Why was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial established

Shared memory

Looking back on Vietnam, the United States separates the bad war from the good warriors. Such a culture of remembrance paves the way for future military actions.

From Lotta Suter

When consensus has returned
when the memories of Kent and My Lai and Hiroshima
have lost their power
and their relationship to each other
and to the sweaters "Made in Taiwan" -
what answers will you find then
what armor will protect you
when your children ask you why?

William Daniel Ehrhart, 1977 *

The monument, which commemorates the Vietnam War, stands like a large dark plow on the National Mall, the green national park in the center of Washington DC US soldiers (including 8 women) weigh so heavily that the surfaces have dug themselves deep into the earth. Every year millions of people walk this shiny black wall, called "The Wall".

Many visitors leave farewell letters to sons, men, and brothers here. Others rub the names of their loved ones off the stone monument on a piece of paper with pencil, as if they could take a piece of presence home with them. Some put gifts from the dead at the foot of the wall: a teddy bear for their young father. A Harley-Davidson for the motorcycle fan. And for whom was the replica of a “tiger cage” - that was the name of the notorious torture cells in South Vietnam - placed on the “wall”?

Give peace a chance

In contrast to the figurative war memorials with their generals on horseback or the heroically fighting infantry, the polished gravestone for the US Army members, who stripped off all military hierarchy and distinction here in death, does not simply tell the story of the victors, but leaves room for own thoughts. When you walk along the wall, your own reflection lies over the names of the dead and missing Vietnam veterans.

For example, I think about my exchange year in the US in the middle of this controversial war, I think of the peace demonstrations and the anti-Vietnam War songs by Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, Jim Morrison and Joan Baez. How I was shocked by President Nixon's bold propaganda lies! I remember the desperation of friends who received marching orders for Vietnam and then plunged into depression or drug intoxication because the future had died for them.

I mourn again with the friend whose only brother fell that year. And then there were our weekend parties, at which the police regularly showed up and - unsuccessfully - searched for young men who had fled to Canada in view of the mobilization.

At the end of the wall, I imagine that it will stretch for many kilometers underground, in secret, mourning the millions of victims on the other side of the conflict, a conflict that is only known in the West as the “Vietnam War” in Southeast Asia, on the other hand, «the American war». But where is there an official war memorial for the enemy?

Even the fact that a Vietnam Veterans Memorial came into being, which uncompromisingly commemorates the death and suffering of war, is extraordinary. The initiative for this came from Vietnam veterans who had founded the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) in the late 1970s in order to set a memorial to their comrades who had fallen in Vietnam from private funds. Democratic President Jimmy Carter and Congress approved the construction of such a monument on Washington's National Mall in 1980. A VVMF design competition brought in over 2500 entries, and in May 1981 an international jury selected number 1026, the simple memorial "The Wall" of a 21-year-old American woman of Chinese origin named Maya Lin.

"A gaping mark of shame"

With her obtuse-angled wall, the artist wanted to create a space for personal reflection on Vietnam, a monument that allows for many interpretations and feelings. But the political objections of those who do not expect questions and doubts from a war memorial, but answers or rather hero worship, came promptly and vehemently. The "black gaping stigma", the "nihilistic stone rind", the "Orwellian soul wax" insulted the veterans, it was said.

The criticism of the Vietnam memorial was as sexist and racist as the war itself had been. Among other things, the young Asian-American artist was insulted as a “spring roll”, as an unpatriotic woman who doesn't understand anything about this man's business anyway. The now right-wing US government, which wanted the Vietnam War to be recognized as a "noble cause", as an honorable matter, initially refused the building permit for the "Wall" project. And before the first groundbreaking in the spring of 1982, Congress forced a “compromise”. The "anti-war monument", which in his opinion was all too radical, was to be modified by an unmistakable flagpole and a conventional war memorial praising the unity and honor of the nation.

Maya Lin fought vehemently against the artistic assault, but despite the support of the US Art Commission, she was only able to move the additional elements from the center to the edge of her «wall».

When President Reagan officially inaugurated the US flag and the bronze statue "The Three Soldiers" by the artist Frederick Hart in 1984, the next expansion or defuse of the original "Wall" was already being planned: although the names of the female Vietnamese dead were completely equal on Maya Lin's wall carved, it needed a statue of a heroine of its own for the women who had mainly worked as nurses during the Vietnam War. Maya Lin and the art commission also defended themselves in vain against this special interest. In 1993 the Amazon corner was inaugurated. And in 2004 a plaque was added to honor those Vietnam veterans who only died afterwards from the consequences of the war, such as the effects of the defoliant Agent Orange or post-traumatic stress syndrome.

And the Vietnam memorial is still not complete: At the instigation of the VVMF veterans, a Vietnam education center is to be built near the "Wall". All sides are hoping for something from this, including the anti-war faction. It is already certain that all 58,000 fallen Vietnam veterans who are united on Maya Lin's wall in universal human suffering will be presented here individually in words and pictures and honored for their service to the fatherland.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial continues to grow, because the memory of this war is still irreconcilably divided and its interpretation is controversial. An invasion, which at its peak in the early 1970s was rejected as “immoral” by the majority of Americans, cannot simply be rewritten and carved as a “good war”. Not even the large-scale $ 65 million propaganda offensive by the Pentagon - a Vietnam anniversary celebration that began in 2012 and is expected to last until 2025 - has so far been successful.

The corresponding websites and videos of the Department of Defense received hardly any attention - except for historians, who immediately proved the US government to have falsified history. For example, the official voices made no mention of how unpopular this war had been and how strong the peace movement had been, to which a striking number of veterans belonged in the final years of the war. So veteran antiwar activists founded the Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee, an association that recalls the other side of this story - the widespread resistance to US aggression in Southeast Asia. For its part, the Pentagon has meanwhile completely dispensed with the historical reappraisal of the Vietnam War. Focus on honoring the veterans and their families who have made such great sacrifices to the nation.

Forget the war, but remember the warriors. Such deliberate and selective memory loss was recommended by President Gerald Ford as early as 1975. A week before the fall of Saigon, he said that as far as the United States was concerned, this war was over. Now the only thing left to do is to regain the pride that the nation possessed before Vietnam. A decade later, President Reagan fought the “Vietnam Syndrome” with a brisk nationalism and militarism, which, as is well known, have not subsided to this day.

The political and military mistakes made by their own government and the suffering that has been inflicted on the Vietnamese population have been pushed out of national consciousness. Vietnam becomes a purely American tragedy. Like the recently acclaimed (and Oscar-nominated) documentary "Last Days in Vietnam" by Rory Kennedy, which shows how shortly before the fall of Saigon some US Americans who remained in the country tried to save as many South Vietnamese allies as possible.

The focus of such a culture of remembrance is always the well-being of one's own wounded nation. And she finally needs healing, not resentful anti-war sentiment. At least that is what a post-war myth claims, which is already preparing the country for new wars. Their own veterans were the greatest victims of the Vietnam War and their worst enemies were the peace activists, who insulted and even spat at the returning soldiers.

The anti-war movement in the USA has never been able to rid itself of the charge of having despised the Vietnamese returnees in the 1970s - even though it had many veterans for peace in its own ranks. Thirty years later, when it came out against the Iraq war, the lastingly weakened US peace movement was always painstakingly anxious to separate the bad war from the good warrior.

This legitimation from below is very practical for the US government in a time of eternal wars: its military rank and file has been practically inviolable since Vietnam. The US soldiers are heroic per se, no matter where, how and against whom they fight (unless they act as whistleblowers against their own government, see “The fear of disappearing forever in a secret prison”). The uniformed superhumans - the US has not had any compulsory service since 1973 - the civilian population in the US today is incessantly thanking - even if they no longer remember exactly for what and why.

* Excerpt from the longer poem "To Those Who Have Gone Home Tired" by the Vietnam veteran, teacher, journalist and poet William Daniel Ehrhart (born 1948).

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