Anniversaries are more than a reminder of passing years -- they're a chance to assess how attitudes have changed. The 30th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Washington Mall is a prime example. As we honor our nation's veterans this weekend, it's worth charting this landmark's evolution.
The memorial was dedicated on Nov. 13, 1982, when feelings about the Vietnam War were still raw. Unlike their fathers and grandfathers, the veterans of this unpopular war felt shunned. Instead of a heroes' welcome, they came back to a civilian world indifferent to their service or hostile to it.
For many Vietnam vets, those feelings have changed over the years -- and one reason is the recognition provided by one of the most moving monuments in the nation's capital. But the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was not at first accepted as the sublime architectural achievement it is today.
When the design of the wall of names was first announced, it seemed to some like another slight to vets. Other wars were commemorated with traditional statuary but once again the Vietnam vets were to be treated differently. The modernistic design by a 21-year-old Yale architecture student, Maya Lin, was called "a degrading ditch" and a "black gash of shame."
Because of the bitter controversy, Ms. Lin's plan became reality only through a compromise: classic touches were added to the periphery of the site -- a conventional bronze statue called The Three Soldiers and a flag pole. But it is The Wall that has most moved the feelings of veterans and other visitors. It holds great emotional power and has become a place of healing. Millions of Americans visit each year.
In the latest issue of the Veterans of Foreign Wars magazine, the cover story is about "The Wall" and the powerful reactions it inspires in veterans, yet the old controversy is barely mentioned. The magazine calls the memorial "a hallowed place." An ex-Marine is quoted as saying: "The Wall was the best thing that ever happened to us. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund should get a medal for giving us back our pride ... ."
Some 58,282 names are inscribed on the wall, and the memorial captures the nobility and sorrow of their sacrifice -- just as the young architecture student was inspired to imagine 30 years ago.