The Wall

Julie Badiee

November 11, 1992|By Julie Badiee

AN uncertain decade -- only the latest in a line of many -- has passed since the unveiling of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. While time has done its work on the memorial as well as on the millions of people who make a connection with it every year, the issues it raised about the war and our country are still with us and likely to last as long as the memorial's black granite walls.

The passage of 10 years has obscured the fact that the memorial's design was extremely controversial and the target of ridicule even before work on the wall began. There were those (veterans' advocates and political candidate Ross Perot among them) who hated the somber black wall and its tomb-like gash in the earth. Rather than sum up the glory of the undertaking, this memorial seemed to represent our national doubt. Could we do anything right? Would we ever find another way to settle our disputes?

Try to imagine how the wall's opponents felt about its design. For them, there appeared to be no glory or celebration of the heroic men and women who gave their lives for God and country. Although the memorial was conceived as an attempt to heal an open wound, its opponents longed for something safer -- for an upright, commanding monument that would divert attention from the awful ironies of Vietnam.

While it's clear that the memorial's critics wanted a work that would show appreciation for all veterans, Vietnam demanded a less simplistic approach. The visual language of a thousand old war monuments would ring hollow in the face of such pain. For the opponents, the final insult may have been that the winning design was by a young woman named Maya Lin, whose face bore the Asian features of the very enemy they had fought.

Their desire to be represented at the site was recognized, however, and two years after the monument's construction a bronze statue, "Three Servicemen," was erected nearby. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, that statue, with its more traditional imagery, usually merits little more than a curious glance. It is The Wall -- post-nuclear, disruptive, insidious, a burial vault in the midst of our national pride -- that touches visitors deeply, gives them some way to communicate their sorrow and allows them to cry. In their response to the Vietnam conflict, Ms. Lin and her supporters gave powerful visual form to a woman's role, that of healer of the living and mourner of the dead.

From the first, the public's response to the monument has been emotional and poignant. It's difficult to forget the experience of the first Vietnam veterans who came to the wall to release grief which, until then, had found expression only in recurring nightmares. The catharsis was as real as the tears falling on the names of the dead. Years later, the need for communal expression continues to be so compelling that many visitors leave mementos at the wall's base.

"Dear Dad," reads a letter placed against the dark granite. "I'm grown up now . . . " Time has stopped for the names on the wall, but not for the child who is as old now as the father was when he died. A lifetime of missed opportunities and lost companionship is summed up in a young person's words, reaching out to the absent parent in the only way possible.

At the wall we are brought together, those who protested the war and those who didn't, those who lost sons and daughters and those who weren't born when the war was fought. The narrow pathway leading to the memorial merges us into a single community, and all of us -- Americans, Europeans, Japanese, Vietnamese, Mexican, Chinese -- are silent as we walk the path downward, to beneath ground level where we can contemplate our losses.

Here, this cold wall becomes an impenetrable veil parting us from those who are no longer in our world. Yet the polished surface is also like a mirror, and in the reflections of our own faces moving amid the names of the dead we sense that the ones we loved are somehow there.

Like the Jews, at another more ancient wall in Jerusalem, we try to slip our messages and prayers between the stones in an attempt to overcome the enormity of the tragedy.

If we stay there too long we may feel trapped, entangled, up to our neck in the dead. And yet we stand there, reading off the names of people we never knew, will never know. We watch faces, trying not to intrude on the grief of others. This is the morass of America in Vietnam.

As we emerge upward again, coming above ground and leaving the realm of the dead, we may realize that this sepulcher holds deep meaning precisely because it doesn't romanticize the sacrifice of those who died as much as it commemorates their passing. It provokes questions and does not provide clear answers. It is the first great monument of the generation born after World War II -- Bill Clinton's generation -- for whom the definition of courage also included the right to ask if going to war can ever justify the endless anguish it brings.

Julie Badiee is professor of art history at Western Maryland College.

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