Stale Glory

Thursday, February 22nd, 2007

“I thought about what death is, what a loss is. A sharp pain that lessens with time, but can never quite heal over. A scar.” — Maya Lin, speaking of her initial vision of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall

The most frequently visited and heart-tearing monument in Washington D.C. is nearing its 25th birthday, its place at the core of American life growing stronger with each passing year. This fact belies the early critics, who called it communist- (or Jane Fonda)-inspired, a black gash of shame, a public urinal, and howled in outrage that it was designed by . . . well, an Asian-American woman (but of course the term many people used was left over from the war, and much uglier).

More importantly, however, the Wall, which was meant to heal a national wound, not glorify a military adventure, signaled — as the critics instinctively understood — a new public attitude toward war, or perhaps more accurately, a public manifestation, at long last, of an ancient yearning for peace.

What the critics (living in a two-dimensional, us-versus-them world) failed utterly to grasp, however — and which has special bearing today as Democrats and Republicans alike grope for policy coherence that extricates us from the Bush administration’s disastrous war to promote terror — is that the Wall is non-ideological, or rather transcends ideology. It’s simply two sunken triangular wedges of black granite and 58,195 names.

These names are not symbols. They’re not abstractions. As Robert Frost famously observed, “Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak.” Accordingly, the names are not cheapened with any sentiment, any “glorification,” whatsoever. The result is something extraordinary.

“But it is the wall (rather than a nearby sculpture of three soldiers) that vets approach as if it were a force field,” Kurt Andersen wrote in Time magazine more than 20 years ago. “It is at the wall that families of the dead cry and leave flowers and mementos and messages, much as Jews leave notes for God in the cracks of Jerusalem’s Western Wall. … The visitors’ processionals do seem to have a ritual, even liturgical quality. Going slowly down toward the vertex, looking at the names, they chat less and less, then fall silent where the names of the first men killed (July 1959) and the last (May 1975) appear. The talk begins again, softly, as they follow the path up out of the little valley of the shadow of death.”

You can’t stroll casually along these 500 feet of names, nor, it seems to me, can you even hold onto your prior thoughts. The chiseled names, line after line, column after column, panel after panel, seem to whisper themselves until, at the 10-foot-high juncture of the two wedges, the whispers are as deafening as thunder. This is sheer phenomenon, as non-ideological an experience as standing under a waterfall.

“It was while I was at the site that I designed it. I just sort of visualized it. It just popped into my head. Some people were playing Frisbee. It was a beautiful park. I didn’t want to destroy a living park,” Lin, who at the time was a 21-year-old architecture student at Yale, said in a Washington Post interview. “. . . I just imagined opening up the earth.”

Her design was one of 1,421 submitted in the spring of 1981, in a blind competition, to a panel of architects and sculptors. She later said she’s certain she wouldn’t have won if her name had been attached to the design.

I guess not everything government-associated is a done deal. If it had been, the future could never have opened out of the earth behind the Capitol, and we’d be stuck with one more hollow monument to war, to be commandeered as needed to justify the next one.

George Bush, for instance, had no trouble hitting that tin note on the recent celebration of the first George W’s birthday: “George Washington’s long struggle for freedom has also inspired generations of Americans to stand for freedom in their own time,” he informed us. “Today, we’re fighting a new war to defend our liberty and our people and our way of life.”

Yeah, sure. The voice drones on, the listener’s soul deadens, the engines of war rev again. Stale glory requires fresh blood. But I’d be surprised if the next war were announced in the shadow of the Wall.