I first visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in the middle 1980’s. The black reflective color and the feeling you get from seeing it “coming out of the ground” added to the intimacy of the over fifty eight thousand names of the dead and MIA s.
That feeling of closeness, sadness and deep soul-searching is accented by visitors that come to cry for their buddies and their loved ones. As I ran my fingers along some of the names etched in the stone, I could not help but think of the great sacrifice that led to my standing there to pass an emotional and unforgettable moment that changed my life and I am sure that of others standing there with me.
I was particularly impressed by the number of Latino names on the wall and started to count and then stopped because I somehow felt it wrong to do it at that moment. It soon came to me that in the battlefield everyone comes together in honor and respect and the greatest expression of equality is in the challenge of life and death and the struggle to survive together.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial differentiates the names with either a cross for the dead or a diamond for the missing in action. The black POW flag that flies over many veterans posts commemorates prisoners that have not returned also has a place somewhere on that black polished stone wall.
I was in Germany as a very young airman and saw the pictures and reports of the Berlin Wall going up in 1961. The East German government built that wall in a desperate attempt to keep their people from escaping to the West.
Over the years, and off and on, I have thought about the different kinds of walls and their historical meaning. In addition to the walls already mentioned, there have been structures such the Sacsayhuaman Wall designed to defend the City of Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire and the famous wall defending Troy in what is now northwestern Turkey that helped the Trojans hold out for 10 years against Achilles and the Greeks.
The last presidential campaign season surfaced the notion of a “beautiful” wall for our southern border with Mexico that would be designed to stem the flow of Latino immigrants and the importation of drugs into America. The envisioned concept is somewhat similar to Hadrian’s Wall constructed by the Romans in the early 2nd Century AD to keep those from Scotland out and the Great Wall of China built between the 15th and 16th Centuries B.C. “to protect the borders of the Chinese Empire from the tribes of the North.”
History teaches us that in most cases a wall built to defend a city or a country represents an act of desperation on the part of a people in decadence seeking to maintain what they may no longer be able to hold. That is certainly true of the Berlin Wall that lasted some 28 years.
Hadrian’s Wall did little to change the course of history as the Roman military were forced to begin their departure in 383 A.D. The Great China Wall is a series of structures that did little to keep out the invading Mongols and later the Manchus as each eventually ruled the empire at different times.
The plans for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border stands to have the same outcome. It is better for walls to be more like monuments as they have a more lasting effect.