At noon on Sunday, a poignant ceremony began at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington. Continuing around the clock, a thousand volunteers from across the country have taken turns reading the names inscribed on the polished black granite walls that in the past 10 years have become the most-visited memorial in the nation's capital. The roll call ends this morning at 9 o'clock, but the act of calling out the name of each American who died in uniform in Vietnam helps to symbolize not just the enormity of the loss any war represents, but also the healing power of memory.
In remembering the dead, in simple acts like calling their names or tracing the letters chiseled on the Wall, there is comfort for the living. That has been the great lesson of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a quiet, unobtrusive structure that was initially decried as a "black gash of shame" when the design was first unveiled. When the memorial was dedicated 10 years ago this week, the wounds of Vietnam were still raw -- as was evident in the reaction of critics who saw the contemplative, unheroic design as a political statement about the war and the divisions it created in American society.
To satisfy criticisms of the design, a statue of three servicemen was added discreetly to the site. But today, that statue, moving though it is, gets relatively scant attention. It's the names that compel people to come, to linger and to leave behind flowers or notes or other tributes.
It is appropriate that the nation marks the memorial's 10th anniversary just after an election in which voters faced issues about baby boomer candidates and their actions during the Vietnam years. President-elect Clinton did not satisfy all Americans about why or how he avoided the draft, but he won the election nevertheless. As the presidency passes to a new generation, the painful divisions of the Vietnam years are largely being put to rest.
If that is true, the nation will owe a big debt to the memorial. We owe a debt as well to Jan Scruggs, a Marylander who describes himself as "just an average guy from Bowie." It was Mr. Scruggs who in 1979 conceived of a memorial bearing the names of Americans who died in the war and turned that dream into reality. This "average guy" with his extraordinary vision has enriched this country and helped to heal it too.