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Monday, November 14, 2022

November 14, 2022: Public Art: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial

[On November 13, 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was unveiled in Washington, DC. So for its 40th anniversary, I’ll AmericanStudy the Wall and four other unique examples of public art. Share your thoughts on these & any other public art projects you’d highlight!]

On two levels to why the controversial memorial is so important.

Collective memory has always been a serious issue when it comes to Vietnam veterans. As early as the late 1970s and early 1980s, that sizeable American community was seemingly being forgotten and ignored, most especially when it came to our governmental and societal unwillingness to address and help with their far too frequent struggles with issues like illness, mental health, homelessness, and more. Fictional Vietnam vet John Rambo’s moving final speech in First Blood (1982) highlights both those issues and this perception of a forgotten community very fully and powerfully. But that’s also an illustration of another layer to the collective memory problem: as pop culture texts started to push back and offer representations of Vietnam vets, they were just that, pop culture representations. Sometimes they were more thoughtful (I’m a big fan of Bruce Springsteen’s, shockingly), sometimes they were less so (what happened to John Rambo across that first film’s many, increasingly silly sequels, for example), but they were always cultural characters, not the lived experiences and identities of actual Vietnam vets (with occasional exceptions like Born on the 4th of July).

But in the same year that First Blood was in theaters, indeed just three weeks after that film’s October 22nd release, Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial was unveiled on the National Mall. Some veterans and politicians argued that the talented college student’s proposed design (which won a nationwide competition) was too depressing and/or didn’t pay sufficient tribute to the veterans, leading to the addition of Frederick Hart’s statue The Three Soldiers two years later. But I would argue precisely the opposite: I don’t know of any war memorial that pays more focused and specific tribute to soldiers themselves (rather than the broader ideas or shared myths about and behind the war in question, for example). The choice to include the names of every U.S. soldier who had been killed or gone missing in the combat, nearly 58,000 at the time (and the number has grown since), was to my mind an absolutely stunning way to focus visitors’ attention on not only that particular, tragic group, but also the more than 2.5 million U.S. servicemen and women who took part in the conflict. That is, seeing each and every one of these names likewise reminds us of all the other names, and makes it far more difficult to forget the service, sacrifices, struggles, and stories of all those veterans.

There’s another layer to that significance as well. I imagine I’ve written before in this space about one of my greatest frustrations with 21st century political rhetoric: the way the phrase “support the troops” has been coopted to mean “support our wars,” even though all too often (if not indeed inevitably) war means mostly very bad things for the troops. (This 2015 James Fallows column made that case very potently.) Far too much of the time, the answer to that from those who (like me) are generally opposed to wars has been to separate from these narratives overall, making it far more difficult for us to express any support for our troops in the process. But the Vietnam Veterans Memorial represents a perfect expression of a third way—a piece of public art that, it seems to me and others, does as a “gash on the landscape” offer a critique of the war itself; and yet one that at precisely the same time expresses the moving support for all of the troops, past and present, about which I wrote in the last paragraph. If that’s true, that would make this not only our best war memorial, but one of the most important pieces of public art in our history.

Next public art tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other public art projects you’d highlight?

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