Tucked quietly away amidst a copse of trees on the northwest corner of the National Mall in Washington is a structure that I believe embodies the essence of Memorial Day.
There, you will find the “Wall,” the oldest of three monuments that, together, comprise the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (the other two are the “Three Servicemen” sculpture and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial).
A native Marylander, I first visited the Wall shortly after it opened in 1982 and have returned many times since. The experience is never a pleasant one. I often leave saddened, frustrated and angry.
But, that is exactly the point. More so than any other monument, the Wall’s essential design pushes its viewer to confront, on a decidedly personal and individualized level, the sacrifice that it signifies. It forces you, the audience, to feel the tremendous loss of the Vietnam War — even if you have no direct connection to that conflict.
The Wall’s unique power stems from the utter simplicity of architect Maya Lin’s design. Comprised of a pair of 246 foot-long, polished, black-granite walls that sink on an angle into the ground of the National Mall, it offers the viewer only a list of over 58,000 service members who either lost their lives in the Vietnam War or who are designated as missing.
There is nothing else. There are no placards offering commentary or historical context. There are no visual flourishes or other adornments. There are no pictures. There are no sculptures. Nothing. Just the names of the dead and the missing — and whatever mementos, flowers or other objects have been left in tribute by that day’s visitors.
The names on the Wall are arranged chronologically. So, as you walk along, you see — quite literally — the human cost of the war rising, for the farther you go, the higher the Wall gets. When you reach the point where its two sides intersect, the structure stands over 10 feet high. And with the earth lurking behind the granite panels, you, the viewer, are now essentially underground — buried like the dead whose names the Wall carries. You share their fate.
That connection is further reinforced by the inherent quality of the stone itself. Because the black granite is highly polished, it is reflective. So, as you look at the Wall, you see not only the inscribed names, you also see yourself. Your face becomes superimposed over the dead and the missing.
Paul Dombrowski, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Central Florida who has written extensively on ethics-related issues, notes the undeniable power of this effect: “the contrast is striking. In this way the observer literally as well as morally faces herself or himself as a result of facing the names of each of the dead. As a result the observer feels both attached to and ethically responsible for that other person and for that death.”
The ethical responsibility that Dombrowski speaks of is what lies at the heart of Memorial Day. We have a duty and a moral obligation to those who have given their lives in the service of this country to embrace the shared humanity that is simultaneously etched into and reflected by the Wall.
We must recognize the ties that bind us all as people — ties that transcend race, creed, color, gender, country, or whatever other designations we may choose to apply — because by doing so, we take the first steps down the long and difficult road that leads toward the establishment of a lasting peace.
Committing ourselves to finishing that journey is the greatest honor that we, the living, can pay to the dead and their sacrifice.
Dr. Steve Severn is the chair of the English Department at Middle Tennessee State University. From 1991 to 1996, he served as a commissioned officer in the Navy’s Nuclear Power Program. The majority of his time on active duty was spent aboard the USS Arkansas, a nuclear-powered cruiser stationed on the West Coast. As a member of the ship’s company, he completed a six-month deployment to the Persian Gulf in 1994.