Most of the time, our remembrances of those who have fought in wars are characterized by respect for bravery and sacrifice and ambivalence about the existence of these wars in the first place. I don’t know whether it’s actually true that previous generations didn’t feel quite so much ambivalence, though that is the story we are told: World War I and World War II were seen as “necessary” and “moral,” whereas once the United States launched itself into Vietnam, and, more recently, the Middle East, our government has had less clear and lofty purposes.
In the U.S., civilians have been sheltered for a long, long time from the brutal day-to-day realities of war. We haven’t had an official war on U.S. soil since the Civil War ended in 1865, and nearly eighty years had already passed when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 and then landed troops in the Aleutian Islands the following summer. Seventy years have now passed since then, with only 9/11 as a major attack on U.S. soil.
But, as Edna St. Vincent Millay once noted in an untitled poem, “Peace / Is the temporary beautiful ignorance that War / Somewhere progresses.”
Indeed, much of the world is caught up in war on any given day.
In my own family, on this day, we honor the memory of my grandfather, Robert Kelly Roney, Jr., who fought was sent to North Africa, then Europe, during World War II and came home full of shrapnel that remained in his body for the duration of his life. He did not often tell the story of his shrapnel, at least not to me. In our family, the women were “protected” from these details.
On the other hand, he would sometimes tell the story of the deceit and betrayal that he experienced at home before his service and after his return from the battlefield in the figure of his father-in-law and employer, Edgar, more commonly referred to in the Southern way by the initials E.A.. While R.K. was gone to the front, E.A.’s vegetable canning factory was investigated for nefarious practices. As part of the “war effort,” the canning company provided a certain portion of its goods to the military—to be shipped overseas as rations or used in bases to feed training soldiers. My grandfather had managed the factory before his departure, and it appalled him to later learn that his father-in-law had established the practice of sending cans filled with water, devoid of food.
R.K. would shake his head when he told this story, and you could always see his amazement at the idea that a soldier in the field might open one of these cans hungry, perhaps very hungry, and remain that way. As a veteran himself, he felt this at a personal level. It was as if his own father-in-law had left him to starve on the battlefield.
Perhaps that was precisely what E.A. hoped—that somehow R.K. would see a familiar can label in the mess hall or trenches and then find nothing. The two of them had been in conflict for some time—over a woman. I didn’t understand the implications of the story for many years, but many’s the time that R.K. would tell us the tale of how, one night as he worked late in the office of the plant, pouring over the books, his pencil rolled off the desk. He leaned down to the floor to retrieve it when a bullet smashed through the window and whirred over his head.
“It must have been just a warning,” he would grin at my brother and me, “because it was only the one shot. But I lay on the floor for quite some time waiting for more.”
We would gasp at the excitement of it, never fully comprehending the breadth and depth of the story. The canning factory would burn to the ground in time to make the investigation about the empty cans moot, my grandfather would suspect insurance-fraud arson by his father-in-law, my grandfather and great-grandfather would part ways, and my grandparents’ marriage would break irrevocably and forever apart.
My grandfather would nod at us and warn us about the wars at home, but not about the wars overseas. Later, when my brother grew up, they would share some war story sessions, but not me. I was left with the domestic discord.
Perhaps that is one reason why the story of Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial so stirred me when I was a young woman studying art in college. It’s hard to imagine now the uproar that greeted the news when her design, selected as the best from the 1,442 submissions, was revealed to have been created by a 21-year-old female—one of Asian descent and one still an undergraduate student (albeit at Yale). By now much of the ugly outrage, though mentioned, has been sanitized in writings about the memorial, but in the early 1980s—both after the design selection was revealed and after the memorial was built and opened to public view in 1982—the memorial stood to harsh criticism, racist and sexist commentary, and a deep questioning of what the purpose of a war memorial is.
Perhaps most importantly, several veterans groups spoke out to the effect that the memorial constituted one more insult to their service in a war that the nation had ultimately turned against. Instead of honoring the dead, they felt that its underground structure indicated shame and an attempt to erase their honorable service. (This video is clearly a student project, and flawed, but contains one of the best overviews I could find and the second half shows some footage of the vitriol and misunderstanding to which Lin and her design were subjected.) This was the cause of the inclusion of the more traditional figurative statue that stands behind and off to the side of the Wall memorial. The Three Soldiers statue was added to appease those who wanted a more “heroic” monument. Even that became a battle, as its proponents insisted it should be placed above Lin’s Wall, at its apex, which would have completely defeated her artistic vision of a wound in the earth that would represent the solemnity of the loss of soldiers’ lives. Fortunately, Lin prevailed.
By the time The Three Soldiers was completed and unveiled in 1984, and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in 1993, they had taken on an appropriate secondary role. Maya Lin’s work of landscape art had won over almost all who experienced it first-hand, and it has over the years evoked the most amazing response of any war memorial on earth.
I will never forget my first visit to the Wall, shortly after its installation. I remember approaching it along a sidewalk through the park setting of the Mall, past the Washington Monument and through the peaceful green of the trees and grass. Gradually, I went down the long, sloping walk. At first, it felt simply as though I were passing a short retaining wall, but then I was down in the vee itself, the noises of the city dropping away to silence, the wall rising above me, the names shocking in their specificity, my face reflected back at me from the shining, black granite, the names imprinted on my face.
Even then, there were already offerings placed near these specific soldiers’ names. Even then, people searched for the names of their loved ones and caressed them when they found them. Even then, people wept over these names, and took rubbings of the names to take home. Even then people felt more connected to this memorial than to any of the stately ones scattered nearby and towering over the pathways and picnics. This memorial took my breath away. I felt as though I myself had died and was being buried along with every one of the men and women listed there.
The Wall taught the country that it was not the individual veterans who should be held accountable for any war, whether a just or unjust one. It changed our discourse about war and its effects, it publicly personalized the act of memorialization, forced us to face the complexities of a national politics reliant on a background of war. It did a lot, perhaps more than any other single piece of art in the contemporary world, while at the same time demonstrating clearly that gender and ethnicity (and even youthfulness) were not determinative of power or understanding. Alas, it could not also bring about the end of the institution of war itself.
May we all honor those who have served, while at the same time supporting efforts to find another way of negotiating our world.
* * *
It’s difficult to find a good video online that summarizes the impact of Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial. The one I featured above is from the 25th anniversary of the memorial. There also exists a good full-length documentary, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, directed by Freida Lee Mock and released in 1994.
This video uses some clips from that film to talk about a PBS veterans storytelling project.
Here, there’s a pastiche of several parts of Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, with great commentary on the memorial. Goes on to discuss other memorials that Lin has designed, including the Civil Rights Memorial.
This one is a tour through the memorial site on a very cold day. Not professionally made, but a good overview if you’ve never been there. It’s even interesting that the wind, so annoying in the early moments, dies down as the camera enters the deeper part of the memorial, clearly demonstrating its quieting effect.
The offerings left at the memorial are discussed here.
Three Pentagon-sponsored videos that relate to the memorial:
Part 1: about the history and effect of the memorial
Part 2: about veterans who embraced the memorial by designing an offering of a specially made Harley-Davidson motorcycle
Part 3: about schoolchildren visiting the memorial in recent years
A veteran describes the effect of the memorial, as well as Footnote’s development of a program to document veteran stories.