The Washington memorial to those who died in the Vietnam War, dedicated in 1982, is an extraordinary monument to an extraordinary era in history. The United States agonized over the rights and wrongs of its involvement in the distant Asian war for 16 years, while its servicemen, most of whom were conscripted, fought in an alien jungle under the increasingly hostile gaze of the international media.
Even before the United States withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, returning troops met a cool reception. Many suffered physical and psychological trauma from their grim war experiences but, until recently, received little public sympathy or support.
This monument is the war veterans’ own memorial to their fallen comrades. Unlike most war memorials, the Vietnam memorial is not a statue, an obelisk, or any other vertical projection: It is a horizontal meandering- a long wall of black granite simply inscribed with the names of more than 58,000 Americans who died in the war.
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Nearly 500 feet (150 in) long, the wall gradually increases in height from just above ground level to more than 10 feet (3 m) at its central point, where it turns a 125-degree corner then gradually decreases again. One wing points directly to the Washington Monument, the other to the Lincoln Memorial.
THE FIRST DEATH AND THE LAST
The 70 panels that constitute the wall are each with between one and 137 lines, five each line, engraved in lettering half inch high. The names are set out chronologically on each wing, starting with the first death in 1959 at the central corner, and concluding there with the last death 1975. Visitors walk down a path beside the wall, so that the noise of the city gradually abates, to be replaced by a growing recognition of the enormity of lives lost.
Those who come here have different reactions. Some run their fingers lightly over hundreds of engraved names as they walk by; some seem afraid to touch; some rub the name of a loved one onto parchment paper; and others leave offerings such as flowers, photographs, or medals.
Visitors describe their experience of the memorial as contemplative, solemn, cathartic, heart-rending even sublime. John Wheeler chairman of the veterans’ group that raised the seven million dollars to build it, suggests, “It has to dp with the presence of comrades.” The memorial is one of the city’s most popular monuments attracting between three and five million visitors anually.
A SCAR AND A HEALING
The design of the memorial was chosen in a competition of 1,421 anonymous entries. The winner was Maya Ying Lin, a final-year architecture student at Yale University, just 21 years old. The irony of her identity- an Asian woman studying at a university that led the anti-Vietnam War protests, designing a memorial to men killed in an Asian conflict-attracted wide comment. Disputes broke among the veterans, some of whom feared this minimalist design would seem defeatist.
A compromise was reached by the addition nearby of a conventional figurative sculpture by Fredric Hart: a bronze group of three figures, poised in battle fatigues. However, these boy-soldiers, with expressions that are wary, even bewildered, rather than heroic, complement rather than compete with the wall.
When her entry was chosen by a panel which imagined the memorial as “a place of healing.” Lin explained her inspiration for the design: “I thought about what death is, what loss is. A sharp pain that lessens with time, but can never quite heal over. A scar. The idea occured to me there on the site. Take a knife and cut open the earth, and with time the grass would heal it.”
You can also see the architecture, design, and biography of Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in the video.