The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is inscribed with the names of more than 58,000 dead in chronological order. A database allows visitors to find a name and many take a rubbing as a memory of a loved one. Photo B Christopher / Alamy
Washington DC – Been There

Memorial to “the people everyone wanted to forget”

Photo by B Christopher

Washington DC – Been There Memorial to “the people everyone wanted to forget”

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is one of Washington DC's most visited sights, but its history is a controversial one.

Kieran Meeke
Kieran Meeke Travel Writer

The Memorial rises out of the earth bearing the names of more than 58,000 dead in chronological order. The first name is Dale Buis, who died in July 1959, the last Richard Vandegeer, who died in Cambodia in May 1975 – a week after the war officially ended. Buis was a major and Vandegeer was a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force, but no ranks appear on the wall; all are brothers in arms – and sisters: there are eight women. A symbolic V-shape, its polished black panels reflect back all the emotions laid before it.

Now one of the most popular features of the Mall, its construction was mired in controversy. Architecture student Maya Lin first presented the design as a college paper for which she was awarded a B+. Besides her being of Asian descent, the wall was also criticized for being black (memorials traditionally having been white) and for being dedicated only to the dead, rather than all who served. Artist Frederick Hart was later called in to sculpt the nearby figures of The Three Soldiers and these have now been joined by another trio in the Vietnam Women’s Memorial.

While I admire Hart’s work – and go later to the National Cathedral to see more of it – I am glad his sculpture was not placed at the apex of the wall as originally planned until Lin strenuously objected. It would have detracted from the striking simplicity.

The prominence of the whole is a long way from when the first site offered was at Arlington. “The idea of having all these names permanently displayed in Washington a few blocks from the White House, a block from the State Department, down the street from the U.S. Congress – to me, this was poetic justice,” said Jan Scruggs, the veteran who first had the idea for a Vietnam memorial.

“These were the people everyone wanted to forget. They wanted this whole thing to go away, and I didn’t want it to go away.”

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A Vietnam Service Medal and weathered Vietnam-era jungle boots are left at the base of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Such momentos, which have ranged from a teddy bear to a complete Harley-Davidson motorcycle, are gathered up every evening by the National Parks Service and carefully catalogued. Photo by Frédéric Reglain

Frédéric Reglain

Frédéric Reglain

Canon EOS-1D Mark III

Aperture
ƒ/4
Exposure
1/60
ISO
100
Focal
25 mm

A Vietnam Service Medal and weathered Vietnam-era jungle boots are left at the base of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Such momentos, which have ranged from a teddy bear to a complete Harley-Davidson motorcycle, are gathered up every evening by the National Parks Service and carefully catalogued.

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