The aging of a classic

Twenty-five years ago as I write this, on Veterans Day, 2007 – two weeks before the cover date of this issue of Antique Trader – the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial opened in Washington, D.C.

It’s a simple structure, moving in its simplicity and ability to convey exactly what the memorial’s designer, Maya Lin, wanted, which is to “allow everyone to respond and remember.”

The memorial, the original part of it made up of two intersecting polished black granite walls, gets about three million visitors a year – no small amount. It has, in its quarter century, become a great draw in its own right and an intense reminder of a controversial time in our recent history.

The process of opening and building the monument itself were fraught with controversy, which is ironic when you consider that Lin’s design sprang from feelings that the politics of the war “had eclipsed the veterans, their service and their lives.”

The monument was criticized for everything from the designer’s Chinese heritage, to what many saw as its minimal stature in comparison with epic and soaring traditional American war monuments.

That controversy had not died down less than a year after the monument opened when my family and I visited it in 1983. At 13, my world was composed of little more than video games and obsessing over the Dallas Cowboys. The Vietnam War, I knew, had been divisive, but enough time seemed to have passed since its end to have allowed some of the old wounds to, if not heal, at least scab over. The opening of that monument, however, proved that the nation still had a ways to go… What did I care, though, being so young and benighted?

My own experiences and understanding, though, changed dramatically on that trip. There was the grand statuary of the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, and the grandeur of the Washington Monument – all things I had seen in books and on television – but I couldn’t have been prepared for how the Vietnam Memorial struck me.

Families gathered, huddled around a single name; some ran pencils over paper to get an etching of a name; grown men, veterans, cried silently as their fingers followed the lines forming the names of fallen friends; tourists walked up and down in silence. There were no protestors, no chanting crowds, just everyday Americans simply responding and remembering, just as the designer intended.

Leaving the memorial I remember trying to explain to my family how it struck me, but I couldn’t muster the words. Something within me had grown and changed, but I chose silence instead, letting the memories stay quiet within me for the last 25 years, until this week. Listening to the news about the anniversary of the monument this week brought it all back. The uncomplicated lines of the memorial, and our few hours there, are still fresh in my mind.

The controversy around the monument, and the structure itself, seems especially poignant as our nation is in the midst of another long and unpopular war. What we learned from Vietnam though, and from its powerful monument, is that the politics of any war should never again overshadow the lives and the service of its veterans. That seems to be the one thing that most Americans can agree on in these complicated days.

America’s Vietnam Veteran’s memorial has aged well in its 25 years. It is, in its own right, an American classic. It does not boast or bray, but simply offers reflection, as any great work of art should do.