The Legacy of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

by Jan C. Scruggs

On Monday 26 March 2012, we will commemorate the groundbreaking for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  The groundbreaking occurred in 1982 on a cold and windy day when one hundred veterans with shovels all turned the earth in unison to start the construction on a Memorial – the future of which none of us had any appreciation for at the time.

A few decades later, it is worth trying to better understand the impact of what is known now as The Wall.

Psychoanalysts, historians, sociologists, theologians and others have done some serious intellectual and fairly lofty analysis of The Wall.

Although the scale is different, the Memorial has been studied in its spiritual dimension as a place not unlike to The Western Wall of Jerusalem, Mecca in Saudi Arabia, Lourdes in France, major Buddhist Shrines and other places considered holy due to the reverential behavior elicited at these locations.

“People make pilgrimages – which is what people do at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial- to be transformed intellectually and spiritually at a place of power”, wrote Ed Linenthal, a professor of religion and popular culture at the University of Wisconsin.

The phenomena of the more than 250,000 items being left at The Wall is without precedent and has been studied extensively by talented academicians.  It has been opined that the behavior at The Wall has fundamentally changed the way that America mourns. The Wall, it is said, gave license to Americans to mourn in public. The items left at the Oklahoma City bombing, at the World Trade Center, the AIDS Quilt, even the highway markers remembering those who perished in accidents are traced to The Wall and to imitative behavior.  There is interaction between the living and the dead at the Memorial. Part of this interaction often includes leaving highly emotionally charged items at the Memorial – from teddy bears and baseballs – which belonged to the casualties.  As described in the book, Carried to the Wall by Kristin Hass, a mother visits the memorial several times a year, usually around Christmas and definitely on his birthday to leave a card or letter. The book is probably the best written to explain why The Wall evokes such unique and, often, dramatic behavior.

The Wall has had an impact on the nation in surprising and momentous ways.

The site of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was selected because of its relationship to the Lincoln Memorial which stands as a symbol of reconciliation after the Civil War. The war in Vietnam was the most divisive national event since the Civil War.

The basic purpose of the Memorial was to honor the veterans who were often vilified for participating in the Vietnam War.  There were about 3 million of us who were willing to go to Vietnam, most of us were not enthusiastic about risking our lives, but we were willing to serve the United States of America when asked to do so.    We were also all willing to give our lives – and over 58,000 did just that in the war zone.

In promoting the effort decades ago, we spoke of “Separating the War from the Warrior”.  This put the controversy concerning the divisive Vietnam War on a shelf as we dealt with a wholly different issue- elevating and celebrating the service of Vietnam veterans.     This slogan has had impact as well on those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.  While the wars remain unpopular and divisive – those returning are received back into society with appreciation for putting their lives at risk for the nation.   This is as it should be.

As we commemorate groundbreaking,    we especially want to remember the genius of Maya Lin who designed this magnificent work of architecture.    Her design is known throughout the world as an example of true American architectural excellence.  People will always go to see great works of art. The Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Vatican will draw crowds in perpetuity.   So too, will The Wall. It is the most visited Memorial because it is, simply, an incredible and amazing work of art.  The Wall evokes emotion and remembrance.

The final project is the Education Center at The Wall–  The Center will have within it photos of the casualties from Vietnam.   We now have over 30,000 of the pictures that we will need.  In the Center, we will also includes, the photographs of those lost in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Every day these soldiers will be honored at The Center, which will become a spiritual place for those who have fought in these wars.

Some of the 250,000 items will be on display.    The items will all relate to values explored through the exhibits.  Values like Duty, Honor, Service, Courage and Integrity are integral to America’s Armed Forces.  The Center will elevate service.  People will be encouraged to become involved in their local communities.

Visitors will have the chance to receive a Dog Tag, or perhaps a Challenge Coin, with the name of a soldier who gave his or her life.  The person who accepts the coin will be challenged to do an act of civic virtue in the visitor’s home town- maybe planting a tree or standing up to the school yard bully.  An organization like Points of Light could provide a variety of volunteer opportunities.  This is quite a legacy for Americans who never lived to see their 21st birthday because of their love of country and willingness to fight the nations battles in places like Hue, Fallujah or Kandahar.