Contrasting Memorials

Today’s class was held at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial since we are using the Vietnam War as our first case study in the roles Congress has played in shaping foreign policy. I always love ways of making discussions especially relevant, so I was excited about it, even if it meant sitting outside in that glorious DC heat for two hours.

The background behind the memorial is fascinating, in my opinion. You can get more information on (where else) its Wikipedia page, but here are my favorite details:

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

  • The memorial was designed by Maya Lin, who won a design competition for the memorial at age 21
  • The design was highly controversial, both for its unorthodox, minimalist design and for Lin’s Chinese heritage
  • The American flag and more traditional statue of soldiers nearby were added as a compromise for those who thought the design was inappropriate

It just seems incredible to me that this memorial was so contentious when it was first conceived, but it is now recognized as perhaps the most moving memorial in the entire country. On the memorial itself, the names are listed in chronological order from their death; Lin wanted to show which individuals died together.

My goal when I visit places like this is to never become a cultural voyeur – that is, to never simply visit, take pictures and leave without somehow internalizing the meaning of the place. I think it would be very hard to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and not take something away, however. Between the sheer number of names on the wall and the various individuals who are clearly there not as tourists but to pay their respects, its not hard to get an appreciation for how meaningful this monument is to so many people.

Looking out from the Lincoln Memorial

After visiting the memorial, we went to the nearby Lincoln Memorial. Holy smokes is it ever big! Confession: I’m a bit of a simpleton when it comes to buildings. I’ve always been fascinated by feats of architecture because it just blows my mind how such massive structures can be constructed. It certainly seems like a fitting structure for a president so revered. It really is a beautiful spot, between the massive white columns and the reflecting pool stretching toward the Washington Monument. My new goal is to see a sunrise from the monument – stay tuned for updates.

We also went to the Korean War Veterans Memorial. I didn’t know anything about this one, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. It certainly takes a different approach than the Vietnam memorial. The Korean one is centered around several large figures of soldiers in full military regalia, looking as though they’re trudging through a dense forest. Perhaps the differences in style make sense, however. The Vietnam War was so well-known and so controversial, a memorial that takes the focus and places it wholly and simply on the soldiers themselves makes sense – no need to delve into the complex political issues surrounding it.

The Korean War, at least in my experience as a young person, is somewhat misunderstood–or, quite frankly, little known. To be honest, I don’t know much about it nor have I ever learned much about it. So it seems to make sense to me that this memorial tries to really give a face to the soldiers. It also lists the numbers of dead, wounded, captured and missing, as well as the countries who were involved in war efforts in one way or another. Essentially, this memorial seemed to make a more concerted effort to make people aware of the war itself as well as the veterans. I am not sure if this was intentional, or if I am misreading the intent of the memorial, but that’s my take.

Korean War Veterans Memorial


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