My students don't remember Vietnam.
That's hard to believe, for someone born in 1968. But it's true, nonetheless. High school history courses rarely make it past World War Two. The Cold War and the Berlin Wall are mysteries. And Vietnam, unless someone in their family fought there, is just a country.
But most, if not all, of my students have heard of the Vietnam Memorial. They may not know what or who it commemorates. But they've seen it on class trips, or in textbooks. And they universally praise its power and simplicity. So, unless you're my age, it's hard to imagine the bitterness and divisions which greeted Maya Lin's memorial.
In his new book A Rift in the Earth: Art, Memory and the Fight for a Vietnam War Memorial
(Arcade Publishing, 2017), James Reston, Jr.
retells this story in a way that brings it alive again. Reston brings a journalist's eye for character and narrative to the book. Several authors have told this tale, but Reston is by far the best at bringing the story to life. Less interested in putting this memorial into the broader context of memorialization in the 1970s, he instead concentrates on retelling the story and on explaining to a modern audience why it matters. And, when you've finished the narrative heart of the book, you suddenly learn why the story seems so personal and important to Reston.
Kelly McFall is Professor of History and Director of the Honors Program at Newman University. He's the author of four modules in the
Reacting to the Pastseries, including
The Needs of Others: Human Rights, International Organizations and Intervention in Rwanda,