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Remembering Vietnam My War Story - Bill Nelson
My War Story - Marsh Carter
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Maya Lin's Award-Wining Design
When first conceiving a memorial, the members of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) selected an ideal location: a prominent site in a large, park-like area on the National Mall. With the western end of Constitution Gardens available, VVMF requested access to the land and ultimately was granted permission by an act of Congress.
VVMF announced in October 1980 that the memorial design would be selected through a national design competition open to any U.S. citizen 18 years of age or older. It also set four major criteria for the design:
1. That it be reflective and contemplative in character;
2. That it harmonize with its surroundings, especially the neighboring national memorials;
3. That it contain the names of all who died or remained missing; and
4. That it make no political statement about the Vietnam War.
By the March 31, 1981 design submission deadline, 1,421 entries had been submitted. The entries would be judged by a panel of eight internationally recognized artists and designers, who had been selected by VVMF. On this distinguished panel were architect Pietro Belluschi; author Grady Clay; landscape architect Garrett Eckbo; sculptors Richard H. Hunt, Constantino Nivola and James Rosati; Hideo Sasaki, a landscape architect; and architects Paul Spreiregen and Harry Weese. None of the panel served in the Vietnam War, nor did they have any family members who made the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam.
The designs were displayed for the selection committee in an airport hangar at Andrews Air Force Base, located outside of Washington, D.C., in rows covering more than 35,000 square feet of floor space. Each entry was identified by number only to preserve the designer’s anonymity. All were examined by each juror. The entries were narrowed down to 232 and finally 39.
On May 1, 1981, the panelists unanimously selected entry number 1026 because they believed it clearly met the spirit and formal requirements of the program. The panelists felt that the design’s open nature would encourage access on all occasions, at all hours, without barriers, and yet shield visitors from city noise and traffic.
Maya Lin’s Design
Entry number 1026 was designed by a 21-year-old architecture undergraduate at Yale University. That student was Chinese-American Maya Ying Lin, who was born in Athens, Ohio in 1959. Her parents had fled from China in 1949 when Mao Tse-Tung took control of the country.
Lin’s concept was to create a park within a park—a quiet protected and contemplative place onto itself, yet harmonious with the overall plan of Constitution Gardens. The walls would have mirror-like surfaces (polished black granite) reflecting the images of the surrounding trees, lawns, monuments and visitors. The walls would stretch into the distance, directing visitors toward the Washington Monument to the east, and the Lincoln Memorial to the west, thus bringing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial into a historical context.
The design called for two walls, each approximately 250 feet long and comprising 140 black granite panels. Beginning at ground level, the walls would gradually descend to a depth of 10 feet to meet at a vertex, forming a 125-degree angle. The black walls would be chiseled with the names of Americans killed or missing in Vietnam, listed chronologically, by date of casualty.
Maya Lin had created a memorial, she told the press, that was “visual poetry, a journey from violence to serenity—one which would make you experience death.” Her design, many experts noticed, exhibited a strong Asian influence depicting life and death as a continuous circle.
Statement by Maya Ying Lin, March 1981
(Presented as part of her competition submission)
“Walking through this park-like area, the memorial appears as a rift in the earth, a long, polished, black stone wall, emerging from and receding into the earth. Approaching the memorial, the ground slopes gently downward and the low walls emerging on either side, growing out of the earth, extend and converge at a point below and ahead.
“Walking into this grassy site contained by the walls of the memorial we can barely make out the carved names upon the memorial’s walls. These names, seemingly infinite in number, convey the sense of overwhelming numbers, while unifying these individuals into a whole.
“The memorial is composed not as an unchanging monument, but as a moving composition to be understood as we move into and out of it. The passage itself is gradual; the descent to the origin slow, but it is at the origin that the memorial is to be fully understood.
“At the intersection of these walls, on the right side, is carved the date of the first death. It is followed by the names of those who died in the war, in chronological order. These names continue on this wall appearing to recede into the earth at the wall's end. The names resume on the left wall as the wall emerges from the earth, continuing back to the origin where the date of the last death is carved at the bottom of this wall.
“Thus the war’s beginning and end meet; the war is ‘complete,’ coming full-circle, yet broken by the earth that bounds the angle’s open side, and continued within the earth itself. As we turn to leave, we see these walls stretching into the distance, directing us to the Washington Monument, to the left, and the Lincoln Memorial, to the right, thus bringing the Vietnam Memorial into an historical context. We, the living, are brought to a concrete realization of these deaths.
“Brought to a sharp awareness of such a loss, it is up to each individual to resolve or come to terms with this loss. For death, is in the end a personal and private matter, and the area contained with this memorial is a quiet place, meant for personal reflection and private reckoning.
“The black granite walls, each two hundred feet long, and ten feet below ground at their lowest point (gradually ascending toward ground level) effectively act as a sound barrier, yet are of such a height and length so as not to appear threatening or enclosing. The actual area is wide and shallow, allowing for a sense of privacy, and the sunlight from the memorial’s southern exposure along with the grassy park surrounding and within its walls, contribute to the serenity of the area. Thus this memorial is for those who have died, and for us to remember them.
“The memorial’s origin is located approximately at the center of the site; its legs each extending two hundred feet towards the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. The walls, contained on one side by the earth, are ten feet below ground at their point of origin, gradually lessening in height, until they finally recede totally into the earth, at their ends.
“The walls are to be made of a hard, polished black granite, with the names to be carved in a simple Trojan letter. The memorial’s construction involves recontouring the area within the wall’s boundaries, so as to provide for an easily accessible descent, but as much of the site as possible should be left untouched. The area should remain as a park, for all to enjoy.”
Almost as soon as Lin’s design was unveiled publicly, controversy arose, threatening to bring the entire memorial project to a premature close. Critics, including many Vietnam veterans, felt that the design did not convey the heroism, patriotism and honor inherent in other memorials. Even the placement of the Memorial below ground and the use of black granite, instead of the white traditional in memorials, were challenged by the critics. They felt that being underground would hide the Memorial from view; that the black granite focused too much on death and loss; and with the names of the dead and missing, it looked too much like a massive headstone. There also was criticism that the design did not incorporate a U.S. flag and that the winning selection was designed by an Asian-American.
As the debate raged, Lin defended her design and the choice of black granite by stating that she found black “a lot more peaceful and able to reflect its surroundings when polished. The point is to see yourself reflected in the names. Also, the mirror image doubles and triples the space. I thought black was a beautiful color and appropriate to the design.”
With rising congressional discontent and facing a very real threat of losing their memorial, Vietnam veterans, their supporters and their opponents met to find a solution. After many discussions, the groups compromised, agreeing to add a statue and flagpole to the Memorial site. It was felt that these additions would symbolize, in a more appropriate manner, the patriotism and heroism that some veterans and critics thought were missing from Lin’s design. With the compromise solution worked out, the Memorial’s construction got back on track.
The compromise elements were added in 1984. The statue—alternately called The Three Soldiers and The Three Servicemen—depicts three men wearing Vietnam War-era uniforms that could be from any branch of the U.S. military at that time. It was designed by the late Frederick E. Hart. Interpretations of the work vary widely. Some say the troops have the “thousand yard stare” of combat soldiers. Others say the troops are on patrol and begin looking for their own names as they come upon the Memorial. Meanwhile the flagpole, which features the crests of the five military branches at its base, was placed off to the side of the Memorial.
Additionally, while the original design criteria stated there would be no inscription and no mention of Vietnam anywhere on the Memorial, two inscriptions became part of The Wall’s final design.
The inscription on Panel 1 East of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial reads:
IN HONOR OF THE MEN AND WOMEN OF THE ARMED FORCES OF THE UNITED STATES WHO SERVED IN THE VIETNAM WAR. THE NAMES OF THOSE WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES AND OF THOSE WHO REMAIN MISSING ARE INSCRIBED IN THE ORDER THEY WERE TAKEN FROM US.
The inscription on Panel 1 West of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial reads:
OUR NATION HONORS THE COURAGE, SACRIFICE, AND DEVOTION TO DUTY AND COUNTRY OF ITS VIETNAM VETERANS. THIS MEMORIAL WAS BUILT WITH PRIVATE CONTRIBUTIONS FROM THE AMERICAN PEOPLE. NOVEMBER 11, 1982.
These weren’t the last controversies to surround the Memorial. A new one erupted in the early 1990s over the perceived lack of representation of women in the Memorial and The Three Servicemen statue. Thus, in 1993, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, honoring the women who served in Vietnam, was placed at the Memorial site. The Wall includes the names of eight female members of the U.S. military who were killed in action. And in 2000, following debate about eligibility for inclusion of veterans’ names who died because of ailments related to their service in the Vietnam War on The Wall, Congress authorized the addition of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commemorative Plaque. The tribute, also called the “In Memory Plaque,” was dedicated in November 2004 and honors individuals who died as a direct result of the Vietnam War, but who do not meet Department of Defense guidelines to have their names added to The Wall. The majority of these deaths fall into two categories: cancer related to Agent Orange exposure and ailments attributed to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Despite the many controversies that have surrounded The Wall, or perhaps partly due to them, the Memorial has become an exemplary success. It is visited by 4 million people each year, and these visitors leave hundreds of thousands of offerings and gifts of remembrance.
The Design Today
Since its unveiling in 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has become a profound symbol that has served to unify and reconcile a nation divided by a foreign conflict. It also has received considerable recognition and honors.
In 2007, the Memorial was honored with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Twenty-Five Year Award. The award recognizes architectural design that has stood the test of time for 25 years.
“The memorial speaks to the power of design,” said Richard Logan, AIA, chair of the 2007 architecture jury. “It creates a magical moment of the living and the dead touching, and it is still as potent as the first time you saw it… Even after 25 years, you watch people touching it and being touched by the stone.”
As a national memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was listed on the National Register of Historic Places the day it was dedicated. It also was recognized with a National AIA Honor Award for Architecture in 1984.
Still an endearing and emotional symbol of reconciliation two and a half decades later, the Memorial has become the standard by which other memorials are measured.
Meanwhile, the Memorial’s creator, Maya Lin, today is a successful sculptor and designer. Recently, she participated in the design selection for the Education Center at The Wall as a special advisor to the jury who oversaw the design competition. “I could not be more excited. They will create an incredibly brilliant and respectful piece of architecture that will match something I’m really close to,” Lin said.