2008-09 Gathering of Voices

Our Brothers Will Live Forever

Johnny Runge

In the movie Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, we observe some of the initial negative reactions Maya Lin, at the time a young, architectural student at Yale University, was subjected to following the release of her design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Critics often connected their judgment to the person Maya Lin and thus interpreted the Wall’s meanings based on her ethnicity, gender, age and experience. However, the design - and the very purpose of the memorial – was meant to allow an individual interpretation of the war; Lin’s ambition was to provoke visitors to explore their deepest emotions in order to heal. Instead, the neutrality of the Wall caused a wide range of political and social interpretations. One veteran insisted on interpreting the dark color of the Wall as a symbol of the process of the war. Others perceived the Wall’s refusal to rise above the earth as a symbol of defeat, while people interpreted the V-shaped plan in various ways from declaring that it contained an anti-war statement to considering it standing for victim, victory, veteran, violate, valor and some even found it symbolizing the female womb, declaring that the memorial celebrated women.

In her essay “The Wall, the Screen and the Image,” Marita Sturken argues that the discussions and negative reactions were a result of the Wall being placed at the center of a struggle between narratives: on one side, there was historical attempt to rewrite history and focus on the great power of our country and then; on the other side, there was a focus on remembering American soldiers and an opportunity for those affected by the war to seek, speak and understand love, pain and futility (501).

Sturken states that “the importance of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial lies in its communicability, which in effect has mollified the incommunicability of the veterans’ experiences”(493). The soldiers will, although participating in the same war and maybe even the same battles, have a different understanding of their experiences and thus their memories and losses may influence them differently. These different memories, influences and interpretations are what Sturken refers to as the incommunicability of the war. The end of the Vietnam War didn’t offer the soldiers a mutual understanding, nor a victorious outcome of their struggles, but instead left them alone, one by one, with their own individual experiences and memories – and thus left them with difficulties in communicating with others about their struggles. The memorial has, however, arguably worked to address this problem by focusing on aspects such as neutrality, individuality, remembrance and dynamic.

As the title The Wall, the Screen and the Image suggests, one of these major aspects of the memorial evolves around the black surface which causes a reflection, allowing the visitor to see his own image. Thus, the memorial does not tell the official story of society, nor the story which is presented in the history books. Instead, it allows the visitor to seek and explore their own personal stories, to participate in the process of never forgetting, and therefore in an extraordinary way allows the individual to confront difficult issues.

Lin says in the beginning of the movie that she wanted people to go to the Wall, touch the names of their relatives or friends, and feel the pain. She states that “death is a personal matter.” Thus, according to Lin, a memorial should not revolve around politics, but instead focus on the people involved in the war: the soldiers, the people left behind – the Americans and their destinies, sorrows and their search to heal the wounds. Lin states:

"I thought about what death is, what a loss is. A sharp pain that lessens with time, but can never quite heal over. A scar. The idea occurred to me there on the site. Take a knife and cut open the earth, and with time the grass would heal it. As if you cut open the rock and polished it" (Campbell, Robert).

Thus, she created the memorial in a way opposed to the traditional memorial, the kind that tends to focus more on remembrance and the art of creating and writing history.

However, as a response to the initial negative reactions towards Lin’s design, it was – against her will – decided to place a more traditional memorial next to the Wall: a bronze statue called The Three Soldiers, showing three young men, dressed and armed for war. Frederick Hart, the designer and one of the strongest critics of Lin’s design, says in a press conference following the release of his design:

“There is about them the physical contact and sense of unity that bespeaks the bonds of love and sacrifice that is the nature of men at war. And yet they are each alone. Their strength and their vulnerability are both evident. Their true heroism lies in these bonds of loyalty in the face of their awareness and their vulnerability."

The Three Soldiers doesn’t set out to keep its neutrality, nor allow the individual to explore his or her own feelings. Instead, Hart’s statue contains a message about the heroism, the sacrifices and the strength among the American soldiers throughout the war. It attempts to write history – a history in which only one single truth seems to be acknowledged. Even though Hart singles out three individuals, he describes the experiences of societyand the country as a whole, without focusing on the many individuals, whose lives changed dramatically or ended during the war.

On the other hand, Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial contains no stories about the society, no reports of political aspects of the war, no subtle messages. Nothing. Only the thousands and thousands of names etched on the dark surface – and the reflections and images of those left behind.

Of course, the wall is not completely free of bias, politics, and history. As Sturken points out, the wall indeed constructs history because all decisions and priorities exclude other aspects. For example, the memorial only lists the death of American soldiers and thereby excludes the struggles and suffering among the Vietnamese people. “Thus, remembering is in itself a form of forgetting,” Sturken writes.

Over the years, another aspect has been added to the memorial: people have intentionally left possessions, which are now culturally categorized as historical artifacts.The manager of the archive responsible for maintaining the memorial writes:

“These are no longer objects of the Wall, they are communicators, icons possessing a subculture of underpinning emotion. They are products of culture, in all its complexities. They are the products of individual selection. With each object we are in the presence of a work of art of individual contemplation. The thing itself does not overwhelm our attention since these are objects that are common and expendable. At the Wall they have become unique and irreplaceable, and, yes, mysterious” (498).

The artifacts add an anonymous, mysterious, and ambiguous aspect to Lin’s design, reinforcing her original intention to create a living, dynamic memorial, which through the dark reflecting surface continuously developed and told new stories through its interaction with visitors. The artifacts left at the Wall emphasize this aspect of her masterpiece, constantly telling new stories and thus reinforcing itself. Lin intentionally focuses on the importance of involving the visitors in an ongoing process, where the purpose and messages within the memorial constantly changes and is redefined according to the needs of the visitors. “You make it come alive,”she says in a speech following the release of her Civil Rights Memorial, where the visitor can touch the water and change the stream of it. Thus, symbolically, one can argue that the American people have the power and authority to defend fundamental values in our society.

The Wall as well as the Civil Rights Memorial is not telling history; instead it is creating history, by provoking people to tell and explore their stories about the most important aspects of life: friendship, love, pain and futility. The Wall thus arguably exists beyond time and space. It allows the visitor to wander into their past, observing the memories of their lives, participating in the process of never forgetting, in a place “…where, by implication, the dead are present”(497). The memorial is a mysterious link which connects two different places, two different times. A meeting point between people whose destinies turned out differently. One of the many letters left in front of the Wall says:

“Dear Sir: For twenty-two years I have carried your picture in my wallet. I was only eighteen years old that day we faced one another on that trail in Chu Lai, Vietnam. Why you didn’t take my life I’ll never know. You stared at me for so long, armed with your AK-47, and yet you didn’t fire. Forgive me for taking your life, I was reacting just the way I was trained, to kill VC” (496).

Thus, the memorial doesn’t only serve the purpose of not forgetting. The unique design also offers people the opportunity to confront personal issues, to face and understand their pain in order to heal. One can argue that the Wall somehow makes a connection between our physical lives and the more abstract element in our lives – the aspect we are not sure we understand, yet we often refer to as our souls. It shows the real strength of art: the ability to let us keep our physical existence, even after our death. At the end of the movie, the Veterans acknowledge this fact by commenting that through the memorial “Our brothers will live forever!”

Works Cited

Campbell, Robert, “An Emotive Place Apart,” A.I.A. Journal, May 1983, p. 151.

Dir. Frieda Lee Mock, Perf. Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, Ocean Releasing, 1994.

Sturken, Marita, “The Wall, the Screen and the Image,” Making Sense: Constructing Knowledge in the Arts of Sciences, Ed. Bob Colerman, Rebecca Brittenham, Scott Campbell, and Stephanie Girard. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006, Second Edition, p. 482-502.

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