A few years ago I was honored to serve briefly on the American Battle Monuments Commission, whose chief duty is the custodianship of American military cemeteries abroad. Over 125,000 American dead now rest in these serene parks, some 26 in 16 countries. Another 94,000 of the missing are commemorated by name only. The graves (mostly fatalities of World Wars I and II) are as perfectly maintained all over the world, from Tunisia to the Philippines, as those of the war dead who rest in the well-manicured acres of the U.S. military cemetery in Arlington, Va.
A world away from the white marble statuary, crosses, Stars of David, noble inscriptions and manicured greenery of these cemeteries is the stark 246-foot wall of polished igneous rock of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the mall in Washington. On its black surfaces are etched 58,307 names of American dead in Vietnam. They are listed in the chronological order of their deaths. The melancholy wall, birthed in bitter controversy at its inception in 1982, emphasizes tragedy more than American confidence in its transcendent values—as if to warn the nation that the agenda of Vietnam was not quite that of 1917 and 1941.
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