By Kathleen Kenna
In the past week, amid the noise of an election, some of us have missed a smaller sound in the nation’s capital. We missed the reading aloud of 52,282 names of Americans who died in the Vietnam War.
This reading of the names took four days.
We have been busy making speeches, laying wreaths, paying tribute elsewhere.
This nation glorifies war, so its capital — like many world capitals — is filled with bronze statues honoring soldiers and generals, on horseback or charging with weapons.
This wall changed that.
This memorial was not about the glory of war; it captured the sorrow of a nation, conflicted about the Vietnam War.
Protests in the streets against the war were followed, sadly, by protests against this great memorial. Cruel words were hurled at the design by Maya Lin, then a 21-year-old architecture student at Yale.
Some didn’t understand.
We have been so accustomed to monuments to war and dead men all over the world, that we could not see how a woman, especially a young woman, could possibly represent America’s war dead.
Yet the simple etching of the names of the dead on black granite panels, as cold and unforgiving as gravestones, perfectly captured a nation’s angst over the loss of so many, for so little.
These men, and a very few women, were not called heroes when they died. Indeed, the first official death of the Vietnam War was the murder of a U.S. airman by one of his own.
That was in 1956, before Americans knew their country was going to war with a nation most had never visited. The first war casualties were, as these conflicts go, intelligence officers.
No one who visits this wall is unmoved.
Every time I have stood at the wall — first as a journalist from Canada, and later, as an American resident — I have been touched by how many visitors cry openly. I’ve seen bikers in full leathers weeping at this wall, leaning against the cold granite as they remember a brother of battle.
Thirty years after it was dedicated, amid great controversy, the wall is still a powerful lure to visitors from all over the world.
There is always someone lifting a name from the granite, by rubbing a pencil over paper. Always, someone is leaving a note, a teddy bear, a memento, a single flower.
I don’t know any of the engraved names, those who died in combat in southeast Asia, who perished in POW camps, or are still listed as MIA, decades later.
International visitors who recognize no names linger over the big books of names nearby. They touch the names on the wall as if making a connection.
This wall is so powerful I believe it does connect us, warriors and civilians, mourners and those with sympathy for the grieving, visitors from nations at war and those from nations living in peace.
We all see ourselves reflected on the wall’s surface when standing there. Did Maya Lin know how this would hold us, in communal mourning?
I cannot visit the wall without a pull on my heart.
This war was the first of my generation, and it was the beginning of our instruction in fury against governments, in the power of youthful protest. We saw how an older generation could fight its more idealistic children — and then send them to war overseas.
This wall is “one of America’s most sacred places,” says Jan Scruggs, the Vietnam war veteran who started fund-raising for this wall with his own money in 1979.
It could be more sacred than any other public place in the country.
More than 3 million visitors come to this wall every year. They’re drawn by one of the most basic designs — stone, set in earth — yet one of the most powerful messages this nation has ever shared about war.
Kathleen Kenna is a veterans’ advocate and counselor. She can be contacted through LinkedIn.