• Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center

    Credit: Polshek Partnership Architects

    Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center

Part of this trend toward interactive memorials is thanks to the wall's influence, but there is also a larger cultural shift at work. Experience is everything today. Architects, chefs, and casinos no longer design buildings, cook food, or run the tables; they produce living, dining, and gambling “experiences.” News is no longer just read to us by a gray-haired man behind a desk, but constructed online as bloggers grab nuggets of information, mix them together with a dash of opinion, and pass them on to other bloggers. While music and movie sales plummet, video game sales are growing at nearly 30 percent annually.

As architect David Rockwell said recently, “The most valuable thing about place, events, or a building is the way it puts the viewer in the center of the experience”—a notion that he has built into W Hotel interiors and the theater for the Academy Awards.

What lies beneath contemporary America's love of experience is a discomfort with abstraction and the contemplation it requires. The thing in itself has never been our thing. We want action, we want narratives, and we demand that our cultural objects fit within them—all the more so in an increasingly fluid and complex world, where meanings and connections multiply and blend daily.

And when we aren't given an experience, we create one. That's the ironic success of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Like a piece of sand in our collective oyster, we've polished and layered its abstraction with a thick patina of experience, converting its frustrating ambiguities into a pleasantly smooth pearl. Maybe once we could let our minds chew over an enormous obelisk or a low granite wall. These days, who has the time?

Which brings us back to the Memorial Center. As Memorial Fund president Jan Scruggs points out, today some 40 percent of visitors are too young to remember the war. Increasingly, teachers tell him that “their kids would come to visit the memorial, and though they would find it interesting, they would not have much knowledge about the war itself, so the visits were not as poignant as one would hope.”

Thus the limits of abstraction: The experience of the wall only works when we know how to approach it. Baby Boomers know, as do their children, raised on a diet of Platoon and China Beach. But for anyone under 30, Vietnam is a hip vacation spot, not a painful cultural memory—let alone a lodestone for war and remembrance.

This may be why the center is less about Vietnam than, as Scruggs puts it, “a larger national purpose, to teach values, values of loyalty, respect, integrity, courage, the values that people learn when they're in the military. … There's a universal message to all this. Think about the kids over in Iraq right now.”

But with that in mind, there is a good chance that the center will succeed too well, that over time it will render an official interpretation of the wall, and of the war—and perhaps of wars in the plural. Respect and courage are important values, but allowing others to define how we view military service runs the risk of handing the wrong people a powerful propaganda tool.

Particularly in an age of diminished civil liberties and oligopolistic control of the media, we should be worried each time the potential arises to fix definitions and limit interpretation. As much as Americans may resist, plurality of meaning is a critical part of modern democratic society. Abstraction is not just an aesthetic; it is a civic value. It allows different people with different identities to see something their own way, and through it give expression to their own ideas.

And that is the singular achievement of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It can be read in multiple ways: As a gash in the earth it symbolizes the pain of war, while as a work of art it improves the earth, symbolizing the value of sacrifice. The challenge it presents to us is that of weeding through its many meanings—one we should not forget once the interpretive center opens.

  • Clay Risen is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. He has written about architecture for Metropolis, The New Republic, and Slate.
    Clay Risen is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. He has written about architecture for Metropolis, The New Republic, and Slate.