November 13, 2010

Vietnam Veterans Memorial Dedicated – 1982

Located in Washington, D.C., the Memorial Wall designed by U.S. artist and landscape architect Maya Lin was dedicated on this day in 1982, after thousands of Vietnam War veterans marched to its site.

The Memorial Wall is made up of two black walls sunk into the ground, with earth behind them and a walkway in front. The walls' heights taper from 8 inches high at each end to about 10 feet high where the two walls meet at the center. Inscribed on the walls are the names of the 58,175 servicemen and women who were killed in action or missing in action, in chronological order of death. The walls' surface is highly reflective, and visitors can see their own reflection among the names—a concept Lin designed to bring past and present together.

Although Lin's design for the memorial won out over more than 1,400 other designs, many people found the unconventional design controversial. Many people who supported the idea of having a Vietnam memorial were very upset by the chosen design, which one critic called “a black gash of shame” and another “a nihilistic slab of stone.” 

Lin was just a 21-year-old Yale University student when she won the design contest. I'm impressed with the fact that she weathered the storm of harsh criticism as gracefully as she did.

Once the Memorial Wall was actually built, most critics changed their mind. Many found the simple design to be beautiful and emotionally powerful. Much more than most war memorials, it has become a shrine at which people can leave tributes to the fallen. Thousands of dog tags, flowers, flags, photos, notes, and other mementos are left at the wall each year. The non-perishable items have been collected by the National Park Service, and they are kept and cataloged by the NPS Museum staff. I once saw a display of just a portion of the mementos at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, and it was overwhelming and moving. Some of the items left include a motorcycle with the license plate HERO, a plain brown teddy bear that, over time, several other unconnected visitors dressed, and a replica “tiger cage” in which Prisoners Of War (POWs) were kept.

The Memorial Wall has been so important, powerful, and even healing, people have created several half-scale replicas that are traveling memorials. The Washington, D.C., wall receives about three million visitors per year, and tens of millions more people have seen the traveling replicas.

Make a rubbing.

One thing that visitors to the Memorial Wall sometimes do is to make a rubbing of the name of a fallen soldier that is important to them personally.

You can make rubbings of local memorials or of gravestones at a cemetery. Choose one that has words or images carved into the stone.

To make a rubbing, put a piece of paper over the stone. Rub the side of a crayon over the paper.

Read a biography of Maya Lin.

This “hero story” is written by a kid! 


Here is an excellent, very short video about Maya Lin.

And here is a YouTube music video of The Wall Song. 

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