Sublime memorial


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.