Twenty-five years ago today a simple, sober, monument was riveted into American public life — the Vietnam War Memorial, the distinctive black wall in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial to which the names of 58,000 fallen American service men and women are ascribed.
The story of the memorial, known for its iconic Maya Lin design, begins with one man, Jan Scruggs. An infantryman in Vietnam and then a graduate student at American University in Washington, Mr. Scruggs took his wife to a showing of the 1978 Vietnam War film, "The Deerhunter." Somewhat unique for a war movie of that time, "The Deerhunter" eschewed anti-American vitriol and focused on the war's effects on a close-knit Russian American community outside of Pittsburgh.
In the movie, the Viet Cong was depicted as the enemy, whose barbaric treatment of three American comrades created wounds that lasted after the Americans returned home. The film ends as its battered protagonists sing "God Bless America" in a gritty hometown tavern.
The movie struck a strong chord in Mr. Scruggs, who had been wounded in Vietnam and had been studying an ancient affliction with a new label, post traumatic stress disorder, at American University. He turned to his wife and vowed to build a memorial to those who fell in Vietnam.
"My wife thought I was crazy and a lot of people did," he recalls in an interview with the Sun. "I was going to raise some money for it." Mr. Scruggs ended up putting $2,800 of his own money into the effort and helped create a bi-partisan sense of healing around the project. "We think this is significant. We were separating the war from the warrior." Mr. Scruggs found little opposition on the left for his project. This was notable because only a handful of years earlier the focus of the anti-war movement had been on alleged American atrocities in Vietnam as exemplified by the purposefully-misnamed Winter Soldier investigations. His quest ended up winning the support of Senator Goldwater on the right and Senator McGovern on the left. "It is a symbol of reconciliation," he says.
The memorial has, since its dedication, drawn more than 4 million visitors a year. Many were born since the memorial's construction. Some take etchings of the names of loved ones. Others leave objects or mementos to those fallen. Mr. Scruggs says that more than 100,000 items have been left, from wedding rings, prom shoes, a watch, and a Harley Davidson motorcycle.
The Wall lists the names of the fallen in chronological order, which can be disconcerting at first. But veterans can see the names of their fallen comrades together. "It gives them carthasis," Mr. Scruggs says of Vietnam veterans who come to the wall. "It helps the veterans be able to say goodbye."
I saw the power of the Wall first hand five years ago in Scottsdale, Ariz., of all places. A touring replica of the Wall was on display, and I happened to be in town for a family gathering with my sister and my parents. We went together. My father, Gerald Gitell, a veteran of U.S. Army Special Forces in Vietnam, rushed to the Wall and searched to find the names of his friends.
We had to look up their coordinates. Major John Arnn. Second Lieutenant Bryan Grogan. Specialist Robert Stepanov. Arnn was his commanding officer who was ambushed. Grogan and Stepanov were his buddies from Fort Bragg who were killed together in the tall grass near Pleiku. "I couldn't even breathe," my father, remembering how moving the replica Wall was that day, said.
There are Vietnam veterans who find the wall disappointing — particularly because it eschews listing the rank and unit of the GIs engraved on its front. This stands, for example, in sharp contradistinction to, say, the memorial to the First Infantry Division, which is just south of the Old Executive Office Building west of the White House. But others note that Maya Lin's wall reflects the temper of the times in which the Vietnam veterans served.
It's too soon, says Mr. Scruggs, to begin planning a memorial for those who have fallen in Iraq and in the broader War on Terror. The fight is still being fought, and emotions still run too hot. There will come a time, however, when America will seek a degree of healing as well. And when that time arrives, we must find a way to make sure that today's fallen are never forgotten, either.
Mr. Gitell (gitell.com) is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.