A Memorial’s Curative Power

August 16, 2018

Culture, Politics, Uncategorized

The Wall's Embrace

Be warned. Nancy Frohman’s documentary, The Wall’s Embrace, may stir a baby boomer’s Freudian id, with emotionalism’s raw instincts smashing through the ego and superego and spewing a mess.

Which is ironic. Her film, narrated by Jimmy Buffett, is wrapped in empathy and love. Former soldiers and Gold Star families tell the story of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial’s therapeutic power. The vets talk about the war’s horror and PTSD-laced homecomings bathed in survivor’s guilt. Many Americans greeted them as if they were baby-killing lepers, so they clammed up. They didn’t begin to heal until they braved their own memories and traveled to Washington DC and wept at “The Wall,” as the Memorial is called. Ditto for the mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters of those named on those black slabs.

It’s been a healing balm for many, including me.

I remembered my first visit to the Wall as I watched Nancy’s film (full disclosure: she’s a good friend, a veritable BFF – which is why I can’t bring myself to say, “Frohman’s documentary”). I descended the steps and saw the thousands of names. I too wept – and I only witnessed the war from afar, on television. I was seven during the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and its consequent resolution; eight when the United States deployed combat troops and launched Operation Rolling thunder (a two-year bombing campaign over North Vietnam); and 18 when North Vietnamese soldiers finally marched into Saigon, long after America had withdrawn its fighters.

But, like many of my generation, the war’s images run rampant. I can still rattle off the bullet-riddled locales: The Mekong Delta, Quang Tri, Khe Sang, Hue, and Da Nang. I remember the soldier slang: The Viet Cong were “Charlie;” enemy-occupied territory was “Indian Country;” the AC-47 gunship was “Puff The Magic Dragon.” I remember the journalists’ tag for the nightly Saigon news conferences in which the military brass lied, rattled off body counts, and assured all of imminent victory: “The Five O’clock Follies.”

Fact is, Vietnam burrows into my generation’s dark recesses – and therein lay the genius of that Wall. Many war memorials imply that the fallen soldiers died heroic deaths for home, country, and the noble cause. Fact is, most didn’t know what hit them – and the US cause in Vietnam was hardy noble.  But Maya Lin’s design illuminates the intrinsic worth of those 58,220 slain men and women: Each bore a name, which means each possessed an identity and humanity and, therefore, nobility. We can’t help but imagine them as playground rascals and little leaguers with mitts and spelling bee contestants – veritable apples in their mothers’ eyes. We imagine their potential futures: They could have been fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers, but those hopes vanished in a rice paddy or a fox hole or another death trap.

For me, watching my friend’s film was like another journey to the Wall itself. I wept those healing tears again.

Her commendable documentary would have been even better had she mentioned the controversy before the Wall’s dedication: Lin, a 21-year-old Yale University student, designed the wall for an architectural class before submitting it to a contest. It was selected over 1,400 others, then faced immediate protests. Author Tom Wolfe called it a “tribute to Jane Fonda;” Vietnam veteran and future Senator Jim Webb dubbed it a “nihilistic slab of stone;” billionaire H. Ross Perot launched an anti-wall campaign and employed notorious lawyer Roy Cohn. Some even insulted Lin’s Chinese ancestry. Finally, a compromise was reached, against Lin’s wishes, in which a statue of three servicemen was erected at the Memorial’s entrance.

The quarrel is relevant for a single reason: It disintegrated upon the Memorial’s unveiling. The Wall itself healed the rancor over its design, and it’s played that role ever since.

I also recommend viewing Ken Burn’s and Lyn Novick’s ten-part documentary, The Vietnam War, as a supplement to our belated appreciation of the war’s veterans. Our legitimate thanks cannot whitewash a stark reality, from which Burns and Novick do not retreat: The War in Vietnam was a colossal military and moral failure soaked in administrative cynicism and a superpower’s hubris. Our leaders invoked America’s ideals even as they doubted the odds for victory and the legitimacy of the very regime for which our soldiers died. What’s more, the farmers in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos still pay a heavy toll when they trip over unexploded bombs and die of Agent Orange-related diseases. It’s a pity there’s no wall listing the two million Vietnamese civilian war dead, nor the fallen 200,00 South Vietnamese soldiers (not to mention the slain 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong – and the 273,000 Cambodians and thousands of Laotians). They had names as well. They were human and thus bore intrinsic nobility.

None of which takes away from my friend’s film. I’m prejudiced, of course, but I can still recommend it in good conscience. All can see our Vietnam experience through the eyes of those veterans and Gold Star families. All can walk further down the road to their own healing – as long we brace ourselves for an erupting id.

Follow this link and order it on I-tunes.

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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern

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