Although controversial in its inception, Maya Lin's Vietnam War Memorial adequately fulfills the vision of Jan Scruggs, who returned home wounded from the conflict in Southeast Asia at the age of 19, for a monument to his fallen comrades in arms that would "provide a symbol of acknowledgement of the courage, sacrifice, and devotion to duty of those who were among the nation's finest youth."1
Lin's work, unlike most previous military monuments, rejects the emphasis on heroics in favor of a poignant, contemplative, apolitical design which conveys an almost unbearable sense of loss. Simple, graceful, and abstract, the design specified two 246.75 foot long walls of polished black southern India granite, set below grade and connected at a 125 degree angle.2 Each segment of the wall is composed of 70 panels. At their intersection, the walls are 10.1 feet high and they taper down to a height of 8 inches at their extremities.3 The largest panels have 137 lines of names.4 The smallest panels have just one line. Each line consists of five names, which were sandblasted into the polished surface by hand, rather than cut into it with machine tools.5 Currently, the monument wall lists the names of 58,175 members of the armed forces who were confirmed killed or listed as missing in action during the Vietnam War.6
Although the complete listing of the names of those killed in action or missing in action, the horizontality, reflectivity, and subdued, un-heroic and apolitical tone were more or less mandated by the memorial's sponsors, Lin's one genuine innovation was to list the dead and missing chronologically, rather than alphabetically, that latter being the accepted norm in military monuments. Lin quotes the purpose of the memorial: "The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a geode,I envision it not as an object inserted in the earth but as part of the earth,a work formed
an interface between the world of light and the quieter world beyond the names."7
The first causally of the war in 1959 is listed on the right-hand wall next to the vertex, while the last casualty of the war in 1975 is listed at the bottom of the rightmost column of the left-hand wall. Thus, the first seems to follow the last, and this was intended by Lin to symbolize the closure of the conflict that the Vietnam War Memorial truly represents.
Early detractors of Lin's design often referred to it as a "black gash of shame."8 Vocal veterans groups opposed to the design of the monument took exception to virtually every aspect of Lin's conception; from the color of the granite and the below-grade aspect to the austere simplicity of the whole. Some groups saw a social agenda in the very concept that this would be a "war monument" 9 which would be devoid of such heroic glorification of armed conflict in a purposeful effort to downplay the war so that the sacrifices of the warriors could be truly fully honored. Maya Lin defenses her creation: "The design evokes feelings thoughts and emotions
It does not scream anything.It is strong in its understatement. It is strong in it simplicity. It is no a banner's blaring. It is not loud. I do not think it makes it less beautiful. It is different."10
What some veterans groups wanted was a monument to the Vietnam War in the image of the Iwo Jima monument on the other side of the Potomac River.11 What they got was a powerful monument that honors the sacrifice of those who truly gave their all. In the 24 years that have passed since the completion of the Vietnam War Memorial, most of the controversy surrounding the original concept has subsided. This is due in large measure to the powerful impact that this work of art has on the vast majority of the thousands of people who view it every day, and in a smaller measure to the fact that the "Monument" now consists of more than Lin's original wall and also includes Fredrick Hart's Three Soldiers (which honors those who fought in the Vietnam War and lived),12 as well...
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