The War & Peace of the Vietnam Memorials: Lesson for the future?

March 15, 2010

A war memorial is a monument to honor those that served and sacrificed. Yet selecting and building a memorial inevitably becomes engaged in reconciling the political voice(s) during the war with its historical referendum later. This was true with the Vietnam war memorials in a paradoxical way. One memorial proposal was selected, two were built.

There was heated controversy in response to Maya Lin’s (blindly selected) winning proposal and ultimately Frederick Hart’s statue was commissioned as a compromise. Lin’s wall environment and Hart’s bronze sculpture differ in the psychological experience each elicits. Lin’s abstract wall epitath motif, with its highly polished surface and extending arms is a holding environment that elicits but contains the grief and mourning of loss. Hart’s realistic bronze sculpture shows living soldiers, allowing a moment of denial and idealization in the face of loss.  The original mission for a single memorial to begin a “healing process” in the national psyche was naive. The attempt to deny at the outset the deep political and emotional splits during and after the Vietnam war led to its symbolic repetition building the memorial ten years after the war ended.

I wrote about how this played out in the Vietnam war memorials and more generally about the internal tensions of mourning, denial, and idealization here: The War and Peace of Vietnam Memorials

We are faced with similar ideological conflicts over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today. Eventually, artists and architects will be engaged to design memorials to honor those who served. Have we learned from the post-Vietnam era how best to come to peace about war? Leave a comment.


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