Names on a Memorial: Vietnam’s Chronology

The selection committee for the World Trade Center Memorial included Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (VVM) in Washington, DC.  Lin championed Michael Arad’s design, but her own use of chronological order is closer to the affiliation of the Families Proposal than to Arad’s random structure.  Her powerful VVM arrangement employs chronology to display affiliation.

The VVM lists names of the dead and missing in order of casualty.  People who died together are listed together.  Surviving veterans of a battle can stand in front of their unit’s dead, reading the names of their buddies and watching their own reflections in the polished black marble.  They find their time in the war, see the names of their friends, and reflect on their memories.

The rules of the VVM chronology reinforce arrangement by affiliation.  The listing is by date of casualty not by date of death.  So a person who died later of wounds received in a battle is listed with others who died in that battle.  The missing are listed by the date they went missing, so they would also be located with the casualties of the battle.

Vietnam veterans need only find one name in the index, walk to the appropriate panel, and see the names of all their fallen comrades from one day of fighting.  They can remember details about each person and about the day and remember others who survived.  They don’t have to expend energy and time remembering individual names and finding them separately in alphabetical order.  The group remains together in memory and on the Memorial.

For visitors who are not veterans, another detail reinforces affinity.  Each day’s casualties are alphabetized.  This simple arrangement technique allows all visitors to recognize the beginning and ending of the deaths for one day.  You don’t have to be a surviving veteran to stand with the dead on a battlefield.  You just have to know your alphabet.

To walk the length of the VVM chronology is to experience the war.  Certainly there are architectural details that amplify the Memorial’s intensity.  The growing height of the panels, for example, emphasizes the magnitude of death.  But it is the chronology that gives the Memorial its strength.  A list of alphabetized names, whatever the architecture, would just be a list.

Maya Lin’s chronology provides a context for the names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  It encourages surviving veterans to meditate on their past in a way not possible with a less insightful arrangement.  It shows visitors the history of the war and the events on a single day of fighting.  In a hundred years, when the soldiers and the protestors have all died, it will continue to represent not the glory of war or even the futility of war, but simply the experience of war.

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Nov 2006

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