wall’s design; the VVMF, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), and the American Legion were just some of the big-name veterans groups who gave their approval of the design. Overshadowing all of the positive feedback on the design, at least for a short time however, was the negative reaction from many veterans to Lin’s design. In her book Carried to the Wall, Kristin Ann Hass spoke of many veterans’ negative feelings about the wall:

" Its shape was considered an affront to veteran and conservative manhood especially when compared to the shape of the neighboring Washington Monument: the V shape hinted at the peace sign, or a reference to the Vietcong; the black stone was more mournful than heroic. It seemed to many too clear an admission of defeat. The public outcry reflected outrage with Lin’s design and with the principles that the VVMF required of all designs: the Wall was too abstract, too intellectual, too reflective. It was, in the minds of many, high art, the art of the class that lost the least in the war. It was not celebratory, heroic, or manly."

While many addressed this problem by writing editorials to newspapers or magazines and addressing them to the general public, someone wrote an editorial in the National Review in 1981 and addressed it to President Ronald Reagan. S/he insisted that Reagan intervene in the project:

" Okay we lost the Vietnam War, and okay the thing was mismanaged from the start to finish. But American soldiers who died in Vietnam fought for their country and for the freedom of others, and they deserve better than the outrage that has been approved as their memorial…the Reagan administration should throw the switch on the project."

Republican representative Henry Hyde took up the cause - he wrote an open letter directly to President Reagan. In his letter, he dubbed the project, “a political statement of shame and dishonor”. The politics involving the Vietnam War also had an effect on the politics involving the Vietnam War Memorial. In an article in Newsweek, William Broyles Jr, veteran and editor-in-chief of Newsweek, wrote about how the politics effected the design:

" but there was one thing about the monument they couldn’t fix. The names that speak most directly about the war aren’t on the memorial. To my knowledge there are no names of any sons of grandsons of the congressman who voted the appropriations to keep it going. They weren’t there. The war divided America, most of all by driving a wedge between those who went and those who didn’t (82)."

Broyles also said, “Like the war itself, the memorial is less than the dead deserved. It is a memorial that isn’t a memorial for a war that wasn’t, technically, even a war”(82). While its design is different than any other Veterans Memorial, the design is not the sole thing that makes this memorial stand out.

One of the things that distinguish this memorial from all of its compatriots in Washington D.C. is its color, and the effect it has. The shiny, reflective black granite contrasts greatly with all of the white monuments that surround it. Some supporters think that this an important feature that enhances the Wall’s effect. In an editorial in the New York Times, someone wrote, “But perhaps the V-shaped, black granite lines merging gently with the sloping earth make the winning design a lasting and appropriate image of dignity and sadness” (Hass, 17). Many others believe that the blackness is appropriate and moving. They feel that it draws the emotions appropriate for a memorial such as this one, and that it honors the fallen or missing as they should be honored. These supporters feel that the darkness of the monument helps to get its point across. Veteran Ward Just, wrote an editorial in the Washington Post and described the memorial as he saw it: “It seems to me perfect, that long black slab, so austere, abstract, and dignified, an unforgettably somber sculpture carved with the names of the Americans who were killed or are missing…”. However, a large amount of the controversy surrounding the Wall is directed towards the color. Those who oppose the color associate the blackness of the Wall with the deep dislike the majority of Americans had for the Vietnam War, which they in turn felt towards the veterans. Perhaps one of the most common negative reactions to the Wall was expressed by John J. Callahan, a veteran, who said in an interview with Newsweek: “It’s a black scar in the ground - and Vietnam is a black scar on this country”. Veterans across the country were disturbed by the memorial’s color and possible implication. Tom Cahart, a veteran who himself submitted a design to the judging committee described the disgust he feels towards the chosen design, “pointedly insulting to the sacrifices made for their country by all Vietnam veterans…by this we will be remembered: a black gash of shame and sorrow, hacked into the national visage that is the mall (Hass, 16)”. Cahart brought up another point that many people did not like about the Wall’s color - the contrast it had with all of the white monuments and building of Washington D.C. Will Howe, also a veteran, echoed Callahan and Cahart’s sentiments in a Newsweek article as he described his take on the memorial: “It’s black because we lost…It could have been so different. I looked at the Seabee monument [in nearby Virginia]- it’s nice, and it’s simple. Everything else in this town is white. (81)” These three veterans were not the only ones who disliked the color of the monument due to of all of the negative connotations associated with the color black. A Time article that was published on the day of the memorial’s unveiling stated, “Not everyone likes the Memorial. For more than a year, some have snarled that its blackness and abstract unorthodoxy make it a humiliating antiwar mockery”. Despite this negative criticism, the overwhelming response to the Wall has been more than favorable. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is actually the most visited memorial in the nation- it had 30 million visitors in its first ten years of existence.

Of those thirty million visitors, and each one since then, many different reactions have been experienced. One thing remains constant however - that every single visitor reflects on the seemingly endless list of names, and on the lives behind those names. Every person, whether shocked, impressed, disgusted, or simply overwhelmed does react to the Wall, and form his/her own view on it. His/her opinion may be about the Wall’s color, shape, the reflectiveness that allows them to see their own face almost blended into the names engraved into the granite. The picture this paper is based on seems to encompass all of these things. Gary ‘Doc’ Thompson, a Vietnam veteran posted this picture and it’s quote in the gallery on ‘The Wall’ website. The photo is of the Wall either during a sunrise or a sunset- it demonstrates the reflectiveness of the black granite. While writing about his personal trip to the Wall, Broyles described the actual event of coming face to face with the Wall for his Newsweek readers:

" It was as if a common emotion held back in so many private corners was all at once coming out into the sunlight. I cried too, more than once…As I stood in front of the polished granite I saw the names, but I also saw my own reflection. It fell across the names like a ghost. “Why me, lord?” we asked ourselves in Vietnam. It was a question that came back as I stood there: “why them?” "

Broyles surprised reaction to the reflectiveness of the Wall was a common one. However, some people were not able to handle it as well. An article in Time magazine describes one veterans reaction: “he stood back, saluted, saw his reflection in the polished black stone, then let out a kind of agonized whimper before two buddies led him away” (44). Not only is the reflectiveness a bit disquieting, but what is reflecting in this photograph is also very interesting. The Washington Monument is the main mirror image, and this monument is a focus of both opinions of the Wall. While some think it is good because it does not let anyone forget who in Washington is responsible for the continuation of the war, the opposition dislikes it because this monument is to honor those not who didn’t make it home, not to remind them why the are not here. If one looks closely at the picture, s/he can see the thousands of names that are etched into the stone, and will notice that this overwhelming number of names is only from parts of three of the ten panels. If a picture may speak a thousand words, then a picture of a few thousand names must speak volumes. If one were to sit and think of all of the faces, stories and people behind the names, s/he might realize something very important. While those who are opposed to some of the technicalities of the Memorial may or may not have a point, what is truly important is remembering and honoring those who did not come home. When it comes down to it, none of the controversy surrounding the Wall is what is important - not who is to blame, or how the Wall could/should have been different. What is important is to remember what the Wall stands for, and to make sure that another wall similar to this one never has to be created. Most importantly, every single person who sees the Wall should be grateful for the fact that they actually have the opportunity to see the Wall, unlike the 58,183 men and women who are a part of it.

Note: Samantha Snitow wrote this as a freshman at Tufts University. She is now a sophomore, majoring in Sociology, and minoring in Communications and Media Studies. She plays lacrosse, is very involved with AIDS Outreach, and writes sports for the Tufts Daily.

Works Cited:

Andersen, Kurt, and Branegan, Jay. “A Homecoming at Last.”
Time 22 Nov 1982: 44-46

Broyles, William Jr. “Remembering a War We Want to Forget.”
Newsweek 22 Nov. 1982: 82-83.

Bruske, Ed, and Bredemeier, Kenneth.
“Vietnam War Dead’s Names Read, Remembered.”
Washington Post 11 Nov. 1982: B1 and B15

Hass, Kristin Ann.
Carried to the Wall: American Memory and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, Ltd. 1998

Just, Ward. “Remembering Vietnam.”
Editorial. Washington Post 11 November 1982: A27

Morganthau, Tom, with Lord, Mary.
“Honoring Vietnam Veterans- At Last.”
Newsweek 22 Nov 1982: 80-81, 86

Rosenfeld, Stephen S. “The War is Over; the Crisis Continues.”
Editorial. Washington Post 12 Nov 1982: A31

Stevens, Tom. “THE WALL can’t heal my wounds.”
Atlanta Constiution 6 Nov. 1992: A11

Wheeler, John.
“The Wall: So much has come from U.S. place of healing.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune 20 September 1992: News 33A.

“Stop that Monument.” Editorial.
National Review 18 Sept. 1981: 1064

Photo at top: Vietnam Veterans Home Page

We Remember !
Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall
Photo By Larry Powell; "Hunger of the Heart: Communion at the Wall"



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