Last November marked the 30th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Since it ranks as one of the most popular sites on the National Mall with over 4 million visitors every year, it is easy to forget the outcry that accompanied the monument’s initial unveiling in 1982. Critics called it a “black gash of shame and sorrow,” and “nihilistic.” Prominent supporters of a Vietnam memorial pulled out of the project when the design contest judges selected Maya Lin’s now-iconic black wall concept. But the two reflective granite slabs that bear the names of over 58,000 service personnel killed or missing in Vietnam now rate as one of the most beloved pieces of American architecture and serve as a kind of national shrine.
The battle over the Vietnam memorial was more than aesthetic; it reflected a disagreement about how to interpret the war and how to communicate its meaning to current and future generations. It was a fight about national memory. For some veterans and their supporters, the black wall bespoke disaster and disgrace; it failed to recognize the heroism of individual human beings who fought valiantly and served honorably, even if the nation considered the war a loss.
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Celeste Ward Gventer is associate director at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, part of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. As deputy assistant secretary of defense from 2007 to 2009, she helped develop U.S. policy on stabilization, reconstruction and counterinsurgency capabilities. She spent 2006 in Iraq as a political-military adviser to coalition forces, and a tour in 2003-04 assisting Iraqi civilian and military officials.