The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Controversies

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. was created to honor the soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War. The memorial that was built, however, sparked controversies claiming that the memorial brought shame to the veterans while others believe it respectively honors the soldiers.

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  1. The Vietnam War is often referred to as a war neither lost nor won. The war took the lives of over 50,000 soldiers and civilians and 15% of the soldiers involved struggled transitioning back into society (vhfcn.org/stat.html). However, nearly 75% of the soldiers that fought in Vietnam said that they’d fight and serve again even with knowing the outcome and they are held in the highest esteem by many Americans (vhfcn.org/stat.html). In order to honor those who served in the war and commemorate the lives lost, a veteran from the war, Jan Scruggs, believed a memorial should be built in the National Mall in Washington D.C. Scruggs envisioned a memorial that listed all the names of the soldiers that died in service and through donations, president Jimmy Carter approved that a memorial would be built and after a contest, Maya Ying Lin was chosen as the winner to design the memorial ( http://www.credoreference.com/entry/sharpecw/vietnam_veterans_memorial ). In 1982, Scruggs dream and Lin’s vision was complete but it was met with many critics. Lin intended on creating a “park within a park [and] a quiet protected place” and while many believe she succeeded, there are others who believe her memorial – the Wall – dishonors the veterans and their service through the design and color chosen ( http://thewall-usa.com/information.asp ). There are many controversies surrounding the memorial and many veterans, along with many Americans and art critics, found themselves asking if the memorial honored and shamed the veteran’s service in the war. As I started my research, I wanted to find credible information on both sides of the controversy. I realized early on it would be unlikely for me to come up with a “right” side due to the emotional ties many veterans feel towards the Wall. The first source I found, “Maya Ying Lin’s Vietnam Memorial” published by PBS helped me start my research. However, rather than give specifics arguments, the article helped me more with finding general information and Lin’s background and her reasons for choosing the layout she did. The article was from a PBS online segment titled “Culture Shock”. This site was credible because PBS is a well-known information center and gave links in order to find more information. I believe this background information was essential in understanding the controversy surrounding Lin’s work. Lin, an art student at the time, submitted her design to the Vietnam Memorial Competition and after a week of deliberation, she was named the winner. Her design was a V-shaped black wall that contained the names, in chronological order of the soldier’s deaths, of those whom died in the war ( http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/cultureshock/flashpoints/visualarts/thewall.html ). Lin chose this design because it mirrored the World War 1 memorial in France and she believed it was fitting and a respectful way to remember the fallen soldiers. Her design was attacked and praised and with slight modifications and compromises, Lin was granted the construction permit to begin building. Approximately a year later, the finished wall was presented to the public and controversy immediately followed. 

  2. While reading the PBS article, I knew I would have to find more information regarding the specific praises and criticisms of the Wall. I was able to find another document, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which was published in 2010 and I found on Credo Reference. This article gave more in-depth information. This site was credible because it remained unbiased while presenting both arguments and also listed its many sources. The actual creation of the wall was very tasking as well. The black granite, in which the names were carved out of, had to be polished in such a manner that the sun’s shadow wouldn't distort a name because Lin was adamant on each soldier receiving recognition. I learned that the Wall, for those who support it, is seen as a “fitting mark of respect…and honor” ( http://www.credoreference.com/entry/sharpecw/vietnam_veterans_memorial ). Due to the memorials long V-shaped walls, a visitor feels embraced by the wall and it has almost become a sacred shrine; the Wall, however controversial, is often viewed as a healing wall as it commemorates more than 58,000 men and women who gave their lives in the war. Those in favor of Lin's work believed it showed the nobility of sacrifice ( http://www.credoreference.com/entry/sharpecw/vietnam_veterans_memorial ). This article brought me to another online website, The Campaign for America's Libraries, which was recently published in 2012. The article, "Healing Nature of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial", described Lin's reasoning behind her design and her answer really opened my eyes and allowed me to appreciate the design even further. Lin stated that she "thought about what death was...a pain that lessens with time, but can never quite heal...[like] a scar...take a knife and open the Earth, and with time the grass will heal it" ( http://atyourlibrary.org/culture/healing-nature-vietnam-veterans-memorial-thirty-years-later ). Lin wanted to provide a monument that represented America's losses while also honoring them. She hoped the memorial would encapsulate the idea of death, a painful and traumatizing event, but with time hopefully the pain will lessen. The article also states that the monument symbolizes a "wound that that is closed and healing" and although many might disagree with the subtlety of the design, it was ranked 10th on "List of America's Favorite Architecture" ( http://atyourlibrary.org/culture/healing-nature-vietnam-veterans-memorial-thirty-years-later ). The "Healing Nature of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial" article had so far been my favorite article while researching. I felt that the article was very well written and it came from a very credible source that wasn't trying to sway either way but simply retell facts. The website provided many resources, as well as images and links to read more about certain topics within the article. While both articles gave me insight on the positives of the wall, it also touched on the negatives, or the criticisms, the public had about it. 


  3. While looking for criticisms, I continued to read the "Healing Nature of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial" but also expanded my research. I came across an article titled “Maya Lin and the Vietnam Memorial”. The author, Jess Zimmerman, has a BA in in History and a minor in Art History, as well as an MA in American History. Zimmerman focuses his work on the social events of the 20th century. I believe Zimmerman was a credible source due to his education and emphasis in social issues and events. In a section of his article called “The Public Reacts,” Zimmerman explains that many people did not see the memorial as a “classic” memorial, meaning it was not towering like the Washington Memorial. One veteran, Tom Carhart, believed that the wall was a “black gash of shame and sorrow, hacked into…the Mall” ( http://www.historybyzim.com/2012/06/maya-lin-the-vietnam-veterans-memorial/ ). Carhart also explained that he believed the wall signifies how Americans will perceive Vietnam veterans – black being the universal color for sorrow and dishonor and the Wall was a somber slap in the face for those who served their country in the war ( http://www.historybyzim.com/2012/06/maya-lin-the-vietnam-veterans-memorial/ ). While viewing the Wall, some soldiers felt “survivor guilt” by seeing all the names of the fallen soldiers and having a feeling of remorse for surviving. 

  4. The veterans were looking for a memorial that provided emotional support to the soldiers and their families and they believed that Lin's design failed to do so. Many veterans felt as if the design didn't fully honor the sufferings of the soldiers and they wanted something to commemorate the lives of fallen soldiers as well as the hardships and struggles they were faced with. While Zimmerman's article provided me with details on criticisms, I still believed I needed to know more specific opinions. I then came across an article on a website giving information about monuments in Washington D.C., and of course the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was on there. The article was on a website called The District, under the a section titled "Vietnam Veterans Memorial".  The article stated that one man, James Webb, who was a supporter of the memorial before he saw Lin's final design, stated that he never "imagined such a nihilistic slab of stone" and due to the reaction from the public, president Ronald Reagan had even initially refused to issue a building permit ( http://thedistrict.com/sightseeing/monuments-memorials-in-washington-dc/vietnam-veterans-memorial/ ). Some people had even thought that members of the Communist party had infiltrated the jury and picked a design that dishonors veterans ( http://thedistrict.com/sightseeing/monuments-memorials-in-washington-dc/vietnam-veterans-memorial/ ). This statement shocked me - that some people were so against the design that they believed that the Party they had risked their lives to dismantle had picked the monument that was meant to honor them. When I read that, I realized the intensity and connection that the veterans had to the memorial. Besides their traumatizing memories, they had little to show for all the work they went through. When many veterans returned home, they were met with scorn and disrespect because many Americans didn't agree with the war and took their anger out on the returning soldiers. Veterans believed that the memorial reflected angry Americans and not ones who were thankful for their service. Reading this article gave me a new perspective on the memorial and although I didn't believe there would be a "right" side, it made deciding who had a better argument much more difficult.
  5. After reading "Vietnam Veterans Memorial" and gaining a new insight, I knew my research wasn't done yet. As I continued, I came across a source that gave a slightly different opinion than previous sources. The article “Vietnam Memorial” by Marla Hochman published in 2006, explained not only the controversies but also where they came from. Hochman believed that many who opposed the memorial were looking at it as a political memorial. The fact that the wall was black symbolized, they believed, death and destruction. By viewing it as a political memorial, people see the memorial as a representation of the war as a whole, not the people involved. This differed from those who supported the design because they saw the memorial as a place for healing. It was designed to recognize the sacrifices the soldiers gave and serve as a place to quietly confront their sorrow. Lin believed that only when people accept their losses are they able to heal and the memorial must separate the warrior from the war ( http://www.greenmuseum.org/c/aen/Issues/lin.php ). However, since many people were not able to separate the two, the public insisted on modifications to Lin's design. This brought me back to a previous source that listed the changes to the memorial in order to gain more acceptance. The previous source, "Vietnam Veterans Memorial" from Credo Reference, had explained the changes. Although Lin did not initially approve of any changes, she eventually gave in and allowed for a few to happen. The first was a 60 ft flag added and the following year the statue known as the "Three Servicemen" was installed. The statue was widely accepted by veterans because it portrayed a more traditional memorial. These modifications were placed at the end of either side of the wall. Years later, and after much debate, a third alteration was added - a sculpture honoring the women who were involved in the war. In the last decade, one more alteration has been added. A plaque, in 2004, was installed saying "We Honor and Remember Their Sacrifice" and in 2006 an underground visitor center was approved but the veterans rejected it stating it reminder of the Viet Cong tunnels from the war ( http://www.credoreference.com/entry/sharpecw/vietnam_veterans_memorial ). Although I admire Lin's work, I believe these changes were necessary in order to appease the veterans.


  6. Through all my research I've learned about many of the praises Lin received as well as the criticisms. I learned that the monument, a V-shaped piece of granite, can hold so many different interpretations. For the art critics that disfavor it, the memorial is unconventional and too simple and for the critics who do admire it, it's a needed and respectful change.For the veterans who don't approve of it, it represents dishonor and disgust.  There's also Lin's interpretation of a place for mourning and healing. I've learned that there is no correct interpretation of the memorial because people cope and heal in many different ways. Many veterans disliked the memorial but there were also others who appreciated it and due to the names listed, they were able to find out that a fellow comrade was still alive or finally say goodbye to a fallen soldier. I stand by my initial belief that I won't be able to find a "right" answer but now I believe that even more through this research. Lin believed she was helping the veterans cope and honor their sacrifices while the veterans disagreed. I was surprised by how much information there was on just one monument and how hard people fought to justify their belief. Because of that, it is impossible for me to come to a conclusion on which side is right. Both sides have very reasonable justifications for their opinions and the sources that I found did a very good job in explaining those opinions. Were I to do further research, I believe I would research the additions to the memorial and how they impacted the public and how the veterans felt about them. 



  7. Chapman, Roger. "Vietnam Veterans Memorial" Culture Wars. Credo References, 2010. Web. 22 Nov. 2013. < http://www.credoreference.com/entry/sharpecw/vietnam_veterans_memorial&gt ;.

    "Healing Nature of Vietnam Veterans Memorial Thirty Years Later." The Campaign for America's Libraries. N.p.,

    Hochman, Marla. "Maya Lin, Vietnam Memorial." Ecological Art Perspectives and Issues:Environmental Design: Maya Lin. Green Musuem, 2006. Web. 01 Dec. 2013.< http://www.greenmuseum.org/c/aen/Issues/lin.php&gt ;.

    "Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans' Memorial." PBS. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2013.  < http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/cultureshock/flashpoints/visualarts/thewall.html&gt ;.

    Roush, Gary. "Statistics about the Vietnam War." History.com. N.p., 2 June 2008. Web. 22 Nov. 2013. <vhfcn.org/stat.html>;.

    "Vietnam Veterans Memorial." The District. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2013. 

    "The Wall-USA." Vietnam Veterans Memorial. N.p., 2006. Web. 30 Nov. 2013. < http://thewall-usa.com/information.asp&gt ;.

    Zimmerman, Jess. "Maya Lin & The Vietnam Veterans Memorial." History By Zim. N.p., 2010. Web. 23 Nov. 2013.     < http://www.historybyzim.com/2012/06/maya-lin-the-vietnam-veterans-memorial/&gt ;.



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