Remembering Those Who Fell in Vietnam: A Rancorous Birth of a Place of Healing

August 31, 2017

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James Reston, Jr., A Rift in the Earth: Art, Memory, and the Fight for a Vietnam War Memorial (Arcade Publishing, 2017)

Americans still argue, if perhaps less passionately than in past decades, about the war their country fought in Vietnam. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, though, has been safely outside that argument for many years. For the millions of people who visit it each year and for the country as a whole, the memorial is overwhelmingly accepted as a place to remember the soldiers who fought and mourn those who died — and not a place to continue debating the war.

As James Reston Jr. reminds us in A Rift in the Earth, that was not always true. At the time the memorial was created, it was at the center of several years of bitter dispute reflecting deep disagreements about the war and how it should be remembered. The clash began almost immediately after the design, by an unknown 21-year-old undergraduate architecture student, was first unveiled in May 1981. Within days, Maya Ying Lin’s austere, abstract vision was vehemently attacked by critics who saw her plan as an insult to fallen heroes and wanted a more conventional patriotic monument.

For their part, Lin and the organizers of the design competition steadfastly maintained that — as was mandated by competition rules — her wall did not make any statement for or against the war, and that it was her opponents who wanted the memorial to take one side in the continuing national debate. The controversy ground on over many months while the memorial was built and dedicated.

In an attempt at compromise, the planning authorities agreed to install another structure, a statue by sculptor Frederick Hart of three soldiers rendered in more traditional style, and a flagpole flying the American flag. But that decision did not immediately dispel the hard feelings between Lin and her opponents. Instead, it led to more months of emotionally charged dispute over where the statue and flag should be placed.

As Reston shows, the argument was cultural, not just political: a continuation of the debate on Vietnam but also an “art war” between Lin’s abstract modernism and Hart’s classically inspired patriotic art. “Lin’s design is elitist,” Hart once said, “and mine is populist.” Race became an element, too, with some critics openly arguing that Lin, as an Asian-American, should not be involved in memorializing Vietnam veterans. That led to some nasty moments, as when one of Lin’s most prominent opponents declared that the inscription on the wall should say “designed by a gook.”

Reston, who was in the U.S. Army from 1965 to 1968 but did not serve in Vietnam, provides no major new revelations in retelling this story. But he tells it well — and at times movingly — with fairness and respect for both sides in the debate even while his own position (in favor of Lin’s design) is clear. The last chapter explains his connection with one of the names on the wall, an Army friend who was killed in the battle of Hue in January 1968 — a loss that made the memorial drama a piece of the author’s personal history as well as the nation’s.

A Rift in the Earth disappoints in one respect. While it is a workmanlike piece of storytelling, it is strangely deaf to the echoes that story raises when it is told today. Nowhere does Reston reflect on what the wall of names says to America in 2017 after a new era of unsatisfying and controversial wars, or its meaning for the new generation of veterans who fought those wars. Nor, although the link seems obvious, does he draw any connection between the “art war” he describes and today’s culture wars.

It is also worth noting that Reston’s account, like the memorial itself, treats the Vietnam War essentially as an American event, and measures its cost in American losses. Reading this book, I found myself wishing, as I have many times in the past, that the memorial did more to remind visitors and other Americans that their sacrifice represents only a small fraction of the tragedy of Vietnam.

A similar wall with the names of all the South Vietnamese soldiers who died — that is, our allies — would be more than three times as long as the wall in Washington. If it listed all the Vietnamese military and civilian dead on both sides,using conservative estimates, it would be somewhere between one and a half and two and a half miles long, perhaps 20 or more times longer than the existing memorial.  And if it added casualties in Laos and Cambodia, those would stretch on for another two or two and a half miles. Four or five miles of names — that would be the true measure of that war’s cost in human lives.*

Some awareness of that arithmetic, and some thoughts on the present-day resonance of the events it describes, could have made a much richer book. But even missing those reflections, A Rift in the Earth tells a story well worth reading, for those who remember the Vietnam era and those from later generations.

*One more reservation must be noted, not about the book’s content but its subtitle. The wall of names was conceived as a Vietnam Veterans Memorial, not a Vietnam War Memorial, as the subtitle incorrectly indicates. Those mean significantly different things, and it is baffling that the publisher (presumably) chose the wrong one to appear on the cover and title page. One hopes that error will be corrected in any future printings.

Arnold R. Isaacs is the author of Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy. A war correspondent in Vietnam from 1972 to 1975, he also wrote Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia, and the online report From Troubled Lands: Listening to Pakistani Americans and Afghan Americans in Post-9/11 America.

 

Image: National Park Service

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