Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial - A Monument to Hubris

I had always wanted to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial because it strikes me as being one of the most moving legacies to the futility and mass sacrifice of war.

Just as there is a long and twisted saga to the Vietnam War there is a tale behind this stark wall that contains 58,272 names on reflective stone from Karnataka in India.

It was designed by Maya Lin, who won a design competition as an unknown 21-year-old architecture student, and immediately stirred up controversy.



James Watt, a Secretary of the Interior under Ronald Reagan, even denied it a building permit initially. James Webb, initially a supporter, said: "I never in my wildest dreams imagined such a nihilistic slab of stone."

The strength of the opposition led to a more conventional memorial - The Three Soldiers - being placed near to the Memorial Wall. Lin objected to an idea to place it near the entrance to the wall and a compromise was reached.

Like many other projects that are controversial at the time, the Wall has since become accepted as an institution, and is as integral part of the D.C. landscape as the Eiffel Tower - another project that caused an outcry - is to the Paris skyline. It evokes many feelings including starkness and solitude and there is much that is poignant about the reflections of trees and passing clouds on the names of the vanquished.

The Vietnam War is still is less comfortable fit. For a while I read widely about the Vietnam War in the vain hope of finding a justification. It became clear this was less a war of design and ideology than a slippery slope - as smooth as the wall itself - that dragged hapless American presidents deeper into the mire - leading to unspeakable horrors on both sides.

The veterans paid twice over - both in terms of the physical and psychological trauma they faced and the fact they were shunned and mistreated when they returned home from the misplaced war that America lost. The wall is stark but its most powerful aspect is the sheer volume of names in small type that run away to a distant vanishing point. This is less a monument as a warning about futility, the dangers of stubbornness and why we should always question the motives of those in the faceless offices and big mansions before heading blindly into the jungle.


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