The Vietnam War Memorial, 25 Years

10 November 2007, The Vietnam War Memorial, 25th Anniversary, the reading of the names

This Memorial Day is the 25th anniversary of the dedication of the Vietnam War Memorial so there are a lot of events going on at the west end of the mall this weekend. Most significantly, volunteers have spent the week leading up to Memorial Day reading the names of all 58,209 people listed on the wall. In the picture above the readers took a break at noon for a Marine bugler to play taps.

When the Vietnam War and Vietnam War veterans first came to my consciousness, Vietnam vets were all pretty much people in their late thirties or forties, but it’s been forty years since the peak of the Vietnam War. Vietnam vets are old grey-hairs now. The number of people walking the wall with their wheeled walker or sitting on a bench to catch their breath was surprising. They look now more like my imagining of Second World War veterans than those of the Vietnam War. We tend to think of the Vietnam War as another generation’s war, but at this point more time has elapsed since the Vietnam War and the present day than between the Second World War and the Vietnam War.

Owing to their proximity, a larger number of people than usual were also visiting the Lincoln Memorial. I wonder how many realize that it is the memorial in Washington, D.C. of the Civil War, a war that is more commemorated on the various battlefields of the states where it was fought than in the capitol. S. and I biked past the First World War Memorial. It is a crumbling ruin in an untended and unvisited corner of the Mall. Time marches on.

As we were leaving, a rather large contingent of Native American veterans wearing their military uniforms under more traditional clothing was processing off the field. They paraded under the U.S. flag as well as the black POW/MIA flag, only their POW/MIA flag had a silhouette of a Native American. They stood in a semicircle off one of the paths greeting other passing vets. It’s weird to see someone in full Native American garb greet another Marine with “Semper Fi.”

The Vietnam War Memorial is one of the most well done monuments in Washington, D.C. To walk its length is to experience the War as a symbolic journey. The names are listed in the order they were killed. The first few panels list only a small number of names, a reminder that the war started gradually and covertly under Eisenhower and Kennedy. The panels are like a bar chart of that creeping war, until you reach the imposing nadir of the monument and start the ascent up the north wall. The last few panels, just a few inches high and with but a few names are the most tragic, each always reminding me of the young John Kerry’s words: “How do you ask a man to be the last one to die for a lost cause?”

As you ascend the north wall, it forms an arrow pointing east to the Obelisk. Further in the background you can see the dome of the Capitol. The Capitol building has always been hard to see for itself past the symbolry of its image. It’s always invoked the same thoughts as those oil paintings and illustrations of the great debates of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster or John Calhoun. It is the assembly place of the great debating society of democracy. After eight years of Republican rule the Capitol has acquired an insidiousness for me more like that of the Deathstar. It is the looming crown jewel in an empire of evil. It is an association that I don’t think will ever leave me and can almost certainly not be shorn by a few years of Democratic capers in governance.

Ascending from of the black pit of the Vietnam War to be greeted by the shining white of the Obelisk and the Capitol only serves as an indictment of the hypocrisy behind all the intended awe inspiration of the rest of the monuments of D.C. It is a reminder that those names aren’t just on the wall for a mysterious reason. The right arm of the monument points accusingly to the reason all those names are there. The Vietnam War Memorial is the only monument in Washington, D.C. that is not architecture cum propaganda.