War and Remembrance

Display at the National Museum of American History in memory of veterans of the Vietnam War

'If you seek their monument, look around you' is a tag that has often been used with reference to individual great men and women, but nowhere, perhaps, more poignantly than to refer to the extraordinary exhibition of objects left at the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington DC, an exhibition recently opened to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the Memorial's dedication.

Personal Legacy: The Healing of a Nation, which is on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, contains approximately 500 items – a tiny fraction of more than 25,000 objects which were deposited between 1982 and 1991 at the Memorial, whose 140 black granite panels are inscribed with the names of over 58,000 American servicemen and women who were killed in Vietnam.

Right from the dedication of the monument in 1982 – which attracted controversy because of its stark and abstract designs – visitors to the wall have left objects and mementos of the fallen as well as coming to touch individual names and take rubbings of them. The process was begun by a Vietnam veteran who tossed a Purple Heart medal into the cement foundation at the Memorial, which is now the most visited individual site in the Capitol.

The objects on display at the Smithsonian range from the formal commemoratory – medals and ribbons showing Vietnam service, US flags, berets, battle jackets – to the deeply personal and idiosyncratic – stuffed animals, a GI Joe figure with an Ace of Spades card, a paperboy delivery bag.

There are notes and letters – some expressing general sentiments about the war, including a note from Ronald Reagan and one from Norman Jewison and the cast of the film In Country. Some are intense individual – messages to the fallen from relatives or buddies, expressing regret, sending love, fulfilling vows.

Some of the objects left - which are collected daily from the Memorial by National Rangers – have clear explanations for them – such as the toast cup left by Soviet/Afghanistan veterans visiting the Memorial, many of whom were given hospitality by American Vietnam veterans because of their shared experience (leaving a toast cup is a traditional Russian custom for grave site visits) or the delegation of Australian Vietnam veterans who left behind an Australian flag and replica Victoria Cross. Others are more enigmatic – the can of Colt 45 malt liquor with a note, the autographed baseball bat – left by a Vietnam veteran in honour of friends killed in the war who never got to see today's baseball stars. Another needs no explanation – a stuffed teddy bear and dog with a card 'Happy Birthday... on what would have been your 40th, your loving family who misses you'.

The items not on display are housed at a National Park service warehouse in Maryland – where Duery Felton, himself a Vietnam veteran, manages the collection. Putting on the exhibition involved sensitive decisions about privacy – 'we will divulge the reasons behind the objects, but at the same time protect their identity', Felton comments. These items invite our contemplation, reflection and our own conclusions', Edward Ezell, curator of the Smithsonian exhibition, says.

The exhibition has been supported by a special non-profit making organisation 'Beyond the Wall' – a reflection of the private initiatives that were responsible for the initial construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. That points to both the power and ambiguity of the commemorations. Unlike the American dead of other wars (or indeed the returning troops from the recent Desert Storm) Vietnam's veterans received little home-front thanks or respect for their part in a war that tore American public opinion apart.

The extraordinary public interest generated in this tenth anniversary exhibition – and the marathon reading of the names of the dead from the Memorial over the recent Veterans Day weekend can be seen as part of the reassessment and 'healing process' as the US comes to terms with its Vietnam experience – a popular complement to the reappraisal now being undertaken by historians and commentators.

Personal Legacy: The Healing of a Nation is on display in the National Museum of American History, 14th St. & Constitution Ave AW, Washington DC until June 7th, 10 am-5.30pm; admission free. Further details from (202) 357 2700.

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week