Anniversaries are more than reminders of passing years. They offer an opportunity to assess how Americans’ attitudes have changed. The 30th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington is an example.
The memorial was dedicated on the Washington Mall on Nov. 13, 1982, when feelings about the Vietnam war were fresh in memory and still raw. Unlike their fathers and grandfathers, the veterans of this unpopular war felt shunned.
In the place of triumphant parades and heroes’ welcomes, they came back to a civilian world that was at best indifferent to their service, and sometimes hostile to it. For many Vietnam veterans, those feelings have changed over the years.
One reason for that is the recognition provided by one of the most moving monuments in the nation’s capital. But the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was not at first accepted as the sublime architectural achievement it is today.
On the contrary, when the design of the subterranean wall of names was announced, it seemed to some like another slight to Vietnam veterans. Other wars were commemorated with traditional statuary, but once again the Vietnam vets were to be treated differently.
The modernistic design by a 21-year-old Yale University architecture student, Maya Lin, was called, among other things, “a degrading ditch” and a “black gash of shame.” Because of the bitter controversy, Ms. Lin’s plan became reality only through a compromise: Classic touches were added to the periphery of the site — a bronze statue called “The Three Soldiers” and a flagpole.
But it is the wall that has most moved the feelings of veterans and other visitors. It holds great emotional power and has become a place of healing. Millions of Americans visit each year.
The cover story of the new issue of the Veterans of Foreign Wars magazine is about the wall and the powerful reactions it inspires in veterans, yet the controversy is barely mentioned. The story calls the memorial “a hallowed place.”
A retired Marine is quoted as saying: “The wall was the best thing that ever happened to us. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund should get a medal for giving us back our pride.”
Some 58,282 names are inscribed on the wall. The memorial captures the nobility and sorrow of their sacrifice — just as the young architecture student was inspired to imagine 30 years ago.