A Wall That Reflects Remembrance

Adacia Felix
DC History

A Wall that Reflects Remembrance

During the 1700’s after the Revolutionary War, under the new Constitution, President Washington took the advantage to design the new capital which would be in DC. Washington then chose Pierre L’Enfant to design the capital through Washington ideology. He wanted the new capital to have meaning; after all, it was going to be representing the nation’s beliefs. The new capital was going to become the “fatal significance for the country.”1 In DC women and freed African Americans like Benjamin Banneker were treated with equality than in any other state. Washington didn’t want DC only to represent politics but to have citizens from other states witnessing the miracles behind the monuments and structure of DC. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a true reminder of what Washington wanted for DC in the 1700’s. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial reminds us, the public, about the city as a symbol; how architecture can influence behavior and all the collective memories we gather.

From 1955 to April 30th 1975, a long war had taken place in Vietnam. This war sparked communion of ally countries helping each other. A civil war was being fought between the Communist Northern Vietnam with the help of USSR and the Southern Vietnam with the help of the United States. This war was long, brutal, and a lot of veterans lost their lives.

In 1980, five years after the long battle in Vietnam, a national design competition was called to honor all the veterans. Maya Ying Lin, a 21 yr old architecture student at Yale University was unanimously chosen by Congress as the winner. Lin designed a black granite wedge that would not be notice for its height because it would be placed deeper into the earth instead of standing above it.
The wedges had an east and west wall each about 250ft long. The memorial is 10ft high. The names of 58, 235 Americans soldiers in chronological order of the date of death are scarred into the wall. By each name is either a diamond which represents death or a cross which represents the missing in action soldiers. Lin decided that the names would be the memorial and chose to record them on the walls of reflective black granite that points to the city’s lodestones2 the Lincoln memorial and the Washington monument. The memorial would “record the sacrifice of the every person killed or missing in action without making a political statement.”3

A trip to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial would greet you with the visitation of many family members, veterans, friends, and tourists every day. Visitors come to remind themselves about the fallen heroes that they have lost in the Vietnam War. The Veteran memorial is viewed as very emotional but it is one of “the most poignant tributes to be found anywhere.”4 At the memorial family members constantly leave flowers, letters, photos and other tokens of remembrance. The best way to take the memorial home with you is to shade the names over paper. It is said that if you are really quiet you can hear the soldiers behind the walls. The memorial’s true beauty is present during the day and at night. During the day the visitors’ faces are reflected in the wall and at night the granite stone reflects the Washington Monument. The new capital was going to symbolize the nation and its equality. After the city was built a different type of life was present in DC. Many new comers could come to Washington DC to live because what Washington wanted was quiet different from the other cities. The new city had freedom. This freedom causes “women to enjoy a greater degree of personal freedom in Washington than in other American cities.”5 This was one of the equality that was present in DC that Washington wants us to remember. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial portrays equality by placing names of sergeants and soldiers all the same on the wall. This memorial shows equality because only the black granite stone and names are kept in the mind of the visitor. In the war a lot veterans lost their lives; some of the veterans were high ranking sergeants while others were just regular soldiers. But a life is a life and these 58, 235 veterans that died are being represented on a wall with their names not rank because they all died for the same reason.

The design behind the Vietnam Veteran Memorial is very simple. A wall 10ft high with names, no pictures, statues nor description about the war but yet this memorial; reminds us what Washington wanted which is to have a city architecture show the nation’s beliefs. The design behind Washington DC is very organized. L’Enfant designed the city. The streets are in alphabetical order; several streets then meet at a circle where the people can meet. This influences the behavior of the citizens because more citizens would prefer to live in a city of organization instead of corruption. The Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial also has a design that influences behavior among its visitors. Visitors go to the memorial to see their family member names on the walls. They then walk the path that leads them to the end of the memorial. Walking along the path keeps order within the people. All the names on the wall are in chronological order. The memorial influences behavior because visitors at the site become quiet, reverent and mournful. Visitors go at night to see the sheen that reflects the Washington Monument. The Vietnam Memorial architecture does influence behavior because this one wall holds memories of all the fallen heroes that lost their lives while fighting a battle for another country. The behavior that is present is usually emotional but a lot of history is been present in the shinny black granite wall.

A trip to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial would easily turn very emotional especially if you know the story behind it. Near the Lincoln Memorial on the national mall a park within a park is created for the Veterans in the Vietnam War. Said by Lin, “Polished to a reflective sheen, the walls of the wedge seems to project life as much as honor death.” During the 1700’s a lot of stories where hidden to prolong the creation of the new capital. During the construction of the city, Washington was in charge to give details about the city. At numerous times Washington would lie to Congress about the development of the new capital out of fear because he wanted DC to be a success. When Washington lied to Congress, stories about his lies are not usually remembered by the public. A lot of stories are known about the Vietnam War, a lot of stories are known about the Veterans’ Memorial, but a lot of stories are hidden from the public about the fallen heroes. Many stories that are popular among the public are about the facts if the Vietnam War. We all know that during and after the war Americans were much closer because they gain to appreciate their country’s freedom and strength. A story that is well collective is about how this war widely accepted African Americans to fight. A story that we tend to forget is that after the war a lot of African American veterans upon return to home couldn’t even get a proper job. Segregation was seeing its last days and the African Americans barely had any rights. But stories from the veterans about their battle are the best. These stories remind us about the great strength it took to fight for a country that needed freedom from communism. Stories like John McCain survival through his brutal treatment while being held in captive. These stories still lives on today to recap the public about our fallen heroes. Collective memories can be effective among the public. Sometimes society and the government would only remind the public what they want them to know. During the construction of DC Washington fired L’Enfant because of his perfectionism and this story is not forgetful. And the story about how Washington DC was built by slaves. The story about how all the soldiers fought together in the same war is also not forgotten. In Lin’s design she made a simple wall with names. The design was made to not cause a political statement because a lot of stories about the war were already controversial by the government. A lot of collective memories are always present after an event but it is up to us to use those memories that would tell the true story alive.

If you walk clockwise around the reflecting pool from the Lincoln Memorial you would find the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. The east walls points to the great Washington Monument. Today the memorial reminds you about what Washington wanted for DC in the 1700’s. The equality still lives on in this memorial with names of sergeants to soldiers all equal in the design. The architecture can influence behavior, visiting the memorial would make you realize how America honor their fallen heroes; how one wall full of names could bring back memories to a weary widower, to a veteran and lost grand child. Stories can also be gathered while at the memorial. On November 11, Veterans’ Day is good day to visit the memorial because a lot of stories can be gathered. Stories of the heroes battle to the untold stories of African American veterans. visited this memorial and I saw the life of Washington and his ideologies in the sheen of the black granite stone; this memorial reminded me of what Washington wanted for DC. You must visit this memorial so that you can be touched with the spirit of President Washington and all our fallen heroes of the Vietnam War. They still live on in the black shinny stone full of names.

1. Taken from pg.15 “ The making of the American Capital”
2. Lodestone: a person or thing regarded as a focus of attraction
3. Said by Maya Lin the designer
4. Taken from “A guide to Washington 2008”
5. Taken from pg. 34 “ Capital; speculations”

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