The Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Commemorating A Difficult Past

R. Wagner-Pacifici
Barry Schwartz, Swarthmore College

This work is freely available courtesy of University of Chicago Press.


The problem of commemoration is an important aspect of the sociology of culture because it bears on the way society conceives its past. Current approaches to this problem draw on Émile Durkheim and emphasize the way commemorative objects celebrate society's former glories. This article on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial deals with the way society assimilates past events that are less than glorious and whose memory induces controversy instead of consensus. The Vietnam War differed from other wars because it was politically controversial and morally questionable and resulted in defeat; it resembled other wars because it called out in participants the traditional virtues of courage, self-sacrifice, and honor. The task of representing these contrasting aspects of the war in a single monument was framed by the tension between contrasting memorial genres. Focusing on the discursive field out of which the Vietnam Veterans Memorial emerged, this analysis shows how opposing social constituencies articulated the ambivalence attending memories of the Vietnam War. Ambivalence was expressed not only in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial's design but also in the design of Vietnam War monuments later erected throughout the United States. These efforts to memorialize a divisive war, along with attempts in other nations to come to terms with the difficulties of their past, call into question Durkheim's belief that moral unity is the ultimate object of commemoration. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial and devices like it come into view not as symbols of solidarity but as structures that render more explicit, and more comprehensible, a nation's conflicting conceptions of itself and its past.