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Americans love a hero, but for the Vietnam veteran there were no
heroes. The customary celebration for the returning warrior did not happen
this time. And so it was until one man, Jan Scruggs, began an effort to
raise support and funds for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
There was plenty of support of the concept of a memorial and the
money came in quickly. A competition was held and the winner, Maya Lin, a
young architecture student held firmly to the criteria of the competition.
The memorial must be non-political (no overt sign of support or opposition
of the war effort), it must not interfere with the existing monuments at
the site, it must be accessible for those in wheeled-chairs, it must
contain all the names of those killed as a result of the war. Over 1,400
entries were submitted for consideration.
Public art is often controversial and extremely valuable in
demonstrating the aesthetic stances that guide our appreciation and
acceptance of artforms. Such is the case with the Vietnam Veterans
Memorial. Everyone seems to have an opinion, some grounded in artistic
considerations, while many others have various values, not all aesthetic.
This resulted in the compromise of adding a second (and later a third)
monument to the design. This to did not come to pass without much
consideration and discussion. The issue of artist intent is certainly
valuable to this discussion, which may not always be the case for public
sculpture, but given that this is a national symbol, and the interpretation
of it is important, then the intent of the artist should be considered
along with the other viewpoints.
Students can be guided to address the issues confronting the VVM
committee. A presentation of the many sides to consider is well within the
understanding of students as young as fourth or fifth grades given direct
comparisons of the issue at hand. Some of these young students are capable
of identifying the underlying "problem" and able to give a reasonable
argument of the "reason why" a person may hold that view. Any or all of
the following list can be used to discuss the various viewpoints held by
people at the time of the proposed Memorial.
2. The ordering of the names
3. Sensation of descending into the earth
4. Political or non-political statement
5. Inclusion or not of patriotic symbols
6. Honor to those who died and/or honor to those who
7. Feminine or masculine aesthetic attributes
A brief discussion of each item is based on the collected articles.
Although there may be more possible views and interpretations than
presented here, this will serve to demonstrate the issues.
Maya Lin choose black granite because it is the only material that
can be highly polished to have the reflective quality, like a mirror. It
also would allow for the names to be inscribed and appear as white letters
on a black surface, thus making the names easily read.
The main argument against black was that black is a color of death,
sorrow and not ennobling such as white. Other monuments are white, it is
traditional to be in white. In addition, the material must come from
sources outside the United States and some felt that American materials
should be used on an American Monument.
ORDERING OF THE NAMES
The traditional method of listing names on a memorial is
alphabetical. This is thought to be for ease in locating the names of
individuals on the monument. Some also felt that this listing put the
individuals into a larger context, that of the greatest good, for the
sacrifices of life for one's country. This was not an individual sacrifice
but a society sacrifice.
The listing of the names by chronology brings to the Memorial the
sense of time and place and the relation those individuals who were killed
have to our own lives. Only two dates are listed on the Memorial, 1959,
the date the first death occurred and 1975, the last recorded death.
SENSE OF DESCENDING INTO THE EARTH
For some this experience was too close to the idea of burial and
death. This was a macabre and unacceptable thought, for others the Memorial
needed to be above ground in order to elevate the status of those who
served their country to the ultimate conclusion, their own life.
Maya Lin wanted the experience of walking through the Memorial to
be part of the journey the viewer must participate in to arrive at the
desired destination. That destination could be on a variety of levels and
repeated journeys may be necessary. For some, it seems as though it is a
journey not unlike the mythic search for the Underworld and being to come
into contact with a departed loved one.
POLITICAL OR NON-POLITICAL STATEMENT
The design of the Memorial is two intersecting wall at an angle of
about 130 degrees. This creates a "V"-shaped appearance. During the war,
the "peace" sign or "Victory" sign was a common occurrence. To some, the
"V" angle of the Memorial is a clearly significant of anti-war sentiments.
One critic, suggests that the "V"-shape is in fact a chevron-shape.
Either way their can be made an argument of political or military symbolism
here. Others felt that the abstract nature of the monument did not hold
enough "meaning" for the veterans to associate it and the war.
INCLUSION OR NOT OF PATRIOTIC SYMBOLS
Many veterans felt that the presence of the American flag was
essential to complete the design. After all, it was that idea of country
that brought those soldiers to their untimely end and they rightful
deserved to have the flag flying freely, honoring the ideal for which they
But under the guidelines of the competition, references to political
symbols could be literally interpreted to mean patriotic as well.
HONOR TO THOSE WHO DIED AND/OR TO THOSE WHO RETURNED
Veterans, those who returned and whose honor is in question, sought
to bring the same dignity they felt that veterans of previous wars held to
themselves. The guidelines of the competition stated that the names of all
who were killed must be included in the Memorial. The question of honor,
while a philosophical one, lead to the compromise of the additional statue.
It was actually a small concession, after the final location was
determined, to ensure that the honor of all who served was retained.
FEMININE OF MASCULINE ATTRIBUTES
Gender issues were not large ones originally, but over time and
with the acceptance of feminist (or masculine) viewpoints, this is another
possible stance in which to discuss the Memorial. The nonthreatening,
passive qualities were labeled as feminine and were discussed during the
initial discussions, but soon fell by the way side as stronger views
In addition to discussion of these seven concepts, the mood and
significance of the work is also unavoidable. An air of reverence and
quiet respect does become quite evident to anyone visiting the Memorial.
Although some may pass by in an unreflective manner, it is obvious that for
others this is not the case. The unrestricted urge to touch the names,
especially of names special to the visitor is almost overwhelming and
certainly encouraged by the provision of commemorative slips on which a
rubbing of the name can be made. The small, personal tokens of remembrance
are also very special and somewhat unique to this Memorial. It does seem
that this Memorial, more than other memorials, holds a special place near
and dear to the American heart.