Facing the Wall
We face the wall, beholding the names of the dead. We see ourselves on the smooth surface, our clothes rippled by the breeze, shading a space of chiseled names. Our reflections seem small at first -- pale and fleeting against the granite's dark permanence. This is a memorial, however, not a monument. Silence, sadness, a kind of timid wonder may fall upon us, but not because they are exacted by monumental size or grandeur or pretense. With time, in fact, we are enlarged, not diminished, in the presence of the wall. It draws us closer. Our reflections deepen. We feel an almost irresistible need to touch the letters cut in the gleaming, black granite. Offerings are placed along the base of the wall: a flower, a faded photograph, a poem scrawled on lined paper and secured by a rock, a pair of old jungle boots, a small statue of St. Francis, a figure of Buddha, a frayed shoulder patch of the First Infantry Division. Thousands of gifts are left at the wall, items ordinary and bizarre, some so obscure only the dead could know their meaning: a childhood toy, perhaps, or a lost bet made good; an inside joke about a certain long patrol in the A Shau Valley, a hated officer, or an R&R in Bangkok.
The Vietnam Memorial was built in 1982 to honor the 58,191 Americans in the armed forces who died in Southeast Asia from 1959 to 1975. Of course, it is more than that. It is also a site of profound cultural communication, a symbol of the war, and a repository of our nation's history. Yet the memorial thwarts those who would precisely define what the