Wall of names

November 10, 1992

When it was dedicated 10 years ago this week, the Vietnam TC Veterans Memorial shared something in common with the war it commemorated -- controversy. A "black gash of shame," some critics called it. The polished black granite walls bearing thousands of chiseled names represented something distinctive in American war monuments: a quiet, unheroic structure designed not to celebrate the exploits of American troops but rather to foster contemplation about the larger questions raised by war, questions of life and death and memory.

The memorial's presence on the Mall in Washington, the closest thing the nation has to a national town square, was itself a victory for Vietnam veterans -- one made possible by the determination of one Vietnam veteran, Jan Scruggs, the Marylander who describes himself as "just an average guy from Bowie, you know, a C student, your average guy on the street." Maybe so, but without Mr. Scruggs' vision of a memorial containing all the names of Americans who died in Vietnam, the country would be poorer in spirit today.

Ten years ago, the divisions created by the Vietnam War were only beginning to recede. Inevitably, even the notion of a quiet memorial designed not to intrude on its more famous neighbors, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, was interpreted as a partisan political statement. But that "black gash of shame" has turned out to be the most-visited memorial in the nation's capital. This past Sunday, 1,000 volunteers from around the country began reading aloud each of the 58,183 names inscribed on the Wall. The roll call will not end until tomorrow morning. Something about those long days of names captures the enormity of loss any war represents.

Like the events surrounding the dedication of the memorial 10 years ago, this week's activities represent another step in the nation's journey of coming to terms with the Vietnam experience. This year, though, perhaps a deeper reconciliation is at hand. The country has just gone through a presidential election in which issues about baby boomer candidates and their activities during the Vietnam years were brought before the electorate. Not all Americans approve of Governor Clinton's stance on the war, or his explanation of his maneuverings on the draft. Even so, he is now the president-elect.

Perhaps the change in the White House can be taken as a sign that the country is truly moving beyond the divisions of the Vietnam years. If that is so -- and we hope it is -- some of that healing can be attributed to the vision of that average guy from Bowie. For 10 years now, America's Wall of names has been striking chords of memory that transcend the loud discord of war.

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