Mythical Powers of a Memorial Wall

America, like other countries, surrounds itself with myths about the founding and reasons for wars, all the better to control the population and justify government actions, explains Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

Walls (here we mean monolithic structures that are not part of buildings) seem to hold a special fascination for many people. Some walls feed a tribal passion, a strong us-versus-them mentality. The apartheid wall produced by the Israeli government, as well as the wall envisioned by the Trump administration for the southern U.S. border, are of that type.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.

However, there are other kinds of walls, such as those that memorialize the dead. For instance, in Washington, D.C., there is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. This wall (actually two walls that meet at a ninety degree angle) is roughly 494 feet long and is inscribed with the names of 58,318 servicemen and women killed or missing in that war.

Just by way of comparison, one might ask how long would be a similar memorial to the approximately three million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed in the same war. It would have to be about 51 times larger, extending over 25,000 feet. That is about 4.7 miles long.

Of course, nations do not commemorate the dead of their adversaries, for to do so would call into question the value of their own citizens’ sacrifices. And sacrifice – indeed patriotic sacrifice – is certainly how most Americans would describe the deaths of those whose names appear on this wall.

As one veteran who visits the site often put it, “We lost all those wonderful kids. It’s very moving to see all names at once, all the sacrifice, the enormity of it.”

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall is immensely popular – for the relatives and friends of the dead it memorializes are still well represented among the living. More than three million visitors a year (about the same number as Vietnamese dead!) visit the wall in Washington. To this we can add the fact that, for the last 13 years, there has been a portable replica of the wall traveling about the country.

The fact that this replica will soon show up in a town…

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