I wonder if, in years to come, some bright scholar will name Maya Lin as the fulcrum upon which everything we believe about dying in service to one’s country shifted. Lin, the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., pulled off something magical and strange with her beautiful black wall, which before it was even built divided the veterans of that misbegotten exercise into two camps; one called it a “black ditch of shame,” and the other said, “I dunno, it’s got something going for it. Let’s build it and see.”
The wall was built. The wall began attracting visitors. The wall became something bigger than itself. The wall became the most popular monument in Washington, and not just because the veterans of the war it memorialized were still alive. The wall became something much bigger than a war memorial. It’s a therapy session for everyone who sees it.
The black-ditch-of-shame crowd was flummoxed, and insisted on tarting it up. A bunch of flags were added, and a sculpture of some soldiers, and another sculpture of female service members, but someone had to realize they’d been defeated. Who goes to the the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to see the flags or the sculptures? They go to see the wall, and they want to see the wall because of the names.
Lots of war memorials feature names. There was one in my hometown, an archway entrance to a public park, with bronze plaques on either side, with lists of local soldiers who served, and one with those who died. My friends would sometimes pick out a grandfather or uncle in the service list, but the killed-in-action side by definition left fewer survivors to run their fingers over the letters.
But the Vietnam wall names were different. It was all the names, not just one town’s, and the brutal and elegant simplicity of their presentation — they’re etched in a timeline of when they died, starting in a trickle with the “military advisors” period of the war, swelling to a crescendo in the late ’60s and tapering down again as we packed our belongings and took off from the roof of the embassy — underlines the futility and stupidity of the war. All those boys, sons and fathers, brothers and uncles, gone. For what? The wall asks a question. You provide the answer. It’s why everyone who goes there cries.
Ever since, memorials of all types have included names, lists of names. It’s perhaps insulting to think memorial designers want a popular site, but all those pictures through the years, of crying survivors at the Vietnam wall touching names, making rubbings of names, watching their own reflections in that polished granite, the reflections crossed by names — it has to be an influence, and not just on designers. Look at the Oklahoma City memorial to the bombing there. If the 9/11 memorial at the World Trade Center site is ever built, it too will include names.
(Lin designed that one, too.) It’s no longer enough to lump the dead in one big number, perhaps under the inscription Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Now you have to name every casualty.
President Obama spoke yesterday at Fort Hood, at a memorial service for the 13 people who died during the shootings last week. I didn’t see it live, but I started seeing the reaction online almost immediately. “Best speech ever” was the general tone, even from people who can be reliably counted on to hate everything the president says. I made a point of catching it on C-SPAN later. It was a great speech, masterfully delivered, but we’ve come to expect that of Obama, the first great orator of the 21st century. But what spiked it deep in the brain were the names. Because there were 13 and not 300, he could give names and brief biographies:
Major Libardo Eduardo Caraveo spoke little English when he came to America as a teenager. But he put himself through college, earned a PhD, and was helping combat units cope with the stress of deployment. He is survived by his wife, sons and step-daughters.
Staff Sergeant Justin DeCrow joined the Army right after high school, married his high school sweetheart, and had served as a light wheeled mechanic and Satellite Communications Operator. He was known as an optimist, a mentor, and a loving husband and father.
The names, in this case, were not just a reflection of today’s army, but of America itself: Staff Sergeant Amy Krueger… Private First Class Kham Xiong… Private First Class Aaron Nemelka… Men, women, this one an Eagle Scout, that one an immigrant, this one the daughter of a father from Colombia and a Puerto Rican mother.
I don’t know how much of his own speechwriting Obama can do anymore. I don’t really know how much he’s done since he began his run for the presidency. Good writing takes time, for both thought and revision, and time is something he of all people is chronically short on. But I will say this: His speeches sound like they came from him, from what we know of his heart and mind, and I have to think he has a heavier hand in their crafting than some previous occupants of the office.
If nothing else, at the subconscious level, that speech acknowledges what is becoming painfully obvious about this incident at Fort Hood: It was Vietnam on a different scale, a series of stupid decisions and a case of willful blindness, culminating in a massive and unforgivable loss of life. It demands an accounting and a reckoning, and we hope that will come later.
Until then, what we have are the names.