The Vietnam Memorial: A Monument to the Living Dead

My brother and I grew up in the shadow of Civil War battlefields in Virginia, only a short drive from the monuments in Washington. This corridor, from Gettysburg to Richmond, abounds with shrines. Seven members of our family — two parents, four grandparents, and an uncle — are buried in Arlington National Cemetery. In our family, that peculiar kind of piety and moral imagination involved in the consecration of place was well cultivated. Pilgrimages to these places were eagerly anticipated, both as an occasion to remember our own family, and as a way to reconstitute in our souls a sense of historical time and place. Certainly, they were never an occasion for morbid thoughts.

Wishing to continue this tradition, my brother and I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C., shortly after its dedication. Our special interest in the Vietnam Memorial was the memory of our father, a career Marine Corps officer, who was killed in action not far from DaNang in 1968. We had followed the controversy over the purpose and design of the Memorial with considerable interest. For the most part, we agreed with the critics who argued that the black stone sunk into the earth of the Mall, with the names of the war-dead registered like so many traffic fatalities, misrepresents the honorable service of these men. We wrote letters to our Congressmen, asking, that if nothing else, the design of the Memorial be reconsidered. Yet, when it came time for us to make our visit, these objections were put aside, and we went with a genuine sense of anticipation and pride.

We were unprepared for what we found, for this Memorial is unlike other memorials — in particular because it offers those who would visit it a brutally literal perspective on the Vietnam War and its dead, and finally no moment of transcendence. The travesty of the Memorial is not so much what it suggests about the dead, but rather the terrible way that it misconstrues the sentiments and rituals of the living.

It must be admitted that the Memorial is brilliantly conceived in the way that it denies to the observer adequate spatial perspective. Like some forms of modern art, this deficiency is deliberate and didactic. As one approaches the structure, he can stand back in order to take in the entire panorama; but here one will see nothing but a wall of black stone, without an immediately apparent theme. Hence, one is drawn closer toward the only adequate perspective: that is, to the names themselves, which require a two or three foot position from the face of the wall. As we were searching for, and finally found, our father’s name, we couldn’t help but be aware that to our left and right were others searching for their name; and behind those searching for names was yet another group, some taking pictures of those of us searching for names. Still others were walking nervously toward the sunken vertex where the walls meet, as though there they might find something besides unfamiliar names — something, that is, that might summarize the meaning of the structure. The Memorial compels us ritually to recapitulate the very same deficiency that was so characteristic of the Vietnam War: for a relative few, it was a concrete, though private, reality; for most, it was a bewildering event that evoked a public sense of moral concern and conscience, but lacked actual, personal engagement.

This Memorial does not directly dishonor the dead, for they have a solidarity of sorts by the fact that they share the same black stone upon which their names are inscribed. But there is no such solidarity for the bereaved, certainly none for the citizen who has no name to visit. The ordinary citizen is an alien at this Memorial. As we jostled in the crowd for our two-foot stare at a name, we were interrupting the view of others who were jockeying for their respective place at the wall. All the while, tears were being shed, but there was no public character to the sentiment, only private sentiments expressed in public. It was as though we were holding many funerals at once, not one funeral for many people. This Memorial is not only not a public memorial, it is worse than a graveyard.

We were forced ritually to re-enact the truncated perspective that most of us experienced during the time of the war, for this war was essentially a private one in which individuals rather than communities offered their service; one in which the individuals themselves served by chance and circumstance — perhaps by a bureaucratic decision “rotated” to a unit in Nam rather than Germany, or, by the haphazard luck of the draw, drafted. Most of these men left for Southeast Asia one by one, usually on civilian airlines with muzak, movies, and steaks, their remote destination known only to themselves, loved ones, and a Pentagon computer. It in no way disparages the bravery and honor of these men to point out the fact that even among themselves they were, in large part, strangers who arrived for their tours of duty, took their R&R, and then flew home according to their own peculiar schedule. In the bush, every man had a different calendar on his helmet.

On the home front, it was a “public” war on television, but in reality it touched only individuals as individuals. More accurately, there was no “front,” either there or here. This is not to gloss over the tragic fact that the fate of entire peoples in Asia was determined first by our naive earnestness, and then by our whimsical and unjust retreat; it was not an individual and private war for them. Yet it is still an indication of the private nature of this war that it is difficult to determine how we might say “our” about the guilt. Unless one served, or was a friend of one who served, the war was an abstraction. This Memorial incarnates for all time its private character; it evokes exactly the same intense, unfocused perspective for the citizen, and the privitized grief for the bereaved, that we experienced during the era.

The more profound problem with the Memorial, however, is what it evokes in the individual as he stares at the names. The glossy, black stone is, in fact, a mirror that reflects one’s own image. After even a few seconds the eye does not rest comfortably upon a name, but upon one’s own reflection. Some who have praised the Memorial have pointed out how the stone reflects the other monuments along the mall, and indeed it does so as long as no one is standing in front of the names. But when one stands before the names they fade into the visage of the observer; it is not the dead, nor their names and exploits, which confront the observer; rather, we as individuals confront ourselves. I suppose that on a certain moral level, we all deserve to confront ourselves in this respect. Is the purpose of a memorial, however, that of a confessional — much less a pond for Narcissus?

It is generally true that any memorial will play upon the ambiguity that a monument is to the dead, but for the living. It is precisely this ambiguity that prevents a memorial from being either a mere grave or a private plaything for the imagination. Perhaps this is why, as human beings, we need symbolism to mediate our relationship to the “other,” to guide us through this domain of ambiguity in a creative way. The Vietnam Memorial plays upon this ambiguity, but finally distorts it. It is a symbol that does not mediate or edify, but rather confronts one with the brute literality of the “fact.” It is not a memorial, but a literal remembering of the psychology and sociology of the war. The Memorial, for this reason, provides no true catharsis or moment of transcendence for the living.

After our visit I recalled the verses of Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” where he writes:

And in between the ends of distraction

Waits mute speculation, the patient curse

that stones the eyes, or like the jaguar leaps

For his own image in a jungle pool, his victim.

What shall we say who have knowledge

Carried to the heart?

Shall we take the act

To the grave? Shall we, more hopeful, set up the grave

In the house? The ravenous grave?

Is this not the question for those who lack authentic symbols, arid who are impelled not toward the “other,” but back upon themselves? The Vietnam Memorial is not a memorial to the dead, but to the living dead, since to live without transcendence, to ritualize the brute “fact,” is a living death.

For my part, should I ever have a son, I will not take him to this Memorial — not because I attribute nefarious motives to those who conceived and built it, and least of all for any reasons of political ideology. Rather, I would take him across the river into Virginia, to what was once the property of an honorable soldier who fought in a losing cause, and there at Arlington I would show him the grave of his grandfather who, it is said, also fought in a losing cause.

Here, he might be introduced to “knowledge carried to the heart,” and to an appropriate kind of private sentiment. But more importantly, he might take a life-giving wonderment in something other than himself.

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Russell Hittinger is the William K. Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa.

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