Virtual Vietnam Veterans Memorials as Image Events: Exorcising the Specter of Vietnam
Neil P. Baird, Western Illinois University
Enculturation 6.2 (2009): http://enculturation.net/6.2/baird
In Vietnam: A History, Stanley Karnow defines what has become known as the “Vietnam syndrome” by quoting Henry Kissenger: “Vietnam is still with us. It has created doubts about American judgement, about American credibility, about American power—not only at home, but throughout the world” (25). The Vietnam syndrome, the general malaise toward America and its position in the world caused by its involvement in Vietnam, has prompted a strong desire to return America to its position of power and dominance. Indeed, it is significant to note that the term “syndrome” is a metaphor that has its roots in the medical professions, invoking the need for therapy or a cure, a cure President George H. Bush found in the first Gulf War. After only six weeks of combat, four days of ground warfare, and minimal U.S. losses, President Bush proclaimed victory, declaring, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all” (Karnow 15). Bush’s rhetoric suggests that one of the implicit goals of the first Gulf War was to “exorcise the specter of Southeast Asia” (Karnow 15), prompting Karnow to question whether the Persian Gulf was vital to U.S. interests or of “illusory importance” (30).
For many Vietnam veterans, this cultural desire to exorcise the specter of Vietnam affects the stories that they can and cannot tell or, in other words, the way the Vietnam War can be remembered.In “The Invasion of Grenada,” Vietnam veteran and poet W. D. Ehrhart says “I didn’t want a monument/not even one as sober as that/vast black wall of broken lives. . . .”:
What I wanted was a simple recognition
of the limits of our power as a nation
to inflict our will on others.
What I wanted was an understanding
that the world is neither black-and-white
What I wanted
was an end to monuments. (679)
What is at stake for Ehrhart is his personal experience. Like many veterans, the trauma he experienced as an American combat soldier in Vietnam disrupted certain preconceived notions he held about America, revealing the United States as a colonizer capable of the same genocidal acts as Nazi Germany. Ehrhart calls for an end to monuments because the rhetoric of these memorials has begun to appropriate and transform this new understanding of America that his traumatic experience offers him. The title of Ehrhart’s poem links America’s invasion of Grenada to the construction of the Wall and to other kinds of memorializing—stamps, dedicated highways, and State memorials—enabled by its construction. For Ehrhart, a strong connection exists between the cultural memory of the Vietnam War and American national identity, and one of the consequences of the way public memory is being shaped by these memorials is the cultural reinscription of the values of American power and dominance, resulting in the invasion of Grenada, another possible Vietnam in Ehrhart’s eyes.
Ehrhart’s poem suggests that one of the most powerful ways American culture has been codifying the individual narratives of many Vietnam veterans has been the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. While the memorial itself and the consequences of its rhetoric have been explored by many, most notably Carol Blair and Kristin Ann Hass, the proliferation of websites devoted to simulating certain aspects of the memorial has received little attention. How do these virtual memorials contribute to the desire to exorcise the specter of Vietnam?
This essay will examine three online representations of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as image events: The Virtual Wall™ and two other websites reciprocally linked with it, VietnamWall.org and The Wall—USA. Drawing on the rhetorical theory of Chaïm Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca since it concerns how values are elevated and adhered to, I will explore how the homepage of The Virtual Wall™ elevates such values as heroism, duty, sacrifice, and honor while presenting the American combat soldier in Vietnam as victim. I will then illustrate how these values are solidified through the ways The Virtual Wall™ requires visitors to participate and how it has established extensive reciprocal links with other websites, specifically VietnamWall.org and The Wall—USA. In doing so, this essay will show how The Virtual Wall™ as an emerging new media technology contributes to the American cultural narrative that has all but erased representations of the American combat soldier in Vietnam as victimizer. The ways that dominant social forces have shaped and continue to shape the desire to exorcise the specter of Vietnam have been explored by several scholars; however, as we begin to use emerging technologies to simulate memorials by integrating images, video, and sound in increasingly complex ways, we must be conscious of the ways these image events appropriate and transform individual experience.
Virtual Memorials as Image Events?
In Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma, Kali Tal focuses on the individual and cultural representations of three traumatic events: the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, and the sexual abuse of women and children. Her research questions explore the connections between individual psychic trauma and cultural representations of these traumatic events and what it means to be a “survivor” and to “testify” when individual trauma is adapted to fit within dominant social, cultural, and political discourse.
Tal argues that one of the ways the Vietnam veteran is different from the Holocaust survivor or a survivor of sexual abuse is that a combat soldier has the capacity to be both victimizer and victim (9-10). Tal uses several sources to argue that American soldiers were perceived as victimizers during and shortly after the Vietnam War, such as the following example from Jean-Paul Sartre, who equates America’s involvement in Vietnam with Hitler’s systematic destruction of the Jews: “Hitler killed the Jews because they were Jews. The armed forces of the United States torture and kill men, women, and children merely because they are Vietnamese. Whatever lies or euphemisms the government may think up, the spirit of genocide is in the minds of soldiers” (12). Tal notes that today “Much recent literature—popular, clinical, and academic—places the combat soldier simply in the victim’s role; helpless in the face of war, and then helpless to readjust from the war experience upon his return” (10). Juxtaposing the Vietnam veteran with a Nazi soldier would not be likely today. In what ways is such a rehabilitation of the image of the American soldier possible?
Tal offers three strategies cultures use to cope with traumatic events—mythologization, medicalization, and disappearance:
Mythologization works by reducing a traumatic event to a set of standardized narratives (twice- and thrice-told tales that come to represent “the story” of the trauma) turning it from a frightening and uncontrollable event into a contained and predictable narrative. Medicalization focuses our gaze up the victims of trauma, positing that they suffer from an “illness” that can be “cured” within existing or slightly modified structures of institutionalized medicine and psychiatry. Disappearance—a refusal to admit to the existence of a particular kind of trauma—is usually accomplished by undermining the credibility of the victim. (6)
While her discussion concerning the representation of trauma and the Vietnam War centers mainly on medicalization, Tal notes that these three strategies work in combination to codify individual trauma.
Roberta Pearson’s concept of commodified public memory is useful in explaining how these three strategies of cultural coping work together to rewrite the Vietnam veteran as victim while erasing nearly all vestiges of the soldier as victimizer. In “Custer Loses Again: The Contestation over Commodified Public Memory,” Pearson defines commodified public memory as the historical representation that becomes ubiquitous and dominant because it originates from above through State and civic institutions (i.e., the government, private corporations, higher education, and the epideictic rhetoric of monuments and memorials) and the support of economic incentives. These naturalized historical representations “temporarily halt history, establishing a set of unquestioned, frozen, and abstracted ‘facts’ that play a crucial role in the construction of a dominant national identity” (181). Tal illustrates how memory emanates from the top-down when she, drawing on James William Gibson’s The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam, defines the testimony of Vietnam veterans as subjugated knowledge. These testimonies become marginalized because discussions of the Vietnam War are dispersed and institutionalized in the discourses of the medical, psychiatric, and legal professions, institutions that have a monopoly on socially accepted knowledge. Because the language of the Vietnam veteran as victim emanates from these institutions, the testimony of combat veterans is pushed away from the center “because it is written as narrative, because one veteran’s work can be isolated from another’s, because it is often colloquial rather than formal, because it is obscene, because it is uncivil” (14). In other words, the American combat soldier as victim becomes commodified public memory erasing and revising the soldier as victimizer because this way of remembering originates from socially accepted knowledge-making institutions, whereas the testimonies of survivors do not.
This framework for understanding trauma literature allows virtual Vietnam Veterans Memorials to be examined as image events. For Tal, a survivor’s testimony “is an aggressive act” (7), one that is highly politicized as political, economic, and social forces pressure survivors from above to revise their stories or be silenced. Because the act of bearing witness becomes so politicized, Tal connects the literature of trauma to other groups similarly marginalized:
The writings of trauma survivors comprise a distinct “literature of trauma.” Literature of trauma is defined by the identity of its author. Literature of trauma holds at its center the reconstruction and recuperation of the traumatic experience, but it is also actively engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the writings and representations of nontraumatized authors. It comprises a marginal literature similar to that produced by feminist, African-American, and queer writers—in fact, it often overlaps with these literatures so that distinct subgenres of literature of trauma may be found in each of these communities. (17)
This association to the marginalized writing of feminist; African-American; and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) groups allows Tal to call the critic of the literature of trauma to a very specific work: “to identify and explicate literature by members of survivor groups, and to deconstruct the process by which the dominant culture codifies their traumatic experience” (18). The struggle of survivors against commodified public memory has very real consequences for cultural memory and identity, both individual and national.
While virtual Vietnam Veterans Memorials might not be as political as images from PETA or the images from Greenpeace that Kevin DeLuca examines in Image Politics: The New Rhetoric of Environmental Activism, they are nonetheless image events because they contribute to the commodified public memory that presents the American combat soldier in Vietnam as victim. The epideictic function of memorials, which locates combat soldiers as victims, contributes to silence those veterans, like W. D. Erhart, who perceive America’s involvement and the combat soldier in Vietnam as victimizer. In trying to simulate certain aspects of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, what values does The Virtual Wall™ elevate or displace, and how does the website solidify those values? In what ways does The Virtual Wall™ reflect the larger narratives of mythologization, medicalization, and disappearance it exists within?
The Virtual Wall™
Jim Schueckler, an Army helicopter pilot in the 192nd Assault Helicopter Company who served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, founded The Virtual Wall Association (“About” par. 4-5). Schueckler first opened The Virtual Wall on March 23, 1997, on a temporary Internet site. Once The Virtual Wall Association gained exclusive rights to the phrase “virtual wall” and the domain name “VirtualWall.org,” the virtual memorial officially opened on April 28, 1997, “to provide an environment like The Wall itself, with the dignity and respect those named on The Wall have earned,” by allowing visitors to “leave tributes, letters, poems, photos, and other memorials to someone named on the Wall for other visitors to view” (“About” par. 2). Schueckler and The Virtual Wall Association were soon joined by members of both the Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Homepage, including Kenneth Davis, who flew A6 Intruder bombers with the Navy’s Attack Squadron 85 in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970, and Channing Prothro, who served as a U.S. Marine and is webmaster of The Moving Wall™ website (“Volunteers” par. 3; 16). While there are over 24 volunteers who help maintain this virtual memorial, Schueckler, Davis, and Prothro are the three men primarily responsible for managing the website and posting the memorials visitors submit.
I chose to study The Virtual Wall™ as an image event for a number of reasons. First, The Virtual Wall™ ranks consistently in the top ten (often in the top five) in Internet searches for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial using a number of popular search engines. Although The Virtual Wall Association has made a conscious decision not to reveal how many people visit The Virtual Wall™ daily (“FAQs” par. 3), the memorial’s ranking after an Internet search, in addition to its exhaustive reciprocal links, places the website in a position to be viewed by many people on a daily basis. In addition to its ranking, this memorial makes increasingly complex use of hypertext. In Virtual Geographies, Crang et al. note that one of the most popular ways of conceptualizing virtual geography is as a simulation. Conceptualizing the online environment as a simulation positions the virtual “in relationship to the real, indeed as its Other, in an oppositional imaginative geography” locating “the virtual as a copy, always striving towards but never quite achieving a mimetic replication of the real” (6). The goal of The Virtual Wall™ is to “provide an environment like The Wall itself.” In other words, the goal is to create a mimetic replication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and one of the primary ways it attempts to do so is to simulate with the use of hypertext the symbolic act of leaving personal offerings at the memorial. The Virtual Wall™ is also making more complex use of the multimedia possibilities offered by hypertext than other websites, even though The Virtual Wall Association does not currently have the resources to post memorials that make significant use of visual and audio recordings (“FAQs” par. 10). Finally, The Virtual Wall™ provides an effective case study for examining the ways individual experience is appropriated by the dominant cultural narratives of mythologization and medicalization. Other websites exist that attempt to simulate the act of leaving remembrances at the Wall. For example, The Wall—USA also allows visitors to submit mostly textual memorials; however, the website functions more like a wiki, allowing one to add to remembrances already posted to names on the Wall without any review from the association that maintains the website. In contrast, memorials submitted to The Virtual Wall™ are reviewed and sometimes rejected (“FAQs” par. 5) by The Virtual Wall Association if the memorial does not comply with the rules that govern the submission of memorials.
The Virtual Wall™ Homepage
On a black and gray background which mimics a panel of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the title of the website “The Virtual Wall™ Vietnam Veterans Memorial” appears in gold lettering at the top of the page followed by a subtitle explaining the purpose of the site: “Remembrances, poems, photos, letters, and citations honoring those named on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC” (“Virtual Wall” par. 2). Nineteen links are on the left side of the page and can be divided into three categories: 1) links allowing visitors to search the memorial, 2) links allowing visitors to submit a personal memorial, and 3) links to information about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the website, and its founders. An image of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial with text (and link) to The Virtual Wall Association’s participation in Sons and Daughters In Touch Father’s Day at the Wall dominates the center and right side of the page. Underneath this image is the trademarked icon of The Virtual Wall™ that other websites use if they are to be reciprocally linked to The Virtual Wall™ and a free search engine provided by FreeFind.com allowing visitors to search the memorial using the person’s last name. At the bottom of the page is a link to information about the registered trademark dispute concerning the phrase “virtual wall” and text that disassociates The Virtual Wall™ from the U.S. National Park Service that maintains the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Although the metaphor of the web is often invoked to describe the Internet, suggesting that people have unlimited choice in the paths they choose to wander, this is not the case. Crang et al. note that “one might also point to how, not least through a dominant emphasis on user-friendly interfaces and search engines, such possibilities (unlimited pathways) are being marginalized; how the dominant spatialities of cyberspace are characterized less by wanderings than by namings which reproduce real world and common-place structures of intelligibility” (9). Although a website may provide multiple links to internal and external pages, the tunnel or initial homepage prescribes certain ways of experiencing the website and thus certain ways of thinking. The prescribed pathways of the homepage construct a specific ethos of the American combat soldier in Vietnam through patterns of association and dissociation.
Four links on the homepage associate the Vietnam soldier with hero and/or victim and, in the process of doing so, dissociates the combat soldier from the image of victimizer. The first links to an index called “Height of Valor,” a database that offers visitors another way of searching the website by viewing memorials to soldiers on the Wall who received the Medal of Honor, Service Cross, or the Silver Star. A second link leads to a page called “Current MIA Status” where visitors can examine information about the status of the 2,539 soldiers listed on the Wall as “Missing in Action.” A third link called “Recent Additions” leads visitors to a page listing the 100 most recent memorials added to the website. The fourth is a link to an index called “Faces of Freedom,” a page where visitors can search through personal memorials via photographic images.
These links work to associate the Vietnam soldier with the values of heroism and the image of victim in disparate ways. The link “Height of Valor” certainly associates those who died in the war with heroism; however, what is more significant is the way the “Height of Valor” index is designed. Most people struggle to read text over 3-4 screens in length on computer monitors, and many of the pages that comprise The Virtual Wall™ reflect this understanding. The “Height of Valor” page lists over 500 names and is over 30 screens in length. The amount of names on the “Height of Valor” page and its length associate the American combat soldier with the values of courage and sacrifice. In addition, the link to the “Current MIA Status” page reminds visitors of the POW/MIA status of many names on the Wall. Since those labeled POW/MIA have reached an almost sanctified status in American culture, a link allowing visitors to search memorials via POW/MIA status further mythologizes the Vietnam soldier. The prescribe pathway leading to the 100 most recent memorials leads visitors to arguments from models. Because these memorials are the most recent memorials accepted and posted by The Virtual Wall Association, they function as possible models for visitors desiring to submit memorials. In other words, the values codified in these memorials become arguments for ways visitors should represent the dead when submitting a memorial, which will be discussed in more detail below.
The “Faces of Freedom” page deserves some discussion at length because of the way it visually associates the combat soldier with certain values. The textual aspects of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. are important to the ways people experience the physical memorial. Maya Lin notes that “The memorial is analogous to a book in many ways. Note that on the right-hand panels the pages are set ragged right and on the left they are set ragged left, creating a spine at the apex as in a book” (4:14). As the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which is partly textual in nature, moves into a space in which the visual is valued just as much (or even more so today), how is the American combat soldier in Vietnam represented? What subject positions are visually available and taken up? What messages do these visual representations on The Virtual Wall™ convey?
There are 37 images on the first page of the “Faces of Freedom” index. All are headshots similar to passport images. Of these, 33 depict soldiers of various branches of the Armed Forces in their uniforms. Of these 33 images, 20 are formal pictures of soldiers in their formal dress. Only four appear out of the ordinary, suggesting alternative subject positions given this context. Both the images of SGT E. E. Henderson and SP4 C. R. Henley seem out of place because of their dress and gaze. Henderson appears causally dressed in uniform. His hat is tilted to the side, exposing a lock of curly blond hair. He wears sunglasses, and the front of his uniform is unbuttoned exposing his chest. Henley is without hat and shirt. Both are smiling, gazing not into the camera but at something off to the right. Both CPL R. F. Heilig and CPL J. Holmes’ images seem out of place because of their joviality. Heilig’s smile is wide as he winks into his close-up. Holmes, one of the two African-Americans depicted, appears to have been caught in an act of play. He smiles as he seems to stumble to the ground, grabbing hold of someone’s arm that can just be seen in the frame of the photo.
The homogenous nature of these images has a normalizing effect that further elevates the combat soldier in Vietnam into the American cultural narrative of heroic martyr or victim. Because a majority of these images depict soldiers in uniform, the only subject position provided by these memorials is that of soldier. But what kind of soldier? The prevalence of formal photographs of soldiers in their formal dress suggests a subject position of honor, dignity, and duty. Because these images overwhelm those that depict soldiers at play or in other subjectivities altogether, these representations elevate the values of honor, dignity, and duty, further displacing the image of the combat soldier as victimizer. As is being suggested by the arguments from models created by prescribed pathways leading visitors to the 100 most recent memorials and to the personal memorials of the “Faces of Freedom” index that visually depict the dead, one of the ways these values are becoming solidified is the way in which visitors are required to participate when they submit memorials.
Placing a Name or Page
Not only does the homepage of The Virtual Wall™ prescribe pathways that function to rehabilitate the American combat soldier in Vietnam by foregrounding certain values, the website also prescribes ways that visitors can submit personal memorials. How does The Virtual Wall™ prescribe the ways visitors can participate in the simulated act of leaving personal memorials at the Wall? Who can speak? Under what conditions can they speak and to what ends? Do forms of resistance exist? How do visitors allowed to participate represent names on the Wall, and more importantly, what effect do these representations have on the way we remember the American combat soldier in Vietnam?
The Virtual Wall™ allows three types of memorials to be submitted by visitors: 1) an anonymous memorial page, 2) a basic memorial page, and 3) a custom memorial page. Anonymous memorial pages are not personalized in any way. These pages include the name of the person on the Wall, rank and branch of the Armed Forces, hometown, and date of birth and death. Visitors submitting anonymous memorials are given the option of remaining partially or totally anonymous. If partially anonymous, the memorial will contain a sentence that reads “If you want to contact this person, send email to the Webmaster” (“Placing a Name” par. 9). The Virtual Wall Association will then act as a mediator, forwarding correspondence to the visitor in order to allow the visitor the decision to respond or not. If totally anonymous, the memorial will contain no traces of any personal information identifying the visitor. Basic memorial pages are submitted via a request form. This request form allows visitors to fill in pertinent information concerning the person being memorialized and to make choices concerning background and graphics. Visitors are also given a space to write up to 1,000 words with the following instructions: “Please don't send us database information about the person, we have that information. Instead, show that this person was a unique individual through personal anecdotes, recollections, a description of your relationship, or another reflection of his or her personality” (“Request Form” par. 5). Custom memorial pages allow visitors to submit the URL address of a personal webpage they have created or to work closely with a member of The Virtual Wall Association or a professional webpage designer that visitors hire themselves to create a custom webpage.
Each of these types of memorials are submitted to, “manually edited” (“Placing a Name” par. 1), and approved by a member of The Virtual Wall Association. Visitors desiring to submit or create a custom memorial, which allows the greatest creative freedom, are given a set of rules stating that custom memorials cannot contain any “statements for or against a specific political party or named public figures” or “wording unsuitable for children to read” (“Placing a Name” par. 13). The detailed instructions for submitting the three types of memorials are accompanied by links to examples. The personal memorial for CWO Robert O. Hill created by his sisters Mindy and Cindy and his brother Bruce provides a model for creating custom memorials. The memorial begins with a picture of Robert Hill edited so that his image seems reflected in the black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Following this image is a short biography of his military service and awards earned. Mindy then offers a poem called “In Search Of. . .” about what it means for siblings to lose someone in war. Bruce then offers a letter to Robert concerning how difficult Robert’s loss was for him and what he remembers most about his brother. Bruce then links to an essay his daughter Kimberly A. Hill wrote for a college scholarship (which she won). This essay, in response to the prompt “If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, who would it be?”, answers the question with Robert Hill, proclaiming that her uncle was a hero and sharing with readers an intimate moment when she and her father Bruce visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for the first time.
All of these—the ideology of members of The Virtual Wall Association, the rules for creating custom memorials, and the memorial for Robert O. Hill which serves as an argument from model—function to elevate the values of heroism and the image of victim the homepage promotes. How do these aspects of The Virtual Wall™ influence how visitors represent and remember those who died in the Vietnam War?
To begin answering this question, I examined the 15 most recent memorials posted on The Virtual Wall™. Most of these memorials contained stories about those who died and “A Note from the Virtual Wall.” What I found was that the narratives told in these memorials and the note from The Virtual Wall Association reflect the values elevated by the homepage and the instructions for submitting memorials. I noticed two narrative patterns told by those who submitted these fifteen memorials: 1) narratives that elevated those who had died to the status of hero and 2) narratives that presented close family members and friends of the dead as victims.
Many narratives reflect the values promoted on the homepage and in the instructions for submitting memorials. The memorial to PFC Lawrence M. Mahurter says that “Larry and I grew up on the streets and parks in Weehawken. He befriended me like an older brother, always there for me.” Of LT Frank M. Brown, Jr., Rick Knoch admonishes his readers “to not forget these men, and all the others, who have given their lives to defend our country! Freedom is not Free!” Sue Wilkins Gorsch notes that SP4 Allan F. Wilkins “left a young bride and had just found out he was going to be a dad. His daughter just got married last year.” Of Thomas A. Pardo, Phyllis Plonkster Leser says “I asked my stepfather (a veteran of WWII) why Tommy enlisted. He told me that Tommy's father was really sick and that this was a better way to help. He gave up his school and future career and eventually his life for the love of family.” Functioning together, these memorials begin to mythologize the American combat soldier in Vietnam by giving presence to the values of duty, honor, sacrifice, and love for country and family.
A second narrative pattern functions in a different way. After mentioning his childhood in Weehawken with PFC Mahurter, Russ says “While visiting DC I took a rubbing off the Wall, and Larry always comes in with me to help me explain as best I can. Larry was always there for me and he is still helping his younger friend.” The memorial to SP4 John D. Hodge recalls that “We were to leave Phu Bai on the same day, and I was hoping to share that scary flight home with a friend. It did not happen. I never forgot John and his kindness to others, I'm sorry I had to leave without my friend.” Lillian Guy’s letter to her husband CPL Milton E. Flowers says “I wrote a poem for you after your death but unfortunately it was lost—I can only recall the title which was ‘And now I must say Goodbye, Love’. One verse went ‘As we walked hand in hand knowing you would always understand, And now I must say Goodbye, love’. Over the years that verse is the one thing that made your love stand out above all other.” Jim Stephens’ memorial to FN Thomas L. Blackman reflects on a specific childhood experience:
We raced our bicycles up and down the hills of our River Oaks community. One day Tommy was just flying down the hill and as he took the corner at the bottom of the hill on Westwick he yelled “No brakes”. Not to be out-done I did the same but ran into the back fender of a pickup scaring both the driver and myself for a minute or two. A few minutes later Tommy and I were laughing at my misadventure. It went into the annals as an unforgettable moment. . . . I know I miss him greatly and think of him often. When I drive through the old neighborhood, I still see him on his bicycle flying down the hills, yelling “no brakes.” Someday I hope to join him on those hills again.
These narratives focus our attention on the victims of trauma or loss, and the metaphor of the ghost often becomes prevalent, accentuating just how much their loss haunts those who submitted these memorials. Mahurter is “with” Russ when he enters high schools to educate students about the Vietnam War. Blackman is “with” Stephens when he returns to his hometown. Collectively, these narratives function to locate those who died in the Vietnam War and those who survived them as victims.
Notes from The Virtual Wall Association work with (and against) these personal narratives in interesting ways. “A Note from the Virtual Wall” concludes most of the memorials I examined. These notes have three distinct functions: 1) to recount the specific circumstances of death, 2) to correct information in the personal narratives, and 3) to establish a series of links with other memorials on The Virtual Wall™.
“A Note from the Virtual Wall” will often use database information to recount the specific circumstances of an individual’s death, and this database information becomes narratives elevating the values of heroism and courage. On May 8, 1967, the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines lost 38 soldiers during a fight in Con Thien. Alpha Company lost 13 of these 38, among which was LCPL Michael P. Finley. Finley’s actions during this fight earned him the Navy Cross. “A Note from the Virtual Wall” quotes from the award’s citation:
Two squads from the First Platoon were maneuvering across an open strip to stop the enemy penetration of the perimeter at Con Thien when they were pinned down by intense fire from a numerically superior North Vietnamese Army force in a revetment behind two burning amphibious tractors. Realizing that the squad was taking heavy casualties, Lance Corporal Finley, with complete disregard for his own personal safety, leaped from his covered position and accurately fired two M-79 grenades at the enemy position. Although he was wounded, he scored two direct hits on an enemy machine gun, destroying it and killing its crew. Once again, with complete disregard for his own safety, he lunged forward through a hail of enemy fire to give aid to a wounded Marine lying in the open. After giving first aid to the wounded Marine, he noticed that his squad leader was also seriously wounded. Again he fearlessly exposed himself to give assistance to his squad leader, but was mortally wounded.
This narrative from The Virtual Wall Association complements personal remembrances by elevating the values of heroism, sacrifice, and selflessness. Against a “numerically superior” force, Finley, with “complete disregard for his own personal safety,” single-handedly deals a great blow to the enemy while administering first-aid under “a hail of enemy fire” to two members of his unit, dying in the act of trying to save one of them. While my goal is not to discredit the courage and heroism of Michael Finley, what is given presence in this narrative (and, collectively, in others like it) through patterns of emphasis and how it is written further contributes to the rehabilitation of the combat soldier as hero, displacing the image of victimizer.
More importantly, the personal narratives of family and friends become subjugated knowledge because the narratives from “A Note from the Virtual Wall” are constructed from information gathered from an official database. Since the information used in notes from The Virtual Wall Association comes from this database, “A Note from the Virtual Wall” has a powerful correcting function. About Allan F. Wilkins, Sue Wilkins Gorsch notes that “I believe he was the thirteenth, and last, Vermonter to die in Vietnam.” The memorial ends with the following from The Virtual Wall Association:
SP4 Wilkins was neither the first nor last Vermonter to die in Vietnam, nor was he the thirteenth. Regrettably, an even 100 men who claimed Vermont as their Home of Record died in the war. The first was Master Sergeant Rollin C. Sargent of Johnson, who was killed in action on 22 Oct 1964 while serving with Advisory Team 40; the last was 1stLt John H. Haselton of Newport, who died on 11 May 1972 when his O-2A (tail number 68-11004) was shot down in Binh Long Province. SP4 Wilkins was 96th on Vermont's roster of lost sons.
Since the narratives told in the notes have the authority of socially accepted knowledge, emphasized even more by occupying a position of conclusion in the memorials, “A Note from the Virtual Wall” begins to appropriate personal narratives, complementing when personal narratives comply with socially accepted knowledge and correcting when they do not.
A third function of these notes is to establish a series of links with other memorials on The Virtual Wall™. LT Frank M. Brown, Jr. was a member of USN Fighter Squadron 151. After recounting the specific circumstances of his death, “A Note from the Virtual Wall” lists six other incidents when Squadron 151 lost aircraft in the Gulf of Tonkin from December 1967 to March 1973. Not only does the note list those who died, it also provides links to the memorials of LTJG Lawrence F. Nyman, ENS Harry J. Belknap, and LT Richard C. Clark. These links serve many functions, one of which is to establish a community of grieving. However, these links also lead to memorials that contain similar narratives and patterns of emphasis. These links, then, further solidify the values being elevated and displaced by creating commonplaces visitors encounter as they navigate The Virtual Wall™. The extensive list of reciprocal links established by The Virtual Wall™ because of the increasing commercialization of the Internet further functions to solidify these values.
Barbara Warnick’s comparative study of 1996 and 2000 presidential election parody websites in Critical Literacy in a Digital Era: Technology, Rhetoric, and the Public Interest argues that the nature of the Internet is changing. The increasing commercialization of the Internet leads to a need to make websites visible and keep people from leaving once they are there: “To offset the expenses of server storage, site management, copyright fees, and legal representation, designers of larger sites had to sell merchandise or advertising space on their sites. They therefore needed to keep users on their sites, and so internal links to their content and site design features that kept their users oriented were necessary” (109). Given the increasing commercialization of the Internet, what has The Virtual Wall Association done to ensure that people find The Virtual Wall™? More importantly, what effect does this response to commercialization have on the way we remember the American combat soldier in Vietnam? The Virtual Wall™ has responded to the commercialization of the Internet in two ways: 1) gaining ownership of the phrase “virtual wall” and 2) establishing an exhaustive list of reciprocal external links. Gaining a trademark on the phrase “virtual wall” ensures that people searching for virtual memorials find The Virtual Wall™ and encounter its system of values while, similar to the internal links created by “A Note from the Virtual Wall,” the list of reciprocal external links create a set of commonplaces that further solidify the values elevated and displaced by the website.
The narrative concerning the trademark dispute over the phrase “virtual wall” is difficult to miss. The Virtual Wall™ emphasizes its ownership of the phrase almost as much as the purpose of the website itself, and links can be found reinforcing this at the bottom of every page. In January 2001, The Virtual Wall Association applied for Federal registration of the phrase and was refused on the grounds that it was “merely descriptive.” The Virtual Wall Association then submitted documentation, a consumer survey, legal arguments, and e-mails, arguing that the phrase was suggestive, not merely descriptive. As a result of this 22-month process, The Virtual Wall Association was granted ownership of the phrase “virtual wall,” allowing the website to be “indexed on all major search engines” (“About” par. 4) and members to prevent any unauthorized use of the trademark, which they have done twice. In 2002, a website appeared with the title Virtual Wall Online. “In a friendly telephone call,” The Virtual Wall Association “explained the trademark implications and suggested replacing ‘Virtual Wall Online’ with ‘Vietnam Wall Online’” (“Registered Trademark” par. 10). When the owner said that he did not have the resources or time to change the name (it appeared on 140 pages), The Virtual Wall Association did it for him. In another instance, a person started a business sending rubbings of names on the Wall via U.S. mail. His e-mail correspondence appeared to be officially connected to The Virtual Wall™, so The Virtual Wall Association asked him to include a sentence on his correspondence stating that he was not officially connected to the website (“Registered Trademark” par. 11). The affects of gaining ownership of this phrase is obvious. As The Virtual Wall Association says, “Anyone searching for the words ‘virtual, wall, vietnam, veterans, memorial’ or combinations and subsets of those words would have easily found the site” (“About” par. 4), guaranteeing that The Virtual Wall™ ranks high on popular Internet search engines. This ensures that people find their way to the website and the system of values elevated by the virtual memorial.
The extensive list of reciprocal links also solidifies the values elevated on The Virtual Wall™. The website boasts close to 300 external reciprocal links. Most of these links function to establish communities by sending visitors to national veterans’ organizations, POW/MIA organizations, and large/small unit organizations. However, the way many of the links are layered or grouped focuses our attention on the victims of trauma. A group of links sends visitors out to websites containing information about posttraumatic stress disorder and agent orange. In addition, a second group of links connects visitors to general websites concerned with healing. While the ways these links are layered elevates the American combat soldier in Vietnam to the status of victim, what solidifies the values of The Virtual Wall™ even more is the set of commonplaces created by these reciprocal links. For example, The Virtual Wall™ is reciprocally linked with VietnamWall.org, whose purpose is to simulate the act of creating rubbings of names on the Wall by allowing visitors to print rubbings from their computers. One of the images this virtual memorial emphasizes is Lee Teter’s “Vietnam Reflections,” which once again focuses our gaze on victims of trauma. Teter’s print depicts a Vietnam veteran, now a businessman in his late forties/early fifties, visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The veteran is sobbing and has his hand pressed against the black granite. Reflected in the Wall is not the veteran’s image but the image of those he lost during the war. This group of soldiers gazes back at him, and one soldier in particular reaches up to touch the veteran’s hand. In contrast, the Wall—USA places emphasis on images of heroism. This virtual memorial emphasizes The Three Fightingmen, the heroic, masculinized memorial that compliments the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The heroism of this image is emphasized even more by the easily apparent digital enhancement, which places a blazing sunset in the background of these three figures. The extensive list of reciprocal links of The Virtual Wall™ functions to create a set of commonplaces or similar images/narratives that medicalize and mythologize the American combat soldier in Vietnam, further contributing to the codification of values already elevated by the virtual memorial itself.
What I think is at stake is memory and identity, both individual and national. General Maxwell Taylor, one of Kennedy’s advisors and ambassador to Saigon during Johnson’s administration, confessed the following about the Vietnam War before he died in 1987:
First, we didn’t know ourselves. We thought that we were going into another Korean War, but this was a different country. Secondly, we didn’t know our South Vietnamese allies. We never understood them, and that was another surprise. And we knew even less about North Vietnam. Who was Ho Chi Minh? Nobody really knew. So, until we know the enemy and know our allies and know ourselves, we’d better keep out of this dirty business. It’s very dangerous. (qtd. in Karnow 23)
In exorcising the specter of Vietnam by rehabilitating the image of the American combat soldier as victimizer, are we in danger of forgetting, once again, what we are as a nation, and in so doing, paving the way for that which many promised would not happen ever again: No More Vietnams? At a recent conference concerning the literature and film of the Vietnam War 30 years after the war, Wayne Karlin noted that healing is often synonymous with forgetting. While memorials, both physical and virtual, might not be appropriate spaces for challenging the desire to exorcise the specter of Vietnam, we must be conscious of how these image events contribute to commodified public memory in order to create a space for the emergence of new, alternative representations that challenge those in dominant social, cultural, and political discourse.
A version of this essay appears in Thirty Years After: New Essays on Vietnam War, Literature, Film, and Art, edited by Mark Heberle.
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