There are places so powerful that they become part of life, part of your emotional geography. You experience them once, and they never leave you. To experience such a place can be exhilarating or it can be frightening because you know you will live with the memory forever. The Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC is one such place.
I grew up with the Vietnam War. The escalation in the mid-60s was frequently the top story of the evening news, and more importantly a central theme for the ’68 generation that several of my sisters belonged to. We knew the names of all the politicians both on the Vietnam and the US side, we knew the location of the battles, and I knew exactly what my sisters thought of the whole thing and of the American leaders behind it – LBJ, McNamara, Westmoreland. In the US, the War was at the center of a deep social conflict. In Europe, it was a symbol of the rebellion of a generation.
It was only several years after the end of the War that the public and authorities in the US agreed that the country needed a memorial for the men and women that died or went missing in that awful and hated war. Just like the war itself, the design and implementation was controversial. It was the project of a 21-year old student, Maya Lin, and nothing like the neo-classical designs of the existing monuments in Washington. Initially, the design did not include the names of the fallen and missing. They were added to the plans later under pressure from groups opposed to the stark design proposed by Lin. In addition, two traditional sculptures were added to soften the controversy of the dark, minimalist design. Whatever the memorial is today, I only remember the black V sinking into the ground, a gash.
I visited the memorial in the mid-1980s while living in DC. It was off to the side of the Mall, the central axis of the Washington memorials. I walked towards it without seeing much because not much shows; the structure is dug into the ground. As I approached, I felt the inevitable, downward slope. An oppressive silence enveloped the moment.
A couple of park rangers in their cartoon-like uniforms were there. A few veterans, too, not in good shape. They must have been there for some time. Homeless maybe. Dressed in an unsettling combination of military apparel, medals, jeans and t-shirts. Untidy beards, placards, stressed looks and voices, needing physical and possibly mental care. A few groups of families had gathered to look for names of loved ones. Many were rubbing a piece of paper with a pencil against a name on the wall hoping to bring home proof that the Nation cared about their ultimate sacrifice. The gesture felt desperate almost childish against the backdrop of the black wall and the depth of the V.
At the bottom of the slope, I found myself at the center of the V. There was no further to go. The V was deep here, the walls tall and forbidding. They drank the sunlight and left only shade and silence. However you approached the memorial, this was where you ended up driven by the topography of the site. You were moved down and down until you could not move any further. In the end, we were all at the dead-end, the bottom of this hopeless V.
It took effort to move away. It required confidence that there was hope beyond the pointless depth of the V. It required emotional energy to move away from the dark energy that drew us all to the center of the V.
I moved slowly up the slope, still along the wall. The fallen and missing stayed, their names immobile on the wall. I managed to move on and to pull myself out of this moment of paralysis and hopelessness. The black walls slowly lost their draw. I felt seen and loved again. The appetite for life returned. The pull of the slope towards the bottom of the V got weaker. I moved away, with a memory for life.