Of all the memorials on the National Mall, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is perhaps the most controversial of all. Just might as well … as the US suffered it’s only defeat in a war with pulled out from it’s involvement in Vietnam without achieving its objectives. The US got involved in Vietnam to stop the march of communism from China down to South East Asia. However, the country used the wrong strategy to fight the communist north and thought that sheer firepower will ultimately win the war.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is actually made up of three sections … the Three Soldiers sculpture, the Vietnam Women’s memorial and the most famous of all the Memorial Wall. The Memorial Wall is made up of two walls gradually sunken to the ground from one side and rising from the other.
Believe it or not, the Vietnam Memorial is designed by a 21 year old Arts student. You see, when they organized a competition for the design of the memorial, they made one decision … and that is all designs are to be identified by a number and the artist name is not revealed. It so happened that the design of the young artist was chosen over many other big names. Many believe that this design would not have been chosen if the artist name was made known.
The design of the Vietnam Memorial is very symbolic but controversial. In the beginning, not many people is willing to accept the design as they deem it to be not traditional enough as a memorial. The bickering went to and fro until a compromise is made — and that is they will include an additional traditional memorial to the Memorial Wall. The addition is called the Three Soldiers.
The Three Solders are designed to depict a white, black and Hispanic soldier who fought side by side during the war. The artist of the Memorial Wall was so incensed with the addition of the Three Soldiers that she refused to attend the dedication of this memorial.
On the wall are the names of over 58,000 Americans who were killed or missing in action during the Vietnam War. The names are etched in chronological order according to the date of death. The first name started in 1959 from the left and ends in 1968 on the other end.
There are directories in the parks that you could look up the names on the wall. Since the names are sorted by death chronically order, looking for a name out of 58,000 would be quite impossible. From the directory, you’ll find the panel where the name appears.
For instance, the above is Panel W17 which says that it’s on the west wall and panel 17. There are a total of 70 panels in all.
The names are sandblasted on a type of highly reflective black granite — almost like a mirror. It is chosen because the reflection sort of bring the present and the past together for those who stands in front of the wall.
There are only names … no ranks are shown.
As I mentioned, there are two walls … one points to the Washington Monument and the other points to the Lincoln memorial. It tapers off towards both ends and that symbolizes a gaping wound that the nation had to endure. One other interpretation says that from one end to the other symbolizes from the opening of a wound to the closing and healing of it.
Whatever they mean, the memorial is simple but moving. Everyone walks the path along the wall with silence.
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The Vietnam Veterans Memorial consists of two more pieces, a flagpole that was not part of the original design and a plaque that honors those who died after the war from indirect causes, as PTSD and exposure to toxic chemicals, specifically Agent Organge.
I’m one of the volunteers who works on the web site named The Virtual Wall (TM) at http://www.VirtualWall.org
Oops, I forgot in my earlier note… Ben wrote “the US suffered defeat in Vietnam”. That is a common misconception.
The US left Vietnam in March of 1973 after all parties signed the Paris peace accords. It was an orderly and scheduled withdrawal in peace, not a defeat or retreat. We left our allies, the military forces of the Republic of (South) Vietnam (RVN) on their own.
All US forces left except a small number of Marines guarding the US Embassy.
In May, 1975, communist forces of North Vietnam swept south, overpowering the RVN forces. The picture that many think shows people leaving the US Embassy is that of an Air America helicopter on the roof of the Pittman apartment building several blocks form the embassy.
The US military had been gone for two years, they did not retreat and the US did not “suffer defeat.”
Ben, please revise your site with the correction that JimVetran wrote.
We did not retreat nor were we defeated.
I am sorry for not responding earlier as I was away for the past week. Somehow, I felt it meant a lot to you that I set right the account of the US involvement in Vietnam. I must admit that my whole impression of how the Vietnam War ended was video images of how the whole war ended for the US. I vividly remembered how the US abandoned the US Embassy in a hurry by helicopters leaving many South Vietnamese who worked for the US to fend for their own. I also remembered how the image of a North Vietnamese tank crashing through the gate of the abandoned US Embassy. Those images gave me the impression that the US was defeated. I was wrong there.
I did a bit of research and also did find out a bit more of the official US account of events during my trip to Chicago where they also had a Vietnam War memorial. Indeed, the US was not defeated but the fact remains that the US initiated ceasefire talks with North Vietnam with the aim to retreat gracefully from a war the US know they can no longer win. After all, the US had 58K men who fought and gave their lives in the war and the objective to prevent the North taking over the South were eventually not met. OK, the US did not “suffer defeat”, and also did not retreat, as you wish. Anyway, appreciate your effort to set the records straight. I had updated this post to cancel out the words “suffer defeat”. Hope this helps.