What would the Vietnamese equivalent of "The Wall" look like?
It’s called “The Wall,” a haunting, 493-foot memorial made of solid black granite, polished to a bright shine, and etched with the names of the 58,183 American men and women who never made it home from Vietnam. Formed roughly in the shape of a “V”, the Wall sinks low in the ground, carved into a gentle hillside of the National Mall roughly equidistant between the Washington Monument to the east, and the Lincoln Memorial to the west.
The Wall’s Emotional Impact
Initially the focus of veterans’ rage over its understated, somewhat somber design, the Wall, formally known as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, captured the public’s imagination soon after its dedication on November 13, 1982. The effect of viewing the Wall in person is difficult to describe to anyone who has not seen it. Eschewing the heroic figures and ornate language of many war memorials, the Wall’s stark presentation of the names of the dead and missing, listed in the order in which they fell, brings home better than any written report or tabulation the enormity of the loss of American lives in the war. Each name is different, each life unique, each death a separate loss.
Walking along the Wall from either direction, you quickly become overwhelmed by the sheer number of names, row after row, panel after panel, rising ten feet above your head at the Wall’s deepest point. Looking directly at the Wall, you see yourself in the highly polished granite, the names seemingly floating in the air between you and your own ghostly reflection. Flowers, cards, and letters from loved ones are placed tenderly at the foot of the Wall, a heartbreaking tribute to the fallen.
Altogether Fitting And Proper
The Wall is a fitting tribute to the dead and missing of Vietnam. By including every single name, designer Maya Lin was able to personalize each loss, giving each American soldier an eternal place among the honored dead. The Wall’s design and setting, while perhaps not as patriotic or stirring as some veterans may have hoped, nonetheless reflects America’s sense of loss and grief surrounding the Vietnam War, a conflict that still echoes bitter memories in the American psyche. As Jeffrey Carrithers, an architect and Vietnam veteran, put it.
The design cuts into the earth. The landscape of Vietnam was pockmarked by bombs and revised by engineering equipment. It also ties to the symbolism of the grave. It is solemn, overwhelming in the number of names, and thoughtfully designed. I can’t think of a better architectural solution.
If the dead and missing American veterans deserve to be remembered by such a memorial, however, some might argue that the Vietnamese do as well. Not in America, perhaps, but maybe at home, amongst their countrymen, family, and friends. No doubt there are countless such family memorials scattered throughout the Vietnamese countryside.
A Vietnamese Wall?
But what if Vietnam had built a national monument similar to The Wall after the war ended? What would it look like? How much would it take to remember the names of each Vietnamese killed by the American military in the war?
Well, it’s actually a simple calculation. As compared to the 58,183 American men and women dead and missing, dead and missing Vietnamese soldiers number at least 1.2 million. This estimate is extremely conservative, based on notoriously inaccurate reports from the North Vietnamese government during the war, at a time when they had an incentive to keep the number of reported casualties as low as possible. This estimate also excludes the approximately 2-3 million dead or missing North Vietnamese civilians, as well as the 40,000 or so Vietnamese men, women, and children injured or killed by unexploded bombs and ordnance left in-country after the war.
Even with such a lowball estimate -– Robert McNamara himself placed the number at something more like 3.2 million –- the resulting Vietnamese “Wall” would measure approximately 11,350 feet, or over two miles in length. That’s equal to the distance from the Lincoln Memorial, at one end of the Mall, all the way to the U.S. Capitol, at the other end of the Mall.
It starts getting really scary when you realize that this is an absolute comparison. There is no correction for the huge disparity in sizes between the United States and Vietnam. If you convert the numbers to the percentage of the population killed in the war, it’s frankly amazing to me that there is anyone left alive over there.
Dead Men Don’t Wave Flags
So what’s the point of all this? Is there some underlying message that I’m trying to convey with this little thought experiment?
Well, no. There’s no political agenda here whatsoever. No suggestion that the Vietnamese dead should –- or even could -- be compared to the American dead. And the only moral point I’m trying to make is that every death in a war is a tragedy. Sometimes, as in World War II, it’s a tragedy that can’t be helped. Sometimes, as in Vietnam, the situation is not so clear. But one thing that is clear is that soldiers are going to die in any war. Soldiers with names, mothers, maybe families of their own.
As the pastor of my church says when he’s telling a homespun story to make a point, “It’s not a sermon, just a thought.”