There are 58,318 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, marking the deaths of a generation of young men, and eight women, in the United States’ military intervention in Southeast Asia between 1956 and 1975. The names are engraved in highly polished black marble set into the earth in Constitution Gardens at the western end of the National Mall.

The memorial reveals itself gradually to visitors as they pass long the path skirting the lake: a memory first glimpsed, and then only fully apprehended as they confront it directly. At certain times of the morning, in the spring and summer, the first hint of the wall is a flash of sunlight reflecting off of its gleaming surface.

This is intentional; Maya Lin, the Yale architecture student who designed the memorial in 1981, meant it to be a site of reflection. Inspired by the memorials for the Great War – those public places of private grief – Lin conceived her design as “an interface, between our world and the quieter, darker, more peaceful world beyond. I chose black granite in order to make the surface reflective and peaceful.”

The reflective surface is even more than that, notes the cultural critic Marita Sturken; it is also an interactive screen that interpellates visitors into the narrative of names. The black reflective surface echoes the reflecting pool of the Lincoln Memorial, she wrote in 1991, “that allows viewers to participate in the memorial, seeing their own images in the names, [and] they are thus implicated in the listing of the dead.”

The names, listed without rank, in the order of the deaths, meticulously maintained, updated, added and removed as conditions require, make this a memorial of collective individuality. The memorials of the Civil War honored the “silent sentinel in the abstract,” those of the Great War were cenotaphs – empty tombs – to the unknown soldiers of a generation. Each name on the Vietnam Veterans memorial is a nexus of trajectories: 58,318 sons, daughters, lovers, parents – even the teenager next door who played the Rolling Stones too loudly. The memorial draws its power from an inversion of the Great War’s memorial practice: it transforms collective, public grief into innumerable moments of personal mourning.

No bodies are buried in soil of Constitution Gardens, but it is there that mourners commune with the dead, by leaving ritual offerings – dog tags, medals, letters, photos of the dead. In Carried to the Wall, Kristin Ann Hass notes that, while this practice has roots in private funerary traditions, “there is no history of speaking with things in public spaces.” This was something new; an unplanned, unexpected innovation of the memorial itself, and its power to personalize a collective tragedy. And the National Parks Service, the wall’s custodians, encourage visitors also to take something away in the form of charcoal rubbings. The transaction of memory is thus deeply personal, and focused on the specificity of the living’s encounters with the names of the dead.

It can be difficult to grasp the controversy that raged right up to the memorial’s dedication on Veterans Day 1982. Some critics felt cheated of a heroic monument. Writing in The Washington Post one year before the dedication, Vietnam veteran Tom Carhart denounced Lin’s design as “a black gash… of dishonor and shame.” He proposed, instead, that the wall of names be built to stand above, and not within, the ground, of white marble to put it “in beautiful harmony, rather than stark contrast, with the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.” Above all, he demanded that it be capped with the flag.

Few of the visitors who quietly, and solemnly file past the wall, stopping for a few moments to remember a loved one, or to contemplate the name of a stranger, feel cheated. Preserving the names of the fallen, as the markers of their memory, seems so right, so proper, that the memorial has become the template for memorials elsewhere in the United States and the world. The power of Lin’s design is the power of names – engraved in stone, sewn into a quilt, spoken to power – to ensure that they will not be forgotten.

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