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Volume 10, Number 1

Spring/Summer 2012

Flagship Memorial:
An Analysis of Themes at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: 1982-2007*


Leslie D. Meyers

University of Missouri-Columbia

    The past 20 years have been witness to a tremendous increase in the amount of scholarship on collective memory and the process of memorialization. A large portion of this literature utilizes the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (VVM) as an exemplar. Joining this expanding knowledge base, I too seek to employ the VVM as a vehicle for understanding the construction of contentious memories. 

    Several leading scholars in the field discuss the construction of memories in quite divergent ways. Marita Sturken discusses cultural memory as highly dependent on context, placing an emphasis on the separation between memory and history as the Vietnam War continues to be rewritten over time. Alternatively, Jeffrey Olick focuses on the creation of memory, believing those memories that gain a foothold are told and maintained by society’s elite. Seemingly occupying a middle ground is the work of Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz (1991), who not only discuss the origins of memory regarding the VVM, but also include a thick description spanning a decade. Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz (1991) sought to get at the heart of two distinct yet related issues: 1) the general problem of how meaning and culture are created and 2) how this process operates in relation to the VVM. Seeking to understand how a difficult past is commemorated, Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz (1991) conclude the simultaneous existence of tension and acceptance, a process they refer to as coincidentia oppositorum.

    Using a content analysis of 791 articles, this research seeks to determine how meaning is created at the VVM, with a focus on meaning over time. What changes, if any, were visible at the VVM in meaning and memory? Do contrasting meanings continue to be conflated rather than resolved, similar to the findings of Wagner-Pacific and Schwartz (1991)?

    An analysis of conflation presupposes these multiple meanings be evident within the 791 sample articles of the New York Times (NYT) and Washington Post (WP). Key words and phrases such as "reconciliation," "approval," "thanks," and "programs for healing" were placed under the umbrella of healing. Found under the heading of politics were articles referencing politicians at the memorial, the treatment of soldiers following the Vietnam War, reports of casualties following war, Vietnamese, foreign wars, the WWII memorial, the Oklahoma City memorial and Ground Zero. Articles discussing the six-year campaign that culminated in the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, the Three Servicemen statue, and the education center became a conversation regarding the controversy over additional elements. The presence of religion was uncovered through such phrases as "hallowed," "sacred," "pilgrimage," "shrine," "baptism," and "reverence". The phenomenon of offerings – leaving objects such as flags, flowers, medals, pictures, letters, and various personal effects, illustrates an individual’s ability to construct memory. These five themes: 1) healing, 2) politics, 3) controversy over additional elements, 4) religion, and 5) offerings, then became the chapters towards a more conclusive understanding of the sociological aspects of memory at the VVM, providing insight as to how the construction and continuation of contentious memories is both possible and cathartic.


    The VVM represents the physical memories of one of the most culturally, socially and politically charged periods in American history – the Vietnam War. Born out of the vision of veteran, Jan Scruggs, he contends in his memoir, To Heal a Nation (1992), that upon seeing the movie The Deerhunter (1978), he recognized the importance of remembering those who served in Vietnam. Together with John Wheeler and Robert Doubek, they formed the non-profit organization: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF). "On May 29, 1979, 10 years to the day after he lay wounded in the jungle, bleeding badly and reciting the Lord’s Prayer, he announced the project to the press. ‘The only thing we’re worried about . . . is raising too much money’" (Atkinson 1989).

    Maya Lin, an architecture student at Yale University, won the competition with a simple design. Lin envisioned taking a knife and cutting into the slope of the earth leaving behind a wound that would eventually heal, but forever bear the scar of war. The Wall, shaped like a chevron tells a story of war, of loss, and of camaraderie. Ordered chronologically by date of death, the names omit any mention of age, race, or rank. Sturken (1997:60) writes "the ethnic derivations of these names are subsumed into a narrative of an American melting pot—into which, ironically Maya Lin, as an agent of commemoration, will not fit." According to Lin, "It was extremely naïve of me to think that I could produce a neutral statement that would not become politically controversial simply because I chose not to take sides" (Lin 2000).

    One of the many compromises to Lin’s work are two inscriptions, which, aside from the names, are the only words found on the memorial. Other compromises, discussed later, include the Three Servicemen statue and Vietnam Women’s Memorial. Lin’s resistance to include text at the memorial’s apex was due to her desire to avoid a political reading of the Wall (Lin 2000:4:14).

    Lin, in her book Boundaries (2000:4:10-11) stated on her choice of black granite, "The mirrored effect would double the size of the park, creating two worlds, one we are a part of and one we cannot enter." Journalists, veterans and politicians attacked the design of the memorial on multiple aesthetic fronts. Creating the memorial so low to the ground had the effect of emasculating many veterans. According to Sturken (1997) the racial reading of the Wall was silenced only when General George Price, a black man, spoke out against the argument founded on color. "Black is not the color of shame. I am tired of hearing it called such by you. Color meant nothing on the battlefields of Korea and Vietnam" (Sturken 1997:52). Dissenters of the memorial’s color and shape also found fault in the listing of the names. According to Lin (2000:4:13), the anger of having to search for a name was only quashed when "a tally of how many Smiths had died made it clear than an alphabetical listing wouldn’t be feasible." According to Allen McCabe, a National Park Service Volunteer, there are 667 Smith’s on the Wall, including 38 John Smiths.

    In the early 1980s the Commission of Fine Arts approached Frederick Hart to build a statue reminiscent of more traditional war memorials, in an effort to compromise with those veterans’ groups opposing the abstract Wall. The resulting Three Servicemen statue is positioned with an American flag at the entryway to the memorial. Roughly ten years later, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial was added to the site. Set off in a clearing 150 feel from the Wall, eight trees encircle three nurses holding the body of a soldier.

   The above snapshots of memorialization are enhanced by an understanding of the theoretical background of collective memory, the cornerstones of which derive from: Émile Durkheim’s (1965) focus on commemorative events, symbols and social feelings; Maurice Halbwachs’ (1992) findings that memory and society are synonymous; and Pierre Nora’s (1989) scholarship that memory sites like the VVM (lieux de mémoire) are created. This project acknowledges these early contributions on their own merit as well as their influence that can be seen within the more recent scholarship of Schwartz (1982, 1991a, 1991b), Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz (1991), Sturken (1991, 1997), Olick (1999) and Olick and Robbins (1998). By utilizing their theories, I seek to chronicle the VVM in terms of memory’s change and continuity – a seemingly paradoxical combination. Will the sixteen years following Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz’s (1991) landmark piece show similar evidence of conflating healing with political rhetoric?

Literature Review

     Illuminating the various social conditions of commemoration, Durkhiem, in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1965), discussed their ability to reinforce the moral consensus and safeguard historical ideas. Halbwachs (1992:38) too, stresses the importance of group remembering stating, "It is in society that people normally acquire their memories. It is also in society that they recall, recognize, and localize their memories." Labeled the "true heir to Halbwachs" by Olick and Robbins (1998:121), Pierre Nora’s notions of lieux de mémoire (sites of memory) and milieux de mémoire (real environments of memory) are at the core of many contemporary scholars’ research on collective memory.  

    One can see traces of Nora’s constructed sites of memory in Sturken’s writings on cultural memory. Sturken (1991, 1997) uses the term to highlight the influence of culture in both the formation and continuation of memories over time. Cultural memory refers to the relationship between accepted recorded accounts of history, individual memories and perceived collective recollections of the past. Furthermore, Sturken (1997:21) believes that memories are not stagnant; "though an image may fix an event temporally, the meaning of that image is constantly subject to contextual shifts."

    Schwartz offers a divergent view placing more emphasis on its enduring qualities through time, cautioning that controversy over memory can potentially threaten the stability of society. In "Social Change and Collective Memory: The Democratization of George Washington" Schwartz (1991:222) argues that regardless of a society’s "ideological climate," a connection with the past is necessary, and this connection is preserved through memories. Given this debate, I expect that the content analysis would reveal malleability and stability to be intricately woven together.

    Olick (1998, 1999) is perhaps the staunchest supporter of the idea that memory and conflict are synonymous. Olick and Robbins (1998:126) write that "memory sites and memory practices are central loci for ongoing struggles over identity." In her book, Tangled Memories (1997), Sturken discusses both the processes of consensus and conflict, asserting that her theory of cultural memory acts as a mechanism for the struggles of various stories. Olick and Robbins (1998:126) respond to Sturken with noticeable disagreement: "This sounds almost too benign and passive; people and groups fight hard for their stories. Contestation is clearly at the center of both memory and identity." Pointing to the problematic history of memory construction dominated by those in/with power, Olick (1999) believes the way around this predicament hinges on the inclusion of multiple collective memories, constructed within different positions in society. Even by taking precautions, Olick (1999) suggests that, generally speaking, the powerful get their way. I fully expected to find the decision-making process at the VVM solely resulting from high-ranking officials and government actors. However, my findings point to an alternate construction of memory indicating power can be found within other sources. 

     The above literature will no doubt provide insightful context for my analysis; however the central goal of this paper is to understand the construction of contentious memory. This is best accomplished through the concept outlined by Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz (1991) in "The Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Commemorating a Difficult Past." Writing in a Durkheimian tradition, Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz (1991) believe that processes of commemoration allow the collective to remember its previous convictions, thereby solidifying their current beliefs. Endeavoring to distinguish alternative characteristics involved with negative events, Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz’s (1991) research bears resemblance to Sturken’s views of cultural memory when they discuss the evolution of the VVM as illustrating a "culture-producing process."

    Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz (1991:413) discuss the many changes to the physical site of the VVM as both "opportunities for" and "constraints on" change. As their article was published in the early 1990s, they were unable to incorporate the specific "ongoing controversy over its further modification" which was and continues to be extensive. According to Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz (1991:392), "Recreating the context and process out of which the Vietnam Veterans Memorial developed, we came to see it not as a monument that ignores political meanings, but as a kind of coincidentia oppositorum – an agency that brings these opposed meanings together without resolving them." 

    These meanings have to be actively constructed. According to Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz (1991:382) "memorial devices are not self-created; they are conceived and built by those who wish to bring consciousness to the events and people that others are more inclined to forget" (see Foote 1997; Sturken 1997; Theriault 2003; Jordan 2006). The works contributed to the field of collective memory and memorialization by Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz, Sturken and Olick broaden the manner in which the VVM can be analyzed. 

     Though serving as a roadmap, the above debates are now more than a decade in the past. This project seeks to provide an extension of Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz’s "culture producing process" at the VVM through an understanding of how memory is created using the works of Sturken and Olick for support. According to Confino "Only when linked to historical questions and problems, via methods and theories, can memory be illuminating" (1997:1388). In light of this, the construction and uses of memory in relation to the VVM become significant when viewed through the lenses of collective memory scholars. The goal of this project is to provide an extension of their work.


    Conceptualizing the VVM as a case study offers several advantages; one in particular, according to Ragin (1987:35) is its ability to function as "historically interpretive and causally analytic." Interpreting history in this sense utilizes the process of sequentiality and context to reconstruct the particularities unique to a specific case. Demarcating the boundaries to material printed in the New York Times and Washington Post from 1982-2007, revealed 791 articles for analysis. Both newspapers are widely read, some of the more reputable in the market, and thus potentially valuable sources of information on the public debates about the VVM. While simply looking at the weeks directly before and after each November 13th anniversary would undoubtedly have yielded fruitful information, I sought a more comprehensive view by looking at the NYT and WP as my primary data sources throughout the entire year.  In light of this, all sections of both newspapers were included in the research sample including, but not limited to: Local/domestic/national news, Business/finance/economy, Politics, Letters from the Readers, Opinion/Editorials, Arts/Culture, Events, Tourism/Travel etc. Articles that merely mention the memorial without contributing any substantial weight to the data were omitted. An example of such omissions would include those discussing memorials built in honor of Vietnam veterans in cities outside Washington D.C., as well as the ‘Traveling Wall.’ Additionally, mentions of memorial coins or 5K races were excluded from the analysis.

     An initial reading of the 791 articles, 298 from the NYT and 493 from the WP, yielded a long list of potential variables for analysis. These variables were differentiated into five separate yet interrelated stories of commemoration: 1) healing, 2) politics, 3) controversy over additional elements, 4) religion and 5) offerings – those material objects left as the base of the memorial. Articles were then re-read and tallied according to date, newspaper and thematic references.  From there, it was possible, due to a grounded process of discovery, to uncover specific nuances of discourse in relation to the VVM, such as a discussion of race, a sub-theme found within politics.

    According to Linenthal (2001:95), "The language of healing and closure revealed a need to systematize and regulate mourning, particularly after violent mass death." The complex healing process is mirrored in the multiplicity of terms and usages found in both newspapers. Using healing as an exemplar for coding, discussions of healing were found to be present in a multitude of manners. Articles specifically mentioning the word healing or any variation thereof (have healed, will heal, started to heal) were included. Synonyms and metonyms such as "acceptance," "resolution," "understanding," "recognition," "approval," "therapeutic" as well as phrases referencing "closure," "long time coming," "hard fought," "I used to be ashamed" were included within the larger theme of healing, in addition to "reconciliation" – often used interchangeably with healing. 

      Slogans of "Support our troops" exemplify the conflation of themes. These refrains, which seem so obvious in the current day, owe a debt of service to the hard lessons learned in Vietnam. Troops were not respected or thanked. This analysis provides evidence of coincidentia oppositorum, demonstrating how articles can contain elements of political and healing discourses. Additional discussion on this issue can be found later in the paper.


   Across the 791 articles, five themes emerged in the following order: 1) politics (29.4%), 2) conflict over additional elements (24.9%), 3) healing (20.6%), 4) religion (16.4%), and 5) offerings (8.6 %). All themes are discussed in detail below.


    By far the most surprising theme to emerge from the analysis was the sheer volume of articles devoted to politics: 233 articles, over 29 percent (29.4%). Though familiar with accusations that the armed forces were disproportionately African American; a discussion of race was unintended. The politics of forgetting, according to Sturken (1997) explains the absence of Vietnamese from collective memory literature – but were Vietnamese also removed from newspaper coverage? In light of the VVMF’s predisposition to construct an apolitical memorial, I was specifically interested in how presidents and political officials interacted with the memorial, whether or not they used the memorial as a backdrop for their political agendas and how their presence was received. Wars and foreign conflicts such as the Persian Gulf were also found to be an important part of the newspaper analysis. Perhaps their relationship with the VVM at this time is of greater significance considering the current War on Terror. Since 2001, one of the foci regarding the process of memorialization in the United States has been steadily centered on the National September 11 Memorial.

Racial Tensions:  Research has shown age, race, social class, and education to play a discriminating role in determining the make-up of those ultimately sent to war (Verba 1967; Verba & Brody 1970; Lunch and Sperlich 1979; Sturken 1997; Gartner and Segura 2000; Moss 2003). According to Lunch and Sperlich (1979), Vietnam occupied an emotionally charged time period for the Black community which often resulted in coining the war as racist. While the Wall itself gives no preference to age, race, sex, class or levels of education; newspaper analysis indicates that the years following the memorial’s 1982 dedication contained a number of articles still focusing on the delicate debate of race. Executive director of the Black Patriots foundation, Wayne Smith states, "I truly believe building the Vietnam Veterans Memorial helped heal the divide between those who did go and those who didn’t. The memorial transcends race. It is more about human beings. They all fought for freedom" (Wheeler 1996). 

Vietnamese: Less than five percent of articles in both the NYT and WP reference the Vietnamese in their coverage of the VVM. Sturken (1997) discusses how discourses of healing at the memorial end up creating a consensus and a veil over the politics. According to Washington Post staff writer, Colman McCarthy: "The wall itself is incomplete. Where are the names of Vietnam’s dead? Were they not human beings with lives as sacred as Americans" (McCarthy 1988)? For all the passion behind these statements, little comes out of them. There is no memorial currently in the works to the two million plus Vietnamese who died.

Presidents:  Presidents seeking to use the Wall as a stage for their political agendas were consistently met with hostility. After briefly applauded for his efforts in locating POWs and MIAs, Reagan’s motivations were termed "a jingoistic effort to use the Vietnam wall to promote the war ethic while avoiding its effects," and a technique of renovating the last war as just as a method to prepare the next one (McCarthy 1988). Equally abrasive was the resistance campaign directed at Clinton for his avoidance of the draft:

Please, in view of your activities during the war in Vietnam, let’s not see you engage in any hypocrisy by attending ceremonies either at the Vietnam Wall or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. While your "esteemed" conscience led you to organize events that provided aid and comfort to the enemy, American soldiers were maimed and killed obeying the legal processes of representative government (McAllister 1993).
George W. Bush was forced to defend his lack of active military service during the presidential campaign against John Kerry. Kerry was further chastised for his presence at the memorial due to his outspoken antiwar protests following his return stateside. Outraged, one woman asked, "Are you paying tribute to all the people you spat on, Senator Kerry" (Wilgoren 2004)?

Persian Gulf War:  In the early 1990s, the Persian Gulf War brought fear to Americans as many believed it would turn into another Vietnam. Such statements as "I don’t want the troops used and abused, if you are going to use them, take care of them;"(Sinclair 1990) and "A war worth fighting is a war worth winning, and a war not worth winning is not worth fighting" (Thompson and Baker 1990) were common beliefs. "It is the first Veterans Day since the mid-1970s that has come with a large U.S. force facing the possibility of war" (Sinclair 1990). The Persian Gulf War restored a sense of pride in the armed forces lacking since Vietnam. According to Priscilla Miller, a former Navy anesthetist who served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam, "It took the Persian Gulf war, and its popular support, to force Americans to re-examine the conflict in Southeast Asia, and how the country had treated its veterans" (Schmitt 1993).

Post 9-11 Iraq: Newspaper analysis shows external events such as September 11th to have had an observable effect on the public discussions of the VVM. In the words of one visitor, "After 9/11, it all takes on a deeper meaning. I feel very moved to be here in the nation’s capitol on Memorial Day weekend" (Schmitt 1993). The messages attached to the Wall, while still maintaining their emphasis on healing and reconciliation, have evolved to include those victims from the current War on Terror. "In the annual ceremony, red roses are placed at the Wall for soldiers killed in action, and yellow roses to commemorate soldiers who remain missing. This year, new flowers were added –white roses—for soldiers killed in Iraq" (Boorstein 2003). Given the fact that we are not allowed to see the coffins returning from Iraq, the white roses are theoretically one of the few places to witness the magnitude of lives lost. With popularity levels eerily reminiscent of Vietnam, veterans and citizens voice their support for the troops, if not the cause. Refrains such as "support our troops" have become replacements for the derogatory remarks aimed at Vietnam veterans. While there were many anti-war protestors during Vietnam, their automatic status as anti-soldier is not implied in this context.

Connection with Other Memorials:

 According to Edward Linenthal, Building a proper memorial has become part of the inevitable process of picking up the pieces. Memorialization has become a much more profound, immediate language of engagement with an event. There’s something about the speed of the culture in what’s happening. There’s a fear that things are going to be forgotten (Johnson 2003).
Influencing nearly 150 replicas across the country, (Sun 1986) the VVM is also credited as the catalyst for the WWII memorial, built in 2004. "The Iwo Jima statue no longer seemed a sufficient marker for WWII, so a large memorial to that war is being constructed on the Mall" leading Scruggs to state: "We sort of created a need for recognition, and I think that’s great" (Reel 2002).

Controversy over Additional Elements

    The centrality of physical modifications, shown through roughly one quarter of articles devoted to alterations to the memorial (24.9% 197 articles), illustrates a tug-of-war for control of memory. At the time of this writing, three memorials as well as an In Memory plaque have been included at the Memorial.

Women’s Vietnam Memorial: Civilians turned memorial entrepreneurs have successfully managed to alter the physical landscape of the VVM, and, with each new addition, alter the concept of how particular memories should be preserved. In the late 1980s, Diane Carlson Evans, a nurse in Vietnam began to speculate on the absence of females within the VVM. "I was so struck by it, it took my breath away: There are no women in this statue! I was beginning to realize the country really didn’t know we were there. . . Maybe I wasn’t really there. Maybe I am imagining it" (Perl 1992). Evans, believed that a women’s memorial to the over 10,000 women who served in Vietnam was necessary only after the Three Servicemen statue was added in 1984. Had the memorial remained only the Wall, they contended that they would have had no cause to pursue a memorial honoring only women.

Education Center:  While Washington D.C. memorials such as the Jefferson and Lincoln are inundated with documentary elements; the VVM, devoid of any historical narrative, instead condenses it all into symbols. As the Wall approached the close of its second decade, Scruggs took notice of an increasing number of visitors to the Wall lacking the history to understand the significance of the over 58,000 names. To some extent, it has been successful. Maureen Dooley expressed the need to "apologize for her generation" saying that, "this time, we’re with our young men and women" (Vogel et al. 2007). "Scruggs said many of the more than 4 million visitors to the memorial weren’t born when the war ended, and there is a need to put the Wall and the war into context for younger tourists" (Wheeler 2001).

    Following disagreements that the center would detract from the contemplative nature of the existing Wall, a compromise to create the center underground was reached. Reprising an old debate, select veterans associated the underground center with feelings of disgrace. Veteran Ray Saikus, expressed his views that the proposed underground center would symbolize a "bunker or tunnel" similar to those in which veterans fought. "It will be more a tribute to the Viet Cong" (Wheeler 2001). In addition, Saikus stated that the location of the underground center "is being placed out of sight, hidden as if in shame" (Wheeler 2001).


   The analysis of newspaper articles demonstrates that overall, in this context, healing is difficult to separate from politics. Almost twenty-one percent of articles (20.6%, 163 articles), focusing on healing, confirms Sturken’s (1997) belief that within the context of the VVM, the language of healing was a way to silence voices of dissent or critique about the war itself. In an ideological sense, the healing becomes a part of politics; that everything will be fine after healing occurs.

    It is a slow process for many veterans to accept their role in Vietnam and attempt to heal their psychological and physical wounds. It is slower still as many veterans are unable to let go of the resentment they feel over their participation, while a public opinion war raged through their own country. Staff Writer for the WP, Pamela Constable (2007) provides an account for both sides: 

For some participants, the event [the twenty-fifth anniversary of the memorial’s dedication] had a theme of carefully nursed grievance, a permanent wound kept alive so future generations would not forget. Vietnam vets spoke with deep bitterness of being neglected and scorned after returning from combat 40 years ago, of having fought hard to win a war that they said politicians lost.
The 25th. anniversary was not solely about the bitterness described above. "For other veterans in the crows yesterday, riding to Washington with Rolling Thunder every year has become a ritual of renewed, cathartic healing, a chance to feel unabashedly patriotic and to revel in the friendly welcome they receive as they travel to the capital" (Constable 2007). Created in 1987, Rolling Thunder is a non-profit organization dedicated to keeping attention of POWs and MIAs. Its name is derived from President Johnson’s "Rolling Thunder" campaign during the Vietnam War.

    The VVM exemplifies the ambiguous nature of healing discourses. In his book, The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory (2001:94), Edward Linenthal discusses the media frenzy post-bombing which centered on "‘the healing process’ that would eventually lead to ‘closure’ (a word many in Oklahoma City came to detest)." Linenthal (2001:94) is critical of this process which he calls a "simplistic pop psychology" believing it reduces the complexities of healing. "The implosion of the Murrah Building on May 23 led to numerous suggestions that the city had ‘healed,’ that the event was ‘over’" (Linenthal 2001:94). Many people believed the divisive environment of the 1960s and 1970s would be forgotten following the 1982 dedication; here was the recognition that veterans had longed for and since been denied. The many different programs dedicated to the Vietnam veterans (Salute II, Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Rolling Thunder, In Touch, Sons and Daughters In Touch) intended to aid in the healing process shifts discussions of healing as an ideology, something forced on people, to healing as an individualist endeavor. For some veterans, the need for personal healing developed through activism, which in turn aided in the healing process for others.


    The memorial is for many, a burial ground for their loved ones. Understanding this to be a special place, I did not anticipate such a large multitude of theological elements and venerational behaviors within the newspaper articles (16.4%, 129 articles). As Herbert Muschamp (2003), architecture critic for the NYT, wrote: 

In recent decades, memorial architecture has taken up an increasing share of public life and space. Since 1982, with the stunning response to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, memorial architecture emerged as a branch of industry. Through it, quasi-religious sentiment has gained a socially sanctioned place within the public realm. 
Sites of violence and death often attract religious memorabilia which lifts an otherwise profane space into the realm of the sacred. While the VVM is not the physical location of Vietnam veterans’ deaths, it is common to view the Wall of names as a loved one’s final resting place. According to Jacobs (2004), religious artifacts such as candles, crucifixes, and rosaries – assists in transforming a location that was once the site of violence or tragedy into sacred ground. Edward Linenthal believes the sudden explosion of offerings is due to the fact that, "people want to connect in visceral ways, and one of the ways to do this is to leave things" (Niebuhr and Wilgoren 1999). The memorial according to scholars such as Linenthal (2001), Marling (1987), and Young (2006), "has become more than a secular monument and is now viewed by many Americans as almost holy" (Niebuhr 1994).

    Similar to baptism, the practice of washing the Wall was viewed as "an absolution – cleansing the granite of grit and their souls of guilt because their names are not up there beside [the] others" (Morello 2000). For many veterans, it is a deeply personal experience. Washing the Wall allows a communication of sorts with the dead, a connection that exceeds that of merely touching the cool granite. For Michael Lay, the connection brings back vivid memories. "Close your eyes, and 25 years is only a breath away. I feel like I’ve just cleaned up my guys. As a medic, that was my job" (Morello 2000).

    The sanctification occurring at the memorial is not a new phenomenon. It is ironic, however, considering all the controversy that nearly halted construction of the Wall. This shifting of opinion towards both the war and the memorial echoes the changing perceptions found in the NYT and WP. As the Vietnam generation gets older, America is not only accepting the veterans, but also, for the most part, apologizing for past behaviors.


    Newspaper coverage, over eight percent (8.6%, 69 articles), consistently refers to the VVM as an altar, a place where people feel compelled to leave an offering of some sort. The collection of offerings has been housed in a Maryland facility known as the Museum and Archeological Regional Storage (MARS), for over twenty years (Carlson 1988). It has in that time, shown subtle changes, according to Duery Felton, curator of the collection (Carlson 1988). Letters to husbands, brothers, fathers, sons and friends used to resemble impromptu notes hastily scribbled on hotel stationary or gift shop bags.

    Many others are the result of meticulous planning and gestures of hard fought acceptance. Illustrating the changing perceptions regarding the War, letters to comrades from survivors emphasize their sorrow for living while so many others did not. Jan Scruggs believes the Wall has been responsible for forming memory at other sites of terror and tragedy as well. 

The items left at the Oklahoma City tragedy, the World Trade Center, the AIDS quilt, even the small memorials we see each day on highways are traced to how America has changed the way it mourns. This is healthy, and it is a debt we owe to the Wall and those engraved thereon (Pressley Montes 2006).
The construction of memory at the VVM was and continues to be greatly influenced by the process of leaving offerings. The increasing levels of commercialism near the memorial also served to color the collection, as many objects left at the Wall are the result of wares purchased from easily accessible vendors. Flags, representing a large portion of those wares and offerings at the Wall, could symbolize increased feelings of national pride and patriotism, or they could simply result from the desire to leave something, anything, as a tribute.


    Memories of Vietnam have undergone many shifts in the Wall’s 25 years. Much of that shifting memory is due to what both Sturken (1997) and Olick (1999) call the "malleability of memory." According to Olick (1999:381) "Images of the past are malleable. Traditions are ‘invented’ and memories are altered for instrumental reasons in the present. Social memories are subject to, and are products of, preproduction conflict and purposeful memory entrepreneurship." The examination of newspaper coverage indicates that memory is unable to withstand the power of temporal malleability. Physical changes to the site, the inclusivity of other foreign conflicts and the process of leaving offerings demonstrates both a concrete and abstract shifting of memory. Sturken’s (1997) belief that the frequent debate allows memory to retain its significance is reiterated by James Young, who states: "Memorials are intended, even if not explicitly, to stimulate some debate. Otherwise they aren’t doing their job, which is to keep the subjects memorialized on the public’s front burner" (Kimmelman (1992).

    The percentages of articles referencing politics or the controversy over additional elements illustrates that distancing the memorial from political rhetoric is an impossible task. Out of 791 articles, 54.3% are predominantly politically and controversially themed. Additionally, articles that were coded within the theme of healing are, in essence, simultaneously placing conflict side-by-side with resolution. Similar to Lin’s hope that the Wall would symbolize a scar – itself a reminder of both injury and repair; the many compromises that have been reach at the memorial over the past 25 years confirms the amalgamation of conflicting themes. 

    This amalgam, showcasing the physical modifications to the site, is well-documented in both the NYT and WP. There is a tug-of-war for control of memory at the VVM. Each new addition was repeatedly accompanied by both support and opposition. These instances demonstrate that controversy, politics and healing do exist concurrently. 

    Confirming the importance of anniversaries and veterans’ holidays as flashpoints of collective memory, 41% of articles from both newspapers were found in May and November (Durkheim 1965; Halbwachs 1992; Linenthal 2001; Foote 2003; Jordan 2006). These flashpoints are shown through the reprisals of conflicts and compromises with an underlying theme of healing and reconciliation. It is as if there is no healing without controversy and no controversy without healing at the VVM. 

    The example of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial illustrates what Olick refers to as a struggle between memory and identity. My goal to understand what themes ultimately become coupled with politics uncovered a connection with the battle for women’s rights. The fight for equality among women is an enduring one. In the case of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, a victorious one; however that victory was tainted by the political agendas of select officials.

    Newspaper coverage indicates that not only does the VVM convey multiple meanings; those meanings do not appear to result from a top-down construction of memory as Olick (1999) asserts. While the government does play a role, they are not the creators of history and memory in this case. Individuals operating through grassroots’ agendas conceived the idea for a memorial, pushed for a traditional statue, felt the absence of women, and altered the Department of Defense’s guidelines for inclusion on the Wall (Pressley Montes 2006). These battles to be heard echo Olick’s (1999) belief that people fight hard for their stories. When the common man becomes the arbitrator of difference and the architect of change, it is especially interesting to investigate the processed involved in this particular construction of memory, both to understand history, but also to aid in the construction of memory for future unique and controversial events.

    Remembering inherently involves some degree of forgetting. The VVM is a continual reminder that veterans took charge of their own destiny, paving a new path for their future treatment. The annual celebrations of homecoming messages and thanks demonstrate how some messages are purposefully reiterated, while others - insults such as baby-killer, are noticeably absent. This is most clearly visible by comparing newspaper print from the early 1980s with those written in more recent years. In a 1985, Professor Khoa stated: "It was called a repugnant memorial to a dreadful war, and also an insult to the Americans who died there, a monument wholly lacking in heroism" (Black Gash of Shame 1985). A visible shift can be seen less than ten years later, "Though it started out in controversy – some thought it an insult to both veterans and good taste – it has ended up the most popular memorial in the country" (Ayres Jr. 1992).

    There is perhaps, no greater measure of this process than an analysis of the offerings left at the Memorial. Over the past 25 years, these offerings have changed due to a number of reasons. Visitors to the Wall initially didn’t realize their offerings were viewed with importance by park officials; therefore less care was taken to make them an enduring message. This phenomenon illustrates the re-construction of memory as visitors leaving behind objects essentially become archivists, curators, and conservators as they come to understand their offerings will be preserved. Visitors to the memorial are trying very consciously to influence the historical memory of how we would talk about the event through the kinds of artifacts that they choose to leave there, which they know are going to be collected.

    Schwartz contends that if the past were unable to survive the present through the various stages of social change, the cohesion of society would be fragile. However, this is not what I found with regards to the VVM. While the past is brought forth to the present, time and time again; it is the influence of the present on the past that strengthens society. By learning from previous mistakes, individuals are able to undergo their own personal coincidentia oppositorum, by acknowledging both the historical wrongdoings and continued resentments while also working to actively subsume them into a larger discourse of enlightenment and reconciliation. 

    According to Oldenburg (1992), "Public memory is continually subject to change. It does not preserve the past as much as it bends the past to the politics of the present." This process has been especially important in the wake of recent events such as the War on Terror. If the American people had not been able to take the ugliness of the Vietnam War, acknowledge it for what it was, and work towards a brighter future – then I believe Schwartz’s words would ring true and the cohesion of society would be delicate. For a country that had not experienced such polarization since the Civil War, there was a very real fear that Vietnam would break the army as well as fracture a culture. In effect, coincidentia oppositorum had to occur in order to get through another polarizing foreign conflict. This acceptance has coalesced into sanctification, which according to Foote (2003) occurs when a place of violence or tragedy is elevated from its surroundings. Many people find that this special feeling has only been enhanced since the terrorist attacks in 2001. According to Scruggs, "The rawness of the terrorist attacks made it the most emotional ceremony he had led in 20 years. There’s a little magic in the air" (Matthews and Miller 2001).


    A preliminary analysis of the literature led me to believe healing would dominant newspaper coverage of the memorial. Scholars, like Linenthal, wonder whether healing under catastrophic circumstances is actually possible. Given the difficulty of determining whether healing has actually occurred (a particularly difficult task for a sociologist), I have attempted to understand the ways in which people talk about healing in relation to the Wall. The silencing of dissent following the creation and dedication of the VVM was believed to be an indication that healing had begun and for some was in fact complete. That silence could say a lot more than many believe. While it could be interpreted as healing, researchers of tragic events and memorialization should take care to remember that the silence could be a mechanism for repression and avoidance. As a whole, while healing did emerge as a significant theme in the analysis, it appeared to be secondary to the systematic and pervasive presence of politics. 

    When discussing the construction of memory, Olick (1999) contends that it is those with power and the means of cultural production that are primarily responsible for shaping the physical and discursive forms of memory. The research I conducted here overwhelmingly points to the opposite. On this very politically charged terrain, the VVM turns out to be a place where grassroots efforts dominate the decision-making process and lead the way for public opinions, as well as being responsible for the physical alterations of memory. While there are multiple meanings at the memorial, there are still limits to those meanings. In light of the dominating effects of grassroots efforts, the grassroots meanings still tone down anti-war sentiment often through the emphasis of healing and reconciliation, and by and large high-ranking politicians suffer when they try to use the memorial as a backdrop. Future scholars of memory would be obliged to take notice of these events and take the grassroots’ movement seriously. Perseverance in the face of opposition came to be a familiar cycle exhibited at the VVM.

    The case of the VVM illustrates the continued practice of coincidentia oppositorum, proving that commemoration can happen under difficult circumstances. Over this 25 year period, wars were fought and lives were lost. Additional memorial elements were created in the wake of changing perceptions. Memories were brought forth and re-evaluated; this process frequently resulted in the resolve to present a united front, regardless of political beliefs. The continued practice of conflicting themes coming together at the VVM was and continues to be one of the most fascinating outcomes from such a divisive time period. 

    In early renderings of this work, I wondered what form the memorial to the September 11th 2001 attacks would ultimately take at the World Trade Center site. It appears, from images released to the public thus far, that the process of coincidentia oppositorum has served as a roadmap for the memorialization in New York City as well. But to what extent? And at what price? These questions, along with the ever present topic of constructing additional memorials will likely dominate the future of commemorative literature for some time. How will we remember the casualties from the War on Terror?       


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*The author would like to thank the following people for their assistance in thinking through the concepts in this work: David L. Brunsma, Derek Evans, James Sander, Jennifer Schlosser, Jennifer A. Jordan, James Thomas and Roslyn Fraser. 

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