On May 6th, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) announced the names of five American servicemen that were being inscribed on the black granite walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (The Wall), and will be read for the first time on this Memorial Day, at 1 p.m. In addition, the designations of eight names are being changed from missing in action, signified by a cross, to confirmed dead, symbolized by a diamond. The criteria and decisions for being included on The Wall are set by the Department of Defense. With the additions, the total number of names inscribed (killed or remaining missing in action) is 58,272.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund was established in 1979 by a group of veterans led by Jan Scruggs, and, over the years, has been “dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D. C., promoting healing and educating about the impact of the Vietnam War.” In July 1980, President Jimmy Carter authorized the Fund to build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on a site near the Lincoln Memorial in Constitution Gardens. The Fund explains that the resulting monument “was built to honor all who served with the U. S. armed forces during the Vietnam War. It has become known as an international symbol of healing and is the most-visited memorial on the National Mall.”
The Memorial consists of more than the well known Wall that was designed by Maya Ying Lin. The other sites for remembrance are the Flagpole that was installed in 1983 around which the emblems of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard are displayed; the Three Servicemen Statue, designed by Frederick Hart and dedicated in 1984; the Vietnam Women’s Memorial designed by Glenna Goodacre and dedicated in 1993; and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commemorative Plaque, also called the “In Memory Plaque, ” dedicated in 2004 to honor veterans who died after the war as a direct result of injuries which were incurred in Vietnam, but do not qualify for inclusion on The Wall. An education center is being planned.
The names of American military casualties of the Vietnam War are the core element of the Memorial. The initiators wanted to insure that those who were sacrificed would not be forgotten. Inscribed in the black granite, the names are a powerful symbolic expression, which brings many visitors to tears. Among the current 58,272 engraved names are the ones of those designated as missing. Not included are veterans who were casualties of Agent Orange, an herbicide considered carcinogenic by many, the victims of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder related suicides and the fatalities among non U. S. military personnel. The memorial also leaves unnamed millions of Vietnamese military and civilian casualties inflicted by all sides during the war. Statistics on Vietnamese casualties are spotty at best, in part because North Vietnam wanted to conceal the hardships it was enduring, and in part because the narratives that have been told in the United States have been focused on Americans, not the Vietnamese.
Notwithstanding this lack of inclusiveness, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial may be considered a gateway and turning point in Vietnam War meaning and memory making. With the creation of the Memorial, a memory block was eliminated, and an outpouring of remembrances and representations ensued. The discussions that led up to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the approval process, the building of the memorial, and the visitations to the memorial helped legitimize more open public discussions about and representations of the war, providing a stimulus for personal, interpersonal, collected and collective memories about the Vietnam War. A proliferation of Vietnam War contributions appeared in the media, popular culture, art and academic works.
The project to build a memorial came to fruition through a bottom up approach to civic action. It emerged from kitchen table politics, an example of the “politics of small things” as Goldfarb puts it. While the design elements of the Memorial have been controversial over the years, they have been implemented to accommodate competing memories associated with the Vietnam War and the need to heal relative to continuing divisions. Associational activities inspired by individual contributors with a vision yielded the creation of the memorial, revealing many competing memories associated with it. Approving, funding, creating, building, opening, maintaining, commemorating, and facilitating visiting and accessing the Memorial helped open the creative flows of Vietnam War representations that followed, and influenced the reception of them.
Small things matter relative to the establishment of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial including: the personal initiatives of Jan C. Scruggs, president and founder of the VVMF, to establish the Memorial; the leadership of Diane Carlson Evans to create the Vietnam Women’s Memorial; and the thousands upon thousands of personal actions of individuals who have left behind objects at The Wall which have been preserved by the National Parks Service.
“When people freely meet and talk to each other as equals, reveal their differences, display their distinctions, and develop a capacity to act together, they create power,” Goldfarb maintains about the politics of small things. In this instance, the power developed into associational efforts to help shape memories of the Vietnam War and heal a nation.