Vietnam Veterans Memorial(s) – Which One Is Art?

A haunting picture – remembering a comrade         (Photo credit:Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)

There are in reality three Vietnam Veterans Memorials. The third one is not a problem (as such).* It’s the first two that are confusing: which one you mean when you talk about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial defines who you are. It also divides America.

The first Vietnam Veterans Memorial was completed in 1982. It is not even visible on the Mall because it is below-ground. Black granite panels line two adjoining long walls carved out of the gentle slopes on the National Mall, just north of the reflecting pool. The west wall tapers towards the Lincoln Memorial and the east wall the Washington Monument. The wall panels are inscribed with the names of over 58,000 Americans who served and died or were missing during the near 20-year conflict.

The second Vietnam Veterans Memorial was completed two years later, not far from the first, in 1984. It is a sculpture of three soldiers with guns. It was made by a sculptor and fits the traditional notion of a war memorial, illustrating the heroism of those who fought for our country. It is straight information—it tells us of war, of sacrifice, of struggle for freedom. (“Whose freedom?”, though became an issue which divided the US—and the world—during the height of the war in the 1960s). It is not different from any other war memorial in that it is general and generic, with no reference to any individual soldier and can refer to any war. Tourists check their list and move on—been there, done that. I don’t think many even pause to ponder the artistic merit of the sculpture itself. But for many, this is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

For most of the others, the first one with the black granite and list of names is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It is the reason that the second or “alternative” was installed. It was designed by the architect Maya Lin, then an undergraduate architecture student at Yale. Her design won in a blind, open call for submission. It was very controversial not least for the fact it was not what people expected of war memorials (thus the “alternative”) . And ironically, this partly qualifies it as art.

The other reason Lin’s design approaches art is the way the names are displayed. They are not alphabetical in the traditional way. They are chronological. This way, families of soldiers who died in the same battle can remember together, not to mention surviving comrades (The names within each date are alphabetical). This is the most important aspect that makes the memorial a true memorial: It brings people together to remember and reminisce along a common thread. This is what elevates mere data and information to art—it engages our mind, it gets us thinking. It gives us individual meaning while bringing us together amidst the memory of a painful past . By sharing that collective memory publicly, it goes beyond beauty to the sublime.

People are able to rub the name of their friends or loved ones on paper to keep as memento; comrades and families come together to remember on certain dates (year-round)—one feels a tangible presence with a loved one’s name inscribed on granite. Furthermore, the mirror-like black granite reflects people and the surrounding landscape, with a real sense of togetherness in this sunken, quiet temple of remembrance. It is another mark of the  art in this architecture: its popularity grew steadily over the years and is the most visited landmark in Washington D.C., after the Lincoln memorial.

Good art survives not just the creator, but the culture it comes from because it is edged in people’s unconscious,  from generation to generation. To quote the poet Helen Vendler:

“The cultural resonance of the characters of Greek epic and tragedy—Achilles, Oedipus, Antigone—and the crises of consciousness they embody—have been felt long after the culture that gave them birth has disappeared…”  

*   The Women’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in 1993 to remember the over 265,000 military women who served in mostly hospital and nursing care capacities during the Vietnam War. Only eight military women who died in Vietnam are listed on the wall.

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