On Not Loving Monuments. This is what I wrote ten years ago

It’s hard to believe 10 years have passed since I wrote this paper. I was on my way out of the military at the time. I presented this at an Ethnic Studies conference in early 2011.


After receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. showed a dramatic change in his rhetoric. He believed his struggle against segregation was a larger global quest. King transcended the parameters of the Deep South. He became more universal: “I now had to give a great deal of attention to the three largest [problems] of those that confront mankind: racial injustice[,] poverty, and war. Though each appeared […] separate and isolated, all were interwoven into a single garment of man’s destiny.” (262)[1]

The post-MLK Left nudged Americans to see pacifism and European-style socialism (if not Marxism) as manifestations of racial tolerance, which became associated with the Left because liberals, Democrats, and far-left radicals, while diverse, opposed war in Southeast Asia and supported welfare spending funded by taxes on the rich. Christian conservatism, alienated from academia, found refuge in the post-Vietnam military not long after the abolition of the draft reduced the number of people on liberal-arts campuses with military ties. The Democrats’ rhetoric veered antiwar as the percentage of Humanities and Social Sciences professors who registered Democrat, Green, or Socialist crept higher, topping 90% by the 2000s. The military became remote from academic realities and turned into a caricatured straw man. Links between multiculturalism and pacifist socialism became sacred. Ethnic Studies encompassed socialist and antiwar tenets by default. Women, Latinos, Asians, gays, the working class, and other subalterns were beholden to various levels of socialist and pacifistic reasoning to justify their demands and populate their movements. And what happened? I will offer you a scholarly tragedy in two acts to see.

Act I: The Wall

            All I can think is, “thank God it’s not Iraq. Or Vietnam.” It’s June and I stand dutifully in the swelter of Columbus, GA, doing what we call “detail.” I don’t have to scrape paint off a cannon today, but I staff a traveling replica of Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial, which is on tour at the National Infantry Museum. The database keeps freezing. The pages of my printed directory swell and warp in the humid air. My ACU is soaked in sweat, the beret starting to stink.  It’s my job to find names for Southern visitors who haven’t the resources to see the real monument in Washington. Army records are often wrong. Often the year that troops were “officially” killed wasn’t really when they died; some veterans’ families lied and told friends and relatives that a Soldier died in combat when really he killed himself after a dishonorable discharge. If you served with someone, usually you didn’t know his first name; sometimes you can’t remember how it was spelled. I comb through the database by race, city of birth, age, rank, searching and searching only to tell people, “I’m sorry.” They came all the way to the Museum for nothing. Some console themselves by seeing the “Follow Me” replica positioned permanently in the rotunda of the NIM, a statue in human form crafted 54 years ago by artists serving in the enlisted ranks. For Infantry, Queen of Battle, monuments attest to bodily struggle. Infantrymen face the greatest risk and must endure, often, the most severe conditions. Memorials observe that experience.

            I don’t like the Wall but I cannot say that out loud. Much of the public has been led to expect an epiphany upon going to it. Ann Marie Yasin calls the Wall “communal catharsis,” “both an intensely personal act and a numbing reminder of the extent of national loss.”[2] (434). Patricia McGirr defends the “female anatomy” brought to the monument by Lin’s gender, and the “passivity of a monument embedded into a landscape rather than towering above it.”[3] Nicholas Wolterstorff  says it brings authentic emotion. “I saw people searching for names,” Wolterstorff recalls of his trip. “Most were in tears,” he adds, praising Lin for forcing us to face “real tears” as opposed to “art tears.”[4]

            The Southern Poverty Law Center later hired Lin to design the monument to Dr. King. After 1982 the military never hired her for a major work. Children’s books present Maya Lin as a Wunderkind. In Asian Americans of Achievement, Tom Lashnits admits that many veterans hate her monument, but he reads this racially. The “mostly unspoken, but unfair issue” was that “the more the vets saw [Lin] — in the newspapers, on TV, in person — the more she looked like the very enemy they had been fighting in the first place.”[5] This is inferred by Lashnits with slim reason. Troops fought Vietnamese Communists to defend Vietnamese allies. In the NI Museum, there are displays of war in the Philippines, Korea, and Vietnam, featuring Asians as allies and enemies — namely, complex beings that complicated veterans are sophisticated enough to read. That the wall is simply ugly is rarely considered by critics.

            In Contemporary Asian Americans, Bettina Ling tells child readers, “Maya Lin’s home life was a place of art and literature” because her mother taught English and Oriental literature, and her father was dean of fine arts at Ohio University.[6] Lin enjoyed luxuries and safety denied to the infantrymen who designed the Follow Me statue, but this insight evades multiculturalists, who like to see her as a female David against an oppressive military Goliath. In Lives of Notable Asian Americans, Geraldine Gan laments, “Lin received $20,000 in prize money from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, but the same fund gave” the designer of a bronze statue like Follow Me “more than 10 times that amount for his commission.” This is patently unfair, implies Gan, since “prominent art critics […] reconfirmed that Lin’s was in fact the best design.” Gan tells us, “She receives letters from veterans explaining how her memorial has helped them.”[7] Lin says she never thought of herself as Asian until people criticized her design, yet she was inspired by Japanese gardens by way of Chinese parents. She’s also celebrated as a woman. Eleanor Munro refers to Lin’s “radical plan” and says Lin “declared the old myth defunct, an illusion without salvationist power for a nuclear age.” The rejected “myth” is the outdated “collective faith in the immortality of the heroic dead.” What did Lin replace that hoary notion with? According to Munro, “stone,” and “shadow-shapes that live only in memory. We know no other form of being.”[8]

            Not all praise Lin. Daniel Cottom accuses her granite of “misanthropy,” lamenting “the names of the millions of Vietnamese that this wall […] erases.”[9] Yet Lin’s wall erases not only the Vietnamese but also the humanity of the names she catalogues. Lin’s concept was meant all along to make sure that, as Christophe Girot writes, “the viewer recognizes the singularity of each name, while also having a clear sense of the huge number.”[10] So someone goes to the wall and suddenly realizes that people have individual names? This is the goal? As I stand at the wall, still healing from injuries, recovering from heat exhaustion and chigger bites, and struggling to cope with the suicide of another man in my platoon just days earlier, singularity and hugeness feel like disappointing honor paid to so much sacrifice. Maybe it’s the difference between the Air Force, whose generals championed Lin’s concept in 1982, and the Army. Infantrymen exist in bodies, not in names. Our torments are carnal. Our sacrifices are fleshy. We seek honor as a collective. We don’t know each other’s first names. Often that’s forbidden. Visualizing what we went through would have been a nice touch. The wall erases war, what we give up when we go to war. The infantryman knows that whatever is written in your file has nothing to do with what really happened — including the first name you use, how you died, when, and at whose hands (including your own). These data that interested Lin provide scant testimony to their pain. Most who write about Lin assume that people enter a sublime state before the wall and are forced to think. Art critics cite the flowers and mementoes left as proof of its success. I think of the overall vision of the wall ultimately as a lost opportunity to bring human visualization into an inscrutable and difficult experience–in other words, not a success.

[1] King Jr., Martin Luther. “The Nobel Peace Prize.” In The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. Ed. Clayborne Carson. New York: Warner Books, 1998. 255-264.

[2] Ann Marie Yasin, “Funerary Monumnts and Collective Identity: From Roman Family to Christian Community.” Art Bulletin 87, no. 3(September 2005), 434.

[3] James A. Delle, Review of Shared Space and Divided Places: Matrial Dimensions of Gender Relations and the American Historical Landscape, edited by Deborah L. Rotman and ellen-Rose Savulis. Winterthur Portfolio 40, no. 1 (Spring 2005), 88.

[4] Nicholas Wolterstoff. “Why Philosophy of Art Cannot handle Kissing, Touching, and Crying.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 61, no. 1 (Winter, 2003), 18-9.

[5] Tom Lashnits, Maya Lin, (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2007), 34-5.

[6] Bettina Ling, Maya Lin: Award-Winning Architect, Artist, (Austin: Steck-Vaughn Company, 1997), 12.

[7] Geraldine Gan, Lives of Notable Asian Americans: Arts, Entertainment, Sports, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 64.

[8] “Maya Lin.” In Originals: American Women Artists, by Eleanor Munro. (New York: Da Capo Press, 2000), 477.

[9] Daniel Cottom, “To Love to Hate,” Representations 80 (Autumn, 2002), 123.

[10] Christophe Girot, “Accepting the Landscape,” Antioch Review 64, no. 2 (Spring, 2006), 214.