Talking to some people is like talking to a wall: a shiny black wall with names carved into it.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington is a black granite wall engraved with the names of each of the 58,245 U.S. servicemen who were killed in Vietnam from October, 1957 to May, 1975. Each of the 140 granite slabs is polished to a mirror finish so that, as visitors look into the engraved names, they will see the reflection of themselves. The names of the dead are not organized by rank or alphabet. They are listed in chronological order of their deaths.
Each time I have gone to The Wall. I have been struck by the quiet reverence shown by virtually every visitor. Many people are visibly shaken as they approach for the first time. Time does not exist there. The collective soul of America, scarred, bloodied, broken, bruised, is bared at The Wall. The raw nerves, the sinew, the marrow of America stands exposed in the reflection of each of us. Whether they want to or not, each visitor is forced to examine himself, his life, his accomplishments, his soul. And each walks away humbled.
An aging mother searches that vast sea of names, hoping to find her lost son, yet also hoping that he is not there, that this whole thing was just a mistake and her little boy will soon come home. She scans the lines of names, hopefully, but frightened. Then, there he is. A chill goes through every nerve, every muscle, every fiber of her soul. She reaches out to her child and he reaches back to her. The act of touching his name is involuntary, as pre-ordained as the turning of the earth. So are the tears. At the base of his panel she sometimes leaves a flower, sometimes a flag, sometimes a letter to him. But always, always, she leaves a mother's tears.
A middle-aged man sits on a bench a hundred yards from The Wall, studying it, staring through it. He is aware of the other people standing in front of the long black memory, but that is not what he sees. He is looking through the reflection of The Wall many miles, many years, away. He is young again and with his buddies. So many memories wash over him all at the same time that he can only look at each one fleetingly before moving on to the next. Maybe a smile about that stupid prank they pulled. The way they helped each other through the tough times. The last time he saw his buddy.
He, too, will touch the name of each of his buddies, and they will reach out of The Wall to touch him yet again. He, too, will leave something at the base of The Wall; a beer, a medal, a picture. Sometimes he will be able to leave a lifetime of guilt. But always, always, a warrior's tears.
Another Mom searches The Wall for the name of a man she never knew. Her children, now grown, look for their Grandfather. As they each touch his name, the kids finally start to understand why their Mom had to come here. They read the POW bracelets and wonder about the medals and lighters and smokes and letters to buddies and sons and fathers. They begin to understand about all those old guys staring into The Wall with tears in their eyes. The old guys hope the kids will never have to fully understand that there are always, always, a daughter's tears.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial lists the names of the dead, but war memorials are not built for the dead. They are built for the living. It is appropriate that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a wall : black, stark, simple yet complex, painful yet cathartic; a wall that forces us to stop and reflect. What we see in The Wall is ourselves. Whether we see survivor's guilt, or a broken heart, or pride, we are looking at the best of America. When we talk to the memory of a son, or a Dad, or a buddy, we are speaking absolute truth. When we reach out to touch The Wall, The Wall reaches out and touches us. When we look deep into The Wall we are looking at heroes who have given everything. We are looking at the soul of America.
Just as we each leave something at The Wall, The Wall leaves something with each of us. At the base of The Wall we each leave a little bit of guilt. The Wall leaves us with a reflection of ourselves, and always, always, a nation's tears.