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A National Shrine to Scapegoating? The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Washington, D.C. Jon Pahl Valparaiso University In a recent survey I conducted of visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C, 92 percent agreed that "the memorial is a sacred place, and should be treated as such."1 Clearly, this place, by some reports the most visited site in the U.S. capital, draws devotion. But how does a pilgrimage to this memorial function?2 Does pilgrimage to "the wall" serve to "heal a nation," as its builders intended, or does pilgrimage to the memorial ironically legitimize structures of violence like those which led the United States into the Vietnamese conflict in the first place?3 My argument builds upon the work of René Girard to suggest that pilgrimage to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial can legitimize the violence of American culture by 'The survey was of 185 pilgrims attending ceremonies during Veterans Day, November 11, 1993 and 1994. Several recent works explore the interface between civil religion and violence, notably John E. Bodnar, Karal Ann Marling, and Edward T. Linenthal. On sacred places, the pioneering work of Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, remains important but must be supplemented by Jonathan Z. Smith's Imagining Religion. 1 Victor and Edith Turner argue cogently that "if a tourist is half pilgrim, a pilgrim is half tourist" (20). Many visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial understand themselves only as tourists, but their behavior appears to me to warrant treatment under the category of "pilgrimage." 3 I assume a "maximalist" definition of violence, which understands the word to refer not only to physical harm to individuals, but also to systemic, social structures of exclusion (such as racism), and ideological (or symbolic) justifications of violence (see Robert McAfee Brown; for a minimalist approach, see Gerald Runkle). 166Jon Pahi reinforcing scapegoating.4 At the same time, however, the established religious pluralism and voluntarism of American culture—evident in this pilgrimage process—diffuses violence. Furthermore, the democratic character of this pilgrimage empowers pilgrims to critique idolatrous worship of the nation, and to witness to authentic reverence for life. Mimesis on the mall A brief impressionistic portrait ofthe way visitors experience the Vietnam Veterans Memorial will demonstrate how the memorial draws pilgrims into a mimetic process—a key feature of Girard's theory. Many pilgrims stop at the memorial as part of a National Park Service 'Tourmobile' circuit of museums and memorials, or as part of another bus tour (school and senior citizens groups are especially common ). These busses disembark pilgrims at the base of the Lincoln Memorial, directly in front of the reflecting pool on the national mall, in sight of the Washington Monument and the Capitol. Pilgrims may, or may not, first climb the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (a powerful shrine with implications for understanding violence in its own right). Moving north, they eventually proceed along a sidewalk lined with Fig. 1 "Three Men Statue". , . several tents where veterans organizations sell T-shirts, medals, bumper-stickers, books, and other memorabilia. The first stop for many pilgrims is the "Three Men Statue" (Fig. 1) located in a grove just past the tents. 4 I summarize Girard's theory as follows: Beginning with mimetic desire, rivalry for an object escalates and threatens the social order. Religion—and notably sacrifice of the scapegoat—creates sufficient unanimity to restore a sense of social order, but does so through violence itself, masking through myth and ritual a vicious cycle of aggression we know as the history of human culture. A National Shrine to Scapegoating?167 This bronze statue (and the American flag which flies nearby) was not part ofthe original design for the memorial, and was dedicated in 1985, three years after the wall of names. It was the result of a compromise between founders of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund led by veteran Jan Scruggs and a group led by 1992 Presidential candidate H. Ross Perot which was dissatisfied with the wall and felt the need for a more 'heroic' representation of the survivors ofthe war.5 Most pilgrims understand little of the history behind the statue, or its intent to create a more heroic...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1930-1200
Print ISSN
1075-7201
Pages
pp. 165-188
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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