Fred LaSor: Moving Wall a moving experience
The “Moving Wall” exhibit was in Minden this past week, a one-half size replica of the Vietnam memorial from the National Mall in Washington, D.C. My wife and I visited this Minden showing late in the afternoon on opening day and decided it’s well named — it’s a moving experience, somber, but a fitting way to remember the casualties of that long conflict. To add to our experience this week, the sun was setting behind the Carson Range as we visited the Moving Wall.
We had lived in the District of Columbia and so we both have visited the original on the Mall, hence the Minden visit wasn’t the first time we had seen the memorial, but that in no way diminished the experience here: we were touched, saddened, yet glad we had made the visit. We were also impressed with the volunteer support: veterans and non-veterans alike who were in attendance around the clock for the week it was on display here.
Some of the reverence we feel for the Vietnam Memorial clearly has to do with more than 58,000 Americans and an estimated 2 million Vietnamese who died during that conflict. Some of it, too, has to do with the starkness of the lines Maya Lin intended with her design. And some of it certainly has to do with the fact many of the people who are sharing the moment in front of that black wall with us are looking for the names of friends and relatives who perished during the conflict.
But part of it too probably has to do with the shabby manner in which many veterans were treated upon their return from a war none of them wanted to fight in. The social divisions created in the United States live with us to this day, and they’re painful for those of us old enough to remember newspaper and TV images of protesters spitting on returning veterans.
That attitude has changed dramatically since 1975. It’s fairly common now to hear total strangers approaching uniformed servicemen and women in airports and other public places to thank them for their service. That would never have happened in the 1960s and 1970s, but not every one has gotten the message. Over this past Memorial Day weekend, CNN carried a critical report on the Vietnam war, as if that was the only war being memorialized by the observation. CNN appears to think its objectivity is measured in terms of anti-Americanism. Its low ratings illustrate the failure of that policy.
I was assigned to the American Embassy in neighboring Laos during that war, and was a peripheral part of the effort. Part of my job included regularly briefing journalists on that portion of the war effort being waged in Laotian territory transited by the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and other areas too sparsely populated for the Lao government to prevent Vietnam from staging there. We didn’t admit we were officially staging in or across Laos, so the embassy position was we had no part in the war in the north. That wasn’t an easy fiction to maintain, though, as B-52s flying out of bases in Thailand regularly left contrails in the skies over Vientiane, clearly visible from the ground.
The Moving Wall traveling exhibition has had two identical versions moving around the United States during the summer months ever since 1984. Our particular copy arrived in Minden from Ogden, Utah, and has now moved onto Bloomington, California. The shortness of its stay makes it difficult to encourage readers to take advantage of a visit, but if you have the chance, by all means, don’t pass up this event.
Fred LaSor retired from the foreign service in 1997 and lives now in Minden.