Offerings At The Wall

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“THE WORST MEMORY FOR ME IS THE DAY I SENT THE 76 MEN OUT OF YOUR 85 TO THEIR DEATHS. I HAVE TO EXPLAIN AND PRAY TO GOD YOU WILL UNDERSTAND.”

The arrangement seemed fitting for war that had had no conventional narrative structure—a war without a clear beginning or end, without well-articulated goals, fought sometimes with scant regard for geographic boundaries and, indeed, remaining undeclared, technically not a war at all. Circumstances had conspired to isolate the GI from nearly everything beyond a concern for his own survival during the usual 365-day tour. Soldiers in Vietnam rarely fought in the units they had trained with, nor, when it was over, did they come home with comrades. The World War II troopship with its slow, gradual communal return to a world beyond war gave way to a swift, solitary plane ride to a country filled with people who knew little of the GI’s sacrifice.

Suddenness also marked the removal, by strangers, of dead or wounded comrades from the battlefield. Medevac usually came so quickly that many GIs never knew until they searched the wall whether a friend had lived or died. “How angry I was to find you here,” wrote one vet to his dead comrades.

Maya Lin’s wall offered the veterans a place not only to mourn but also to add bits of their own fragmented experience to the collective narrative. This is what happened , many of the messages seem to say. A fourpage letter addressed to the soldiers of the 101st Airborne begins: “The worst memory for me is the day I sent the 76 men out of your 85 to their deaths. I have to explain and I pray to God you will understand.” And the plain truth needn’t be verbal: The shell that had killed a comrade was both an obituary and a tribute.

Particular kinds of offerings that tend to show up repeatedly say specific things about how GIs experienced the war. Food and drink —whiskey, canned ravioli, peanuts—often appear at the wall. The donors are usually veterans, who remember vividly the lack of these things. Tins of sardines and bottles of beer, transformed into votives, replace those borrowed or purloined years ago in Asia. Army-issue can openers show up by the dozens. Bags of M&Ms appear without explanation; Felton believes they pay tribute to the underequipped medics who administered them as placebos when the morphine ran out.

Along with their dog tags come parts of GIs’ uniforms: headgear, k fatigues, dozens of pairs of combat boots, flak jackets, patches. The sheer variety suggests the vast web of service units that operated in Vietnam, as well as the war’s long duration. Boots, for instance, progress from old-style Army footwear, brittle from storage since Korea, to Panama-soled ones that resisted booby traps and punji sticks.

Families and friends offer civilian mementos of the men and women they knew: a golfer’s clubs, a musician’s trumpet, a hobbyist’s model car. A canvas bag recalls a paper route. “Floyd, you get one free throw,” wrote “Lil’ Sis” on an All Star basketball. High school varsity letters and pennants echo the fact that the average age of the American soldier in Vietnam was nineteen—seven years younger than his World War II counterpart.

No shrine or war memorial has ever before attracted such unconventional and eclectic offerings. But no other war was fought in the context of the 1960s, when appearances and objects both acquired heightened symbolic meanings. The draft card, the black armband, and the white armband became icons; “in country,” GIs routinely individualized their uniforms and gear to denote affiliation—as in the slashed combat boots of a 1st Cavalry unit—or allegiance—as in peace symbols drawn across the backs of utility shirts.

Now the era’s cultural detritus appears at the wall like things washed ashore after years at sea. A working television set is left off one day, perhaps to signify the nation’s first televised war or perhaps just the property of some luckless draftee who never came home to watch it again. Like more than two-thirds of the objects left at the memorial, it arrived without explanation. “Everything is left for a reason, but unless you have a real understanding, it’s dangerous to interpret the objects,” Duery Felton says. He welcomes explanatory letters, and he seeks out help with unusual insignia, patches, and other military markings. He has learned the stories behind everything from Pan American “kiddie wings” to British sterling shaving kits.