Designed by architect Maya Ying Lin in 1981, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (VVM) on the National Mall is, according to author Harriet F. Senie, the “most visited and copied memorial in American history.” At first blush, this seems a positive phenomenon, if only because the tapered wall’s uncomplicated design contrasts so starkly with many of the hulking, theatrical war monuments that predate it. The 140 polished black granite panels, inscribed with the names of more than 58,000 fallen or missing soldiers, create a meditative experience that is reflective in a special sense: the mirrorlike surfaces superimpose images of the monument’s visitors on the names of the fallen.
Unfortunately, writes City College of New York art historian Senie in her provocative, scrupulously researched book, Memorials to Shattered Myths, the VVM “evokes a giant tombstone, thus conflating the function of cemeteries with the purpose of memorials, focusing on the private losses of individuals while excluding any reference to the larger national significance of [a] traumatic war.” This consciously apolitical approach, concludes Senie, cofounder of Public Art Dialogue, has become the new status quo, “which is an abdication of professional responsibility of the most egregious kind, obviating any possibility of approaching an accurate history or a usable past.”
To make her case, Senie traces the fascinating origins and quasi-religious undertones of the monuments constructed in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1994, the shooting rampage at Columbine High School in 1999, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In each case, the violent events’ complex causalities—not to mention their perpetrators—are ultimately ignored. Instead, the goal is to memorialize a tragic moment in time, and then mine that tragedy for heroism and healing, which Senie worries will encourage citizens to conflate victimhood with martyrdom and avoid complex conversations about causes (U.S. foreign policy, rural rage) and preventive measures (mental health care, gun control). This trend, the author believes, is both shortsighted and decidedly un-American. After all, she writes, the “foundation of democracy…rests on the premise of an informed citizenry, not an emotionally wounded one.”