The Gifts and the Remembering at the Wall

Everyday, objects are left at the wall. These are in the forms of letters, war momentos, toys, books, photographs. The gifts become an extension of mourning. A source of dialogue, the memorial becomes a “text” for communication of the many things left at the Wall. By way of figuratively welcoming gifts, the Wall provides a shared landscape for everyone to drop a thought about the Vietnam War -- its history, soldiers, controversies, issues, as well as the public and private reflections and stories.

The gifts become the narratives of the fallen soldiers and the stories that their families were not able to finish. They tell the lives of who the soldiers were -- boys, students, fathers, soldiers, sons, nephews, Americans. They welcome an unspoken, shared dialogue at the Wall. As Gans explains, “The content of the items suggest they are to be received by other viewers, making the interactions more than a personal act of mourning or communion with art, but communication with others on a larger scale” (emphasis added). This comprehension of the Wall is revealed by how “viewers take the time to walk through slowly and read the documents” left at the base of the memorial. Kristin Ann Hass, Associate Professor of American Culture, contends that “[p]eople carrying their things to the Wall are answering, and asking, questions about society’s obligations to its soldiers.” Hass suggests that the unspoken dialogue at the Wall ultimately concerns the status, and purpose, of soldiers in society: Are they soldiers destined to death in war? Are they Americans who have become the form of soldiers? Hass argues that the actions of American soldiers have afforded them a unique, “liminal” status.

In face of the “Great Generation” of WWII memorialization, the Vietnam Wall gives daily glimpses of who the Vietnam soldiers were, by way of objects left. The Memorial gives a fresh understanding of the soldiers, a new status:

The liminal, contested place of the [Vietnam] war in the culture disrupts the expectation that dead soldiers will be remembered as heroes. Remember that returning veterans found themselves emblems of everything that seemed to be wrong with the nation, rather than emblems of the heroic body of the nation.

The confusion of American purpose in Vietnam, the war experience overseas, and the shifting political and social American landscape were major factors to the ruined status of what it meant to be an American soldier. By 1979, five years after the end of the conflict, a reported fifty-eight thousand Vietnam veterans took their own lives -- that number is almost equal to the number of fallen Americans engraved on the Wall.

At the Wall, mourning becomes a memorialization of commemorating a divisive past, as well as a blemished war record. Generally, the American soldier represents patriotism for the nation. For many American citizens and soldiers, patriotism had been lost in the Vietnam conflict. Following the end of the war, the Vietnam veterans became an image of a “drug-crazed, gun-toting, and violence-prone individual unable to adjust to civilized society.” This was a “historical paradox,” Vietnam veterans Fred Downs has remarked,

in that Americans began to hate war, and Americans didn’t know how to separate the strong feelings that they had against Vietnam and the war and the soldiers who were sent. There was no common denominator of patriotism. The Nam soldier got caught in the crossfire. If war is wrong, and that war in particular was wrong, the soldier was wrong for fighting it.

Therefore, the psychological design of the Vietnam Memorial sheds light on this nationally-drawn “instability of the social position of the soldier.” The objects left at the Wall become markers for the past, and the history of the Vietnam soldier. They provide an unspoken dialogue of the purpose, value, and honor of the forgotten veteran. The once-unbalanced status of the soldier drew a “national crisis of identity” and “memory.” However, the Wall has provided a source of stable, even proper, memorialization of the soldier. It works as an open book, allowing the gifts left to work as stories of the soldiers -- stories that give an identity to the name. The gifts underline that the names are are not just names, but people who shall be remembered. The Memorial gifts become a discourse because they provide a shared communication. Therefore, discussion at the Wall, provided by the gifts left behind, offers the voices of the soldiers. It illustrates the stories unknown to the politics and social culture of the Vietnam war period. Altogether, the dialogue becomes a shared communication, visual and unspoken, ever-present, not forgotten.

Gifts left at the Wall.
Gifts and Remembering at the Wall