A Big Black Scar In the Surface of the Earth

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Cuneiform of the Ages Writ Large

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When I was eight years old, my parents took me on a trip to Washington, D.C. It was the first time I had ever been on a plane, the first time I visited a natural history museum, and one of the first times I remember being confronted by monumental art.

I distinctly remember the excitement I felt when I glimpsed the Washington Monument for the first time. I had seen this stately, phallic object in books, and its physical presence was even more impressive in person.

Then we went to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This was not something I had seen in books, so I had no preconceived notions about it, but I did know that my uncle Gene was a veteran of the Vietnam war, and that the war had been controversial and divisive. (I had, at that time, the most rudimentary understanding of 20th century political history, gleaned from long conversations with my father, a clinical social worker with a Marxist streak and a modest collection of Grateful Dead LPs.)

Even with that small amount of context for what I was looking at, the effect of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on my young consciousness was profound. I walked the length of one of its stone faces to the center of the V, trying to imagine each name as a human being whose life had been extinguished for a cause many Americans now deemed questionable at best. I saw adults scanning the seemingly endless list of the dead and weeping openly when they found a familiar name. I knew my uncle could have easily been a name on that list instead of a guy who always tried to give me Snickers bars, and if he had been, my cousins would not exist. He would have been a specter of the past, impenetrable to me as a direct memory.

An abstraction.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was designed in 1981 by Maya Lin when she was still an undergraduate at Yale. Lin won a national contest with her design and was immediately thrown into a firestorm of controversy, as a young Asian-American woman who had been selected to memorialize the lives of soldiers which had been recently sacrificed on the altar of a regrettable East Asian war. Her detractors found the design insulting; like a big black scar on the surface of the earth.

But Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a wonderfully successful piece of public monumental art precisely because it is a black scar. A wedge-shaped headstone for a mass grave. A place for mourning lives that have been swept up in the service of something greater than themselves, and will be forgotten as individuals in a generation or so, by a culture which will one day be forgotten, too. A place to contemplate all the implications of acts of war.

If the Washington Monument, which is visible from the Memorial, is a phallic white obelisk penetrating the sky, representing all the aspirations of the American experiment, then Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial is its inverse; a concave, black stone-lined dent embodying the negative space that is created by war. Some of these losses are literally tallied on its stone faces; other losses are in a small country on the other side of the world still reeling from centuries of devastating colonialism. Still other losses are unquantifiable. They are moral, psychological, aesthetic. Emotional. They are the feelings of pride in those who are still capable of it, tempered by guilt. Or nationalism masking a deep-seated self-loathing, or a sinking sense of cultural pointlessness. A fundamental deracination of spirit. The loss of American optimism, in the form of an earthwork.

Who and what do we memorialize, and why? In The Alphabet Versus The Goddess, the medical doctor and cultural historian Leonard Shlain reminds us that not only do the victors write the history; the very writing of history implies the existence of victors.

The first writing in human history was Sumerian cuneiform, and the first thing to be written down were lists keeping track of who owed what to whom.

“You owe me a sheep,” declares the first written poem. “It says so right here in my ledger.” The debt could never be repaid, of course, and so the rest of history has been the story of the original debtor growing ever more powerless, while the mountain of what has been accumulated has grown. Sometimes blood sacrifice has been required to maintain this dynamic, and when such sacrifices are made, these are written down as well.

The form of the Washington Monument is that of a wedge; the Vietnam Memorial the impression left from such a tool in the clay tablet of the earth. The cuneiform of the ages writ large.

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