Offerings At The Wall

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Most of the early offerings came from veterans or their close relatives. More often than not they were notes, letters, and cards that spoke directly to one of the 58,191 men and women named on the wall.

On notepaper from a Washington hotel:

 

My dearest Paul

I finally got here—a beautiful monument for you.

I miss you—and I know you’re watching over me.

I love you. Your wife

From a mother’s letter on Memorial Day 1983: “I see your name on a black wall. A name I gave you as I held you so close after you were born, never dreaming of the too few years I was to have with you.”

From the beginning the memorial has been a place where the living commune with the dead. Maya Lin herself described her creation as “an interface between the sunny world and the quiet, dark world beyond, that we can’t enter.” The granite’s mirrorlike polish, a crucial detail in her design specifications, adds to the effect; it lets visitors see their own reflections hovering over the names of their dead and merging with them.

Lydia Flsh, Director of the Vietnam Veterans Oral History and Folklore Project, calls the wall the “strangest of all sacred places,” describing it as a liminal site, or sensory or psychological threshold. A professor of folklore at the State University College at Buffalo, she has conducted fieldwork at many shrines and points out that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is one of them, a place of pilgrimage, of moral quests.

By the time the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund passed control of the memorial to the National Park Service, in 1984, the pilgrimage was well established. Hawaiian veterans arrived bearine a chain of orchids that stretched the entire length of the wall. Native American veterans have held tribal rituals there, bringing beaded eagle feathers, ceremonial war shields, and medicine bundles.

 

For the majority of Vietnam veterans who go to the memorial alone, however, the journey has offered a release from a sense of isolation. Some have left notes that speak of their arrival as a homecoming. Others have sought the expiation of guilt, another traditional impetus to pilgrimage. What has come to be called survivor guilt underpins thousands of apologies left for dead comrades.

“We did what we could but it was not enough because I found you here,” reads one. “You are not just a name on this wall. You are alive. You are blood on my hands. You are screams in my ears. You are eyes in my soul.

“I told you you’d be all right, but I lied, and please forgive me.”

As the memorial became a place for pilgrimage, its creator’s intentions were, on various levels, borne out. “I didn’t want a static object that people would just look at,” Lin has written, “but something they could relate to as on a journey, or passage, that would bring each to his own conclusions.” The descent toward the wall’s vertex, where the names tower overhead, symbolized that journey. The arrangement of those names is even more suggestive.

During the wall’s construction, some veterans demanded that the dead be listed alphabetically; hundreds of Smiths and Joneses, and some identical names, would have appeared telephone-directory-style, one after another. Lin stuck to her demand that the names be listed in chronological order of death and alphabetized within each day. As the war progressed, every day held its own story. The wall would repeat those stories. Here were the nurses who died with their patients when a field hospital came under attack; there, a son’s name among those of buddies he had mentioned in letters home.

Each day’s casualties would be threads in the narrative of an epic poem. But by its very design the memorial presented a broken narrative: The 58,196 names begin at the vertex on the east wall, under the date 1959, continue panel by panel eastward, in the direction of the Washington Monument, and then stop before the sequence resumes at the far end of the west wall and moves east toward the vertex and the last panel, above the date 1975. That broken circle, Lin envisioned, would be completed by each visitor.