[REVISED] A Rift in America, Finally United at the Vietnam War Memorial

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by Kim Szarmach

James Reston Jr., like most of the young, American men of his generation, had three choices when the U.S. went to war with North Vietnam in 1959. He could fight, he could protest, or he could avoid the conflict completely—flee to Canada or find a phony reason for medical exemption. The last option was unthinkable for Reston; he called it an act of cowardice. Protesting was dignified but not right for him either.

“I did not feel personally that I was a genuine conscientious objector, so I went to war,” Reston said at Politics and Prose on Saturday, promoting his new book, A Rift in the Earth: Art, Memory, and the Fight for a Vietnam Memorial. 

Now Reston is 74, an esteemed writer and an actor in what he calls “the second Vietnam War,” the one that started in 1979 and lasts until today. This is the war of memorialization: how does the nation choose to remember one of the most murderous, divisive wars in American history?

Reston listed a few facts that illustrated just how bloody the Vietnam War was. 5.1 million gallons of dioxin were dropped on the country in just one year, he said. Eight million tons of bombs were dropped over the course of the war and at least two million Vietnamese civilians were killed. Nearly 60,000 American soldiers died at war, including Reston’s close friend from training who was killed during the Tet Offensive without firing a shot.

Reston’s latest book considers the grief he shares with parents, siblings and friends of the American and Vietnamese casualties of the war, but it further explores the implications the war had and continue to have on our country’s history and culture.

“How do we digest a war like this into our national consciousness?” he asked the audience.

One structure that helps millions of visitors grieve and understand the implications of the U.S. military’s presence in Vietnam is the Vietnamese War Memorial on the National Mall. It was designed by Maya Lin, whose proposal for the memorial was selected out 1,421 submissions and constructed in 1982. But, Reston said even the choosing and construction of the memorial was another war in itself.

What caused controversy around Maya Lin’s design was that it did not glorify the war in any way. Its seemingly infinite list of names would elicit intense awareness of human lives lost. It would be a place to reckon with death and not celebrate military achievement.

This intention for the memorial infuriated a small but powerful group of Vietnam Veterans who had since entered politics, including Senator Jim Webb, Reston said. They set out to undermine the construction of the monument and did not rest until Frederick Hart’s statue of three soldiers was incorporated to contribute an element of heroism to the memorial.

Today, the Vietnam War memorial draws 3 million visitors each year. It is a place for veterans and the families of fallen soldiers to mourn, but it is also a place for people with no personal connection to the Vietnam War at all.

“It’s no longer about one war,” Reston said. “It’s about the entire Vietnam generation and about all wars.”

Pacifists, deserters and decorated war heroes alike can find solace at Maya Lin’s monument, according to Reston. Over thirty years after its genesis, the war over how to commemorate Vietnam has died down. Tears are shed at the memorial everyday, notes and wreathes are left for fallen loved ones and prayers for peace are whispered.

Instead of dividing dissenters and proponents of the Vietnam War, the memorial has become a place where everyone can unite in the face of sorrow and loss. Summarizing the message of his latest book, Reston quoted his editorial in the L.A. Times.

“America must never again force another generation to choose between service or resistance in an arguably immoral war,” he said.

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