Yesterday I walked past this Vietnam War Memorial on a busy street in Venice, Calif. It was painted in 1992 by a veteran of that war and lists by name more than 2,000 Americans whose bodies had not been found in almost 20 years since the end of fighting.
The message at the top of the mural is this:
YOU ARE NOT FORGOTTEN
This resembles, in a way, the main Vietnam Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC — two long black granite walls etched with the names of the 58,000 service members who died in the conflict.
Similarly, New York’s 9/11 memorial includes names of the 3,000 dead etched in bronze.
People now visit these installations to see the names of loved ones whose losses they are grieving. After the survivors have died, the lists of names will remain to remind us that real people were lost in these terrible events.
Unusually, in Venice, the monument is to the forgotten dead whose bodies never have been found. Its idea is to remind Americans not to forget those persons’ loss.
Except, sometimes, at least some of us do forget.
Two years ago, on the week before Memorial Day, several young men sprayed silver paint over most of the names on the lower half of the Venice wall and then “tagged” it with their personal graffiti monikers.
Below is the result and, below that, a closer example of how the names of lost soldiers were replaced with bigger, showier tags of a few young people seeking attention.
Venice is a flaky sort of place and no hotbed of rah-rah military bravado. But this offended the community.
Prolific taggers are not hard to find, and so authorities identified at least some of the four who left their messages. One, who perhaps had a criminal record, was sent to prison for four years (two years, tops, now in CA), and another had to write a letter of apology. Both were assessed hefty fines that neither is likely to be able to pay.
I don’t know what you do with people like these. The vandals were in their early 20s, born years after the end of the Vietnam cauldron. Do they know any history? Can they be made to care about young men their age whose lives ended, mysteriously and offering no satisfaction to their friends and families, many years before those taggers were born?
After the tagging, veterans and local people worked in teams to wash off the graffiti. This had the unintended effect of erasing many of the original names from the wall.
Then, early the next year, another street artist or group of artists marked up the already-damaged wall.
The volunteers went back to work. They researched the records of the original painter, who had died. They made templates of the names and lettering, and they restored the writing as he had placed it. Between sweat equity and donated money, the mural was restored as seen in the top picture. When completed, it also was covered with a coating to protect it if — or, more likely, when — the next self-styled street artist tries to replace its message with one demanding attention for himself.
So we should be grateful for the public-spirited people who gave their own time and money to put things right.
But as for that message — YOU ARE NOT FORGOTTEN — I am not so confident.
Are we teaching our children about the perils of war and the respect owed to the war dead?
What does it mean when some young people see emblems of such recognition as opportunities to divert attention to their own wishes for grandiosity?
If the young do not learn history or respect its memorials, how will we protect them from future wars that leave us grieving new losses and with no sense of the reasons why?