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  • Memorial Time:Poetry, Elegy, and the War Memorial
  • Paisley Rekdal (bio)

In 1982, Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial was erected on the Washington, DC, mall to a storm of criticism. Senators and citizens alike complained about its lack of elegiac or historic context: no stone wreaths, these critics argued, no statues of soldiers, the whole thing built by a Chinese girl with little sense of why the war was fought. For Lin's critics, timeliness was at the core of the memorial's purported failure: political embarrassment over the outcome of the Vietnam War meant that politicians needed a memorial that would reflect America's understanding of, and reasons for, this war, something that would provide both critics and combatants alike a place to politically "meet." Lin's black wings of stone with their thousands of alphabetized names was at once too abstract and too blunt to function as an effective, and ultimately political, elegy.

And yet time was Lin's primary concern in her memorial design. Years after its construction, Maya Lin would tell an interviewer for Art in America that she'd proposed to list the names of the soldiers in the order of their death, in order, as she said, "to return the vets to the time frame of war."1 Rereading this interview after a deadly series of clashes in Charlottesville between Neo-Nazis and their counter-protesters over the fate of a Robert E. Lee statue near the University of Virginia, I am fascinated by this statement, by the idea that war's time—if represented correctly—might be timeless for those coming to it anew, that an audience might feel itself immersed in war's sudden power: the past and present twining into one.

Or perhaps Lin meant that time can be frozen, the events of the past locked in an order that is reproducible, but also static. Regardless of her ultimate meaning, the brilliance of Lin's memorial is not that it performs grief for us through the posing of elegiac figures or tropes, figures [End Page 99] embodied through representational statues personifying an audience's emotions or—as in the case of the Robert E. Lee statue—bolstering a contemporary political agenda, but that, by being so essentially disembodied, the memorial might become timeless. We perform our grief upon the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, touching the names, rubbing them onto sheets of paper that we press against stone, and by doing so we invoke the specific people we have lost, our own physical touch bringing the dead into some historical proximity to us as we transform the names of fathers and uncles and sons into something we can carry with us, for as long as we can bear.

Two years after its construction, on Veterans Day 1984, the Three Soldiers statue was added as a historic "supplement" to Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Designed by the artist Frederick Hart and commissioned by the Vietnam Veterans fund, the Three Soldiers depicts a trio of young men—black, white, and Latino—walking at once together and slightly apart, their faces bleary with fatigue, guns slung at their sides, as if we had surprised them just before or after battle. The men's races, the specificity of their weaponry, their proximity to each other, all suggest battle-hardened fellowship: details meant to add what critics considered a more "traditional element" to Lin's memorial, a corrective made explicit by the fact the statue was also placed just behind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Hart so as to make his figures appear to interact with Lin's sleek marble V. The military had only recently—historically speaking—expanded its ranks to include nonwhite combatants, part of Executive Order 9981 signed by Truman in 1948, so the inclusion of these figures was not only a nod to the sacrifice made by many nonwhite veterans of war, but an implicit homage to the values America itself was now meant to represent and promulgate through its military actions abroad: desegregation, fraternity, and diversity.

Considering our understanding of the Vietnam War as it has changed over time, I'm bemused by the inclusion of this Three Soldiers sculpture that...


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pp. 99-112
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