The Vietnam Memorial
A few French teenagers sit on the grass above the top of the Wall. They laugh and kick their long legs and ankles against the black surface of it, over the names of men who died in the Vietnam War. Oddly, I get a little pissed off about this. You don’t need to drop to your knees and hail the wall, but for a war that’s still so close to us, it’s worth far more than banging your Chuck Taylors against their names. There are still survivors of the War just a few panels away – some in wheelchairs, others in VFW hats, POW-MIA t-shirts, their Airborne insignias glinting in the sun.
I eavesdrop on conversations as I pass:
A lady with a British accent, mutters to her children: “There are so many names, aren’t there.”
A gray-haired lady says to her husband: “His first name was Jim, I think.”
People hold up white pieces of paper to the wall and scrub etchings of names. A little girl places one flower and a flag and her father hunches over her, directing her: “Don’t put it there, sweetie. Your uncle’s at this end.”
And then there are the damn kids, laughing and bouncing their ankles on the panels.
And then there’s me, like the other visitors, taking pictures, reflecting, associated with this still-fresh wound in a distant way, though not in a casual way. I’m just a child of a Vietnam Veteran. I know no casualties. None of its political fallouts affect my daily life. I cannot see or understand this war in any way beyond the sporadic look in my father’s eyes, when he doesn’t see any of us. And that’s not too common. And – he came back. Almost every part of him came back. There’s one piece of him that didn’t come back and, like all children of Veterans of that war, none of us can ever know that part, or get to it, much less give it back to him. But my father survived two tours of Vietnam and I got to (be here and) know him because of that – so I feel incredibly lucky as I walk past all of our reflections in the smooth black surface. I know I may be passing a name that belonged to a man that my father knew, maybe a man he raised hell with, chasing girls in Saigon, maybe a man who fought beside him in a foxhole once, maybe a man who split a pack of Pall Malls with him. Somewhere in all those names.
All those names.
They’re listed in chronological order, for each casualty on each day of the war. Disturbingly, the ground slants downward, cutting deeper into a soft angle to allow for the multitudes of casualties that stream in around the most violent period of the war.
I knew 60,000 Americans were killed in that war, but there are just…so many…names (and that’s not even thinking of the countless Vietnamese casualties, laying under their earth, as well)
Most war memorials give you a symbol (a marble obelisk, a plaque, a block) with which you can distance yourself from all of it’s realities and reflect in your own edited images of what it all means, tucked safely between the glorious bask of the past and the future. The Vietnam Memorial provides no such comfort. There’s no distance between yourself and the cataclysm. You see first names, middle initials and last names – piled atop each other, in simple straight lines. It’s in your face, relentless, unforgiving and deeply moving all at once – even in the heat, there’s a chill from the sea of names. Even in the groups of people, you feel alone with the names.