The Memorialization of the Vietnam War

“I could feel pulled toward this black wall and yet my feet didn’t want to move. I was so scared. I was afraid I would find your name on this wall and yet I was afraid that some mistake had been made and the name was left out. Then I saw it. My heart seemed to stop. I seemed to tremble. I shook as though I was freezing. My teeth chattered. I felt as though I couldn’t breath. How it hurt. From the wall, like a mirror reflecting through my blurry tears, I seemed to see faces. Then I realized it was not the faces of the ones who had died, but of the living, who were here, like me, to find the name of a loved one.”

letter left at the Wall, 1985

There were only a handful of defining battles of the Vietnam War. The conflict in Indochina was a “continual taking and retaking of territory.” Essentially, the enemy could never be fought back from Vietnam, because the enemy lived in Vietnam: the Viet Cong were part of the population. Consequently, the territory was marked by villages; such a “village-by-village scale” ultimately allowed the sense that there were few secure places. In light of this, there was an absence of controlled territory, and instead a presence of “juggled” territory: what might be secure one day had the potential to be lost the next. As a result of such unclarity, both in progress of the war, as well as political support and regime, “counting other things, especially bodies,” became the means of progress.

As a result, the fallen Vietnamese soldiers were repeatedly counted, and the American dead were “undercounted,” or “minimized” in number. It was a “non-political quantitative measure” to display American military potential of success in an unclear conflict. However, it was a controversial issue. In retrospect, it revealed the disrupted status of the individual American soldier, by raising questions on the morality and the value of soldiers in America. The MIA and POW issue heightened the challenging aspect of American soldier and war memorialization. More so, it questioned the American tradition of mourning and value of bodies. It changed the memorialization of war, and mourning, in America.

This website aims to explore the history of the Vietnam Memorial, and how that has transformed American memorialization of the war and its soldiers, by way of the design, mourning, and gifts present at the Wall.

Credits: Julia Cormack