Thoughts on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Shout-outs to begin: I was in the DC area this weekend with Collegium Cantorum and my friends Christine and Bill. We sang at St. Joseph’s on Capitol Hill at the 10:30 am Mass (6/1), and also at a Holy Hour on 5/30 at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Annandale, VA.

A few of us went on a bus tour of Washington DC provided by Family First Transportation. Christine and Bill and I wondered aloud about a few of the monuments we saw, and the facts and thoughts they put forward are in the musings below. (The Lincoln Memorial will be written on later).

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial: A fragmented memorial that represents our political fragmentation today – is something a memorial if we want it to be obvious and mean exactly what we think? Traditions and esoteric elements, which are within-yet-alienated from the memorial itself, seem to be a lot more tasteful, and a way to quietly guide reflection.

There is nothing quiet about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It starts quiet, as there are names on the wall. Then you walk down, and there are more names. And still more names. And still more names. It’s a gravesite, there’s no way around it (Josh has noted that the thing looks like a scar on the earth from above). The only respectable thing to do is pass in silence with one’s head bowed or cry. I don’t think either of those reactions are bad, because purposeful glorification can be very tacky. But something had to be said about the war itself to make it clear these deaths were not in vain, that this was noble in some way, whether one agrees or disagrees with the war.

The material the memorial is made of reflects the people and the area around the memorial. It is beautiful and powerful, but I don’t know that seeing yourself simply is a guided reflection; it is the beginning of reflection, but beginnings are not necessarily ends-in-themselves.

The more traditional aspect of the memorial is the three bronze statues, cast by Fredrick Hart, of soldiers just coming out of the jungle looking shocked. Tom Wolfe wrote an obituary for Hart in the New York Times some years ago, and that’s how I know this stuff – he did Catholic liturgical art (there’s a sculpture of his called “Ex Nihilo” that displays his virtuosity nicely) and was a bit removed from modern artists. The sculptor George Segal had created a method where a cast could be had from live human models. Lin, the designer of the major part of the memorial, asked Hart if the models he used screamed in pain when the cast was removed. Hart had no idea what she was talking about. I always wonder if the statues are shocked at the wall as where modern art has taken us, or, as is more fitting, shocked at the loss the wall demonstrates.

What stunned me looking at the wall was the sheer diversity in the types of names. One has to wonder whether modern democracy can only unite regarding the things it doesn’t want to do, i.e. “go to war.” One has to wonder where we have placed ourselves if we can’t fight battles by being exactly correct in not fighting battles. Is the unity of the three ethnicities of men depicted in the bronze a martial unity?

1 Comment

  1. Ashok,

    You do know that the statues you mentioned were not originally planned. They were added later as a testament to those that didn’t fall. That is why they looked shocked and tired, and in pain – they survived and have come to pay homage to their fallen friends. I find the three statues to be very haunting with the starkness of the black wall. Names are still being added to the wall as vets die after years of suffering with disability and pain from wounds received in combat, or as remains are found in the jungle. For being so simple in its design and appearance, I don’t feel any other memorial – shrine – invokes the same feelings. I have seen grown men, big strong tough looking men, break down and weep for brothers and friends. I’ve seen fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers, still weeping for their lost loved ones. I don’t see that at other places, at other memorials.

    What is interesting, is the juxtaposition of the Korean War Memorial opposite the Vietnam War Memorial. We have the forgotten war sitting opposite the war we cannot seem to forget. Both invoke similar responses – very somber and powerful – but for different reasons. The wall leaves you with a sense of outrage and loss, whereas the Korean Memorial leaves one with a somber feeling of remorse and pride. These were different wars fought in different times. Yet ruling over both of them, as if keeping watch over court, sits Lincoln in a throne almost.

    Very interesting indeed.

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