I do not remember the first time I saw the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In my house, it has always been referred to simply as the Wall, and as a child there were many evenings when I saw my father leave the house, saying he was just going down to the Wall to walk around for awhile. I knew, of course, that my father had been to war, although again I do not know where this knowledge stems from. It seems I have always known it. For me, it is as basic a fact as my gender. I have always known that he was drafted and I have always known that he was a staunch protester both before and after his time in Vietnam. And I suppose I have always known that the specter of Vietnam looms large over my family, that my father is haunted by that war and the things that he saw and did there.
So for me, the Wall is especially laden with meaning. When I see the black granite in the distance my heart beats a little faster. When I approach and see the inscription on the first panel that 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,” I find myself nearly breathless. I am not a terribly religious person, but every single time I see that Wall I thank a God I don’t even know if I believe in that my father’s name is not on it. I know he knows some of the names on the Wall. I know those names, and all the names, and all the memories of what he saw and did there, haunt him still. This is what is so acutely painful about the Wall. Every single person there had a family, people who cared about them. Every one. And if there is a lesson to be learned in Vietnam—and there are, of course, many—it is that thing which Americans still seem unable to grasp. Every soldier’s life has meaning and value. Every one.
When I look at them, at all those names that stretch into the distance, I feel a bubble of anger at the men who orchestrated this war. A war that was, I believe, wholly unnecessary-and even if it began with good intentions, to win hearts and minds, it went south so fast. I cannot help but be angry when I see the Wall. I cannot help but be furious. My father has cancer that was most likely caused by exposure to Agent Orange—a substance he was exposed to because he fought unwillingly but nobly in a war he did not believe in. I say nobly because my father, although he could have gotten student deferments, chose to go to war so that someone else’s son would not have to.
The Wall is different from many other public history sites in that is does not attempt to offer information about the war (although my understanding is that they are working on building an education center). So I do not learn any new information about the war when I visit. Instead I learn what a thousand museums dedicated solely to knowledge could never teach: the true cost of war, body after body after body. Name after name after name. If I want to know the causes of the Vietnam war, if I want to read about McNamara’s role in things or why Johnson chose to expand the war efforts, or the Tet Offensive or the role of that disgusting substance napalm, I can read a book. I have read books. But history books do not capture the intangible. I believe in the power of words, certainly, but sometimes there are no words. Sometimes the raw power of seeing a slab of black granite etched with names is far, far more potent.