Building the Wall

The following is an article from Uncle John's Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader.

Today, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is one of the most popular memorials in the United States, but at the time it was conceived it was so controversial that it's a wonder it got built at all.


One evening in March 1979, Jan Scruggs went to see The Deer Hunter, a movie about a group of friends who go off to fight in the Vietnam War. Scruggs had served in Vietnam, and the movie upset him so much that he sat up all night drinking whiskey to dull the pain. But something good came from the experience, too: Scruggs decided he wanted to try and get a memorial built for Vietnam veterans, to honor their sacrifices and aid in the healing process. In April he and an attorney friend, also a Vietnam vet, founded the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund to raise money to build the monument.


After a slow start, the memorial fund began to make progress. More veterans joined the efffort, the money started coming in, and legislation setting aside three acres on the Mall in Washington, D.C. for the memorial sailed through both houses of Congress. Jimmy Cater signed the bill into law on July 1, 1980.

As fundraising continued, the organization announced that the design for the memorial would be chosen in a national contest. Any U.S. citizen over the age of 18 was eligible to enter. The deadline for entry was March 31, 1981; the winning design would be chosen by a jury of eight architects, sculptors, and other professionals in May. For an entry to be considered, it had to meet four criteria: 1) It had to be "reflective and contemplative" in nature; 2) It had to fit in with its surroundings on the Mall; 3) It had to contain the names of all U.S. personnel who died in the war or went missing in action; and 4) It could not make a political statement about the war.

In all, 4,241 people entered designs. The entries were identified by number only to prevent the judges from knowing who was responsible for each design. It took them four days to winnow the entries down to 232 and then to 39 and then to 1, entry number1,026. That entry had been submitted by Maya Lin, a 21-year-old Yale architecture student who created it as a class assignment. (It got a B+). Her design won by unanimous vote.


Lin's design was simple and stark: Two long black walls that met at a 125 degree angle. The walls were just over ten feet high where they met at the apex, and taper to just eight inches tall at the far ends.

The names are listed in columns in chronological order of when they fell in battle or went missing. They start in the center of the memorial and move rightward down the length of the east wall, then pick up again at west wall, ending back at the center, so that the last person killed in the war is listed not far from the name of the first person killed.

The walls are made of black granite that was especially chosen for its reflective quality. A path running along the memorial allows visitors to touch the names; when they do, their faces are reflected in the granite. (Lin was at Yale when the names of the school's Vietnam War dead were being carved into the wall of one of the buildings; she found that she could not pass the building without stopping to touch the names, and she thought visitors to this memorial would want to touch the names, too.)


Lin's design has since become one of the most popular war memorials in the country, if not the world. It's easy to forget how controversial it was when it was selected, not just because of what was included in the design, but because of what wasn't-there were no heroic statues, no patriotic verses carved in stone alongside the names, and no American flag. The name "Vietnam War" didn't appear anywhere on the wall, either. There was a wall. It had names carved in it-that was it.

People who were expecting something like the statue of the soldiers raising the flag on the Iwo Jima memorial were stunned. Members of the Memorial Fund were bitterly divided over the jury's decision; one member, a veteran named Thomas Carhart, called it an "open urinal" and vowed to stop it.


Opponents attacked every aspect of the design and saw conspiracies and hidden meanings behind many of the details:

The V shape? They thought it represented the two-fingered "peace" sign that had been popular with anti-war protesters. Actually, Lin chose an angle over a straight line so that the west wall would point toward the Lincoln Memorial, and the east wall would point toward the Washington Monument. That gave the memorial historical context while integrating it with its surroundings.

(Image credit: Flickr user im me)

The black granite? Critics said it was intended to symbolize shame; they wanted white granite instead. Lin chose black granite so that people would see themselves reflected in the names of their loved ones, providing a link between the past and present. White granite wouldn't show reflections, and since the site faced south and into the sun, it would have been blinding to visitors.

Opponents objected to the idea of the wall being sunk into the earth and approached by walking down a grade. But this was integral to the design-Lin wanted the memorial to appear as "a rift in the earth," representing the upheaval of war. Making the memorial lower than the surrounding landscape also sheltered it from surrounding noise, making it a quiet spot for reflection.


The opponents of the design also wanted the names to be listed in alphabetical order, not in the order in which the men (and eight women) died or went missing. many people also felt that the names should start at the far left of the memorial and end at the right. Lin explained that there were many duplicate names in the more than 58,000 people killed, including 600 people with the last name of Smith and 16 men named James Jones. When the family of one of those James Joneses came to honor his memory, how would they know which of the 16 names represented their loved one?

Having the name of the last person killed in the war meet at the apex with the first person killed, instead of listing names from left to right, symbolized "a wound that is closed and healing." It also prevented the monument from becoming a "bar graph of slaughter," reflecting the increasing death toll as America got pulled deeper and deeper into the war, followed by a decline in deaths when the United States began to pull out of Vietnam.

Lin's explanation of the thinking behind the design didn't make the opponents any happier, and they had a powerful friend in Secretary of the Interior James Watt. Watt saw the memorial as "an act of treason." He was the Reagan administrations official in charge of the National Mall, and he refused to allow construction to begin unless the planners agreed to put a flagpole on top of the wall and a statue in front of it, right at the apex. Lin complained that it would have turned the wall into little more than backdrop, and it would look like a putting green.

(Image credit: Flickr user Mountainbread)

Lin was only a college student at the time, but she held her ground against Watt and other powerful opponents: She refused to compromise on her design. Watt wouldn't give in, either, and the stalemate dragged on until Senator John Warner of Virginia, an early supporter of the monument, forced the two side into a compromise. In the end it was the opponents who blinked-they got their flagpole and a statue titled Three Soldiers, but they were placed at the entrance to the memorial, about 300 feet away from the wall. Lin wasn't happy with the compromise; she equated it with a vandal scrawling a mustache on a portrait. But at least the wall itself was protected.


The groundbreaking for the memorial took place on March 26, 1982; construction was completed in October, and the wall was dedicated on November 13. (President Reagan did not attend.) The wall will probably never be without controversy. Nevertheless, today it is one of the most popular memorials in the country, and more than three million people visit it each year. For those who cannot visit, a Vietnam veteran named John Devitt created The Moving Wall, a half-scale replica that he hauls around the country each year from April to November. That wall was so popular that he and other volunteers built a second wall and then a third that they take all over the country. These moving walls have been visited by tens of millions of Americans, about as many as have visited the genuine article in Washington, D.C.


*As of 2006, there were 58, 253 names inscribed on the wall, including approximately 1,200 that are listed as missing in action. Since the wall was completed, 226 new names have been added-most of them when the geographic criteria was expanded to include people who died outside the war zone but while in combat or in support of direct combat missions. Fifteen of the names are those of servicemen who have since died from wounds they received in Vietnam.

(Image credit: Flickr user lincolnblues)

*If you've visited the memorial, you probably noticed that each name on the wall has a symbol next to it. A diamond next to a name indicates that the person's death was confirmed. A cross means the person is missing an unaccounted for. (If a person's status changes from missing to confirmed dead, the cross is converted to a diamond.) If a person who is missing ever turns up alive, a circle will be drawn around their cross. As of July 2006, that has not happened once.

*Veterans who die from cancer related to exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange do not qualify to have their names inscribed on the wall, nor do veterans who commit suicide while suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

*Though the list of names was checked and re-checked several times before they were carved into the granite, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund estimates that the names of as many as 38 living veterans may be on the wall as the result of clerical errors.


(Image credit: Flickr user Alex Guerroro)

It wasn't long after the wall opened that people started leaving objects for their loved ones whose names appear on the wall: dog tags, letters, photographs; even food, cigarettes, and beer. Originally it was thought that these items should simply be disposed of, but when maintenance workers could not bring themselves to toss them out, the National Park Service started saving personal, non-perishable items. Park rangers collect and catalog the items each evening and send them to a facility called the Museum Resource Center in Maryland. So far the National Park Service has collected well over 60,000 items. A representative sample is displayed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.


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As a veteran, it is difficult to speak of The Wall without being gripped by emotion. The Wall serves as a portal to another place in time, a place where brothers at arms can remember and grieve, where women revisit the husbands or fathers they loved and lost, where children can be introduced to grandfathers they never knew. The black granite walls heal, teach and mourn but most of all they remember. Why is that so important? Veterans know a soldier is never truly dead until he is forgotten.
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Foreign nationals who served with US forces in Vietnam are not included. Canadian Vietnam veterans who served with US forces (Canada did not participate)and were killed or missing in action, are memorialized at the Canadian Vietnam War memorial on the shores of the St. Clair River in Windsor, Ontario, directly across from Detroit.

I should note that it was American Vietnam veterans who recognized the gap and worked to see that their Canadian brothers were not forgotten.
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Maya Lin has amazing vision. When I heard the controversy about the design, I thought it was going to be just another silly, avant garde public art installation that subtly mocked the war. Instead, it turned out to be most evocative memorial in the world.
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It's a real tribute to the artist's genius that this memorial is one of the most popular in the United States. though I do wonder if it's just a generational thing that will pass with time.

Either way, great article.
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