Volume XII, Number I, Spring 2016

"Contemporary American Landscape of Memory: Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Ground Zero" by Nóra Németh

Nóra Németh graduated from the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged with a master’s degree in American Studies. Email:


Contemporary American commemorative culture is booming as the last few decades witnessed the construction of thousands of permanent public memorials divergent in style and subject across the United States (Doss 2010, 2). As opposed to the triumphant and glorious monuments of the past, new memorials commemorate painful, tragic, traumatic and often shameful periods and moments in history. Thus, newly constructed memorials are heated sites of personal and cultural memories, shared histories, emotional issues and, political and social concerns (Doss 2010, 2). With their minimalist aesthetics and participatory, democratic and individualistic nature, contemporary public memorials engage the public in this way enabling the projection of divergent interpretations, histories and memories.

This new period of public commemoration was initiated by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1982) in Washington D.C. Lacking of a singular historical narrative of the Vietnam War; the walls of the memorial, with their black and reflective surface, generate diverse forms of memorialization. Thus, in her essay, entitled The Wall, the Screen, and the Image: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1991), Marita Sturken described the black walls of the memorial as screens, on which the divergent memories, narratives and histories of the Vietnam War and its aftermath are projected upon (1991, 118).

This essay considers the public commemoration of 9/11, as another national trauma, that has provided a set of similarly contested narratives and meanings. Relying on Sturken’s concept of screen, I attempt to examine the ways in which Ground Zero, as a starting point, has functioned similarly to the walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in enabling the construction of diverse narratives and memories about the destruction, the immense human loss, the legacy of the World Trade Center, and the revitalization of the site and the Manhattan skyline. In doing so, the essay also aims to point out the similar patterns in the public commemoration of the two traumatic events: the Vietnam War and September 11, 2001.

A reshaped American landscape of memory

Memory culture is flourishing in contemporary United States as in the last few decades, the nation witnessed the construction of thousands of new memorials materializing diverse subjects from American history (Doss 2010, 2). Several recently erected memorials commemorate great leaders, important historical moments and U.S. participation in wars, but many new additions to the American memorial landscape are dedicated to executed witches, murdered teenagers, aborted fetuses along with the victims of racism, communism and acts of terrorism (Doss 2010, 1). Erika Doss calls this growing phenomenon ‘memorial mania’ and defines it as “an obsession with issues of memory and history and an urgent desire to express and claim those issues in visibly public contexts” (2010, 2). Arguing that this burgeoning of public memorial making is driven primarily by conflicts over self-definition, politics of representation and national purpose, she unveils an important shift: from traditional monuments embodying a unified, triumphant and masculine narrative, to a more fragmented American commemorative landscape that is primarily disposed to individual memories, personal grievances, tragedies and traumatic experiences (2010, 2).

Subsequently, today’s growing numbers of memorials reflects a major transformation that has taken place in contemporary commemorative culture: from the construction of authoritative and glorious monuments to the creation of individualistic and abstract memorials. As Russell Rodrigo explains, both monuments and memorials are “key forms of public remembrance” (2013, 59) as they preserve and pass collective memory, however, the formal distinction between the two built forms are elusive. Generally, scholars agree that the main difference between monuments and memorials is that while the former is primarily celebratory and triumphal, the design of the latter is rather contemplative and reflective. Accordingly, Arthur C. Danto, for example, distinguishes between memorials and monuments by claiming that the former are generally built to signify healing, remembrance and loss, while the construction of monuments is driven mainly by the urgency to express heroism and pride (Danto 1985, 152 in Rodrigo 2013, 60). Similarly, Marita Sturken argues that the key function of monuments is to evoke victory but as regards memorials, they “embody grief, loss, and tribute or obligation; in so doing, they serve to frame particular historical narratives” (1991, 120).

As the meaning and purpose of historic events such as the Holocaust, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the Vietnam War became widely debated, the traditional modes of commemoration, that generally offered an agreed set of cultural and social values along with a unified and singular historical narrative, could no longer respond to the uncertainty and the contradictions of the era (Rodrigo 2013, 64). Therefore, as Doss explains, a new form of memorialization has emerged that subdued the dominance of the glorious and ennobling monuments of the past by favoring memorials that enabled the representation of the “diverse, subjective, and often conflicted expressions of multiple publics” (2008, 5). Rodrigo also pointed out that in parallel with the evolution of the American commemorative landscape, a new rhetoric of memorial design has also appeared, that reflecting a greater degree of abstraction, denounced the conventional forms of the traditional monuments, along with their general understandings as closures of specific events (2013, 64). Rather, the developing aesthetics have supported the possibility of “divergent meanings and interpretations of the past” (Rodrigo 2013, 64) that has challenged the spatial relationship between the site, the memorial and the viewer in this way encouraging public participation in the memory making process (Rodrigo 2013, 64).

Thus, contemporary forms of memorialization also illustrate an important shift toward the cultural negotiation of public feelings, along with the public discussion and visible display of grief and mourning (Doss 2008, 38). The emotional life of recent public memorials is manifested exquisitely in the creation of temporary memorial sites primarily, as attempts to cope with inexplicable losses at places of sudden, tragic and often violent events. These spontaneous shrines, most often created in memory of victims of car accidents, school shootings and terrorism, embody strong public desire to pay tribute and grieve. Consequently, temporary memorials are inherently public sites that encourage public participation and physical interaction (Doss 2008, 24). When defining contemporary ‘memory boom’, Doss remarked that this current obsession with memorial construction is motivated largely by “the affective conditions of public life in America” (2012, 2) that shapes the contemporary commemorative sites (Doss, 2010, 2).

This apparent newly formed obsession in both private and public commemoration has resulted in a “reshaped American landscape of memory” (Sloane 2005, 64). As David Charles Sloane argued, this new period of commemoration was initiated by Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. that, with its democratic, individualistic and participatory design, has been considered as a revolution in public memorial architecture (2005, 64). The memorial triggered a widespread interest in public commemoration and generated a veritable explosion of public memorial construction in the United States (Rodrigo 2013, 65) As Rodrigo asserted,

the Vietnam Veterans Memorial challenged the idea of memory represented as a knowable object and changed forever the popular conception of what a public memorial should be and how it should work. (2013, 65)

Similarly, Sturken contended that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial initiated a new form of public commemoration (1991, 118). As she argued, the minimalist design, strong sense of site and interactive nature of the memorial oppose the architectural lineage (Sturken 1991, 122) and the traditional U.S. public discourse of war that is defined primarily by the premises of purpose, success and clarity (Sturken 1991, 118). Rather, the acts of public memorialization that were defined by Sturken as “moments in which the shifting discourses of history, personal memory and cultural memory converge” (1991, 118) have become tied to the contested narrative and history of the Vietnam experience. Due to the disruption of the “standard narratives of American imperialism, technology and masculinity” (Sturken 1991, 119), the divisive effect of the war on society and the marginalization of the Vietnam veterans, the Vietnam War lacks a unified and singular historical narrative (Sturken, 1991, 119). Therefore, as Sturken argued, the walls of the memorial function as screens, on which the diverse personal and collective memories of the war are projected upon in this way contributing to the historization and rehistorization of the Vietnam experience (1991, 119). Accordingly, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial refuses to imply the traditional aesthetic codes of war by rejecting the closure of the Vietnam conflict, yet, as Sturken claimed, “it both condemns and justifies future memorials” (1991, 122).

Thus, in my opinion, it is relevant to examine the ways in which the public commemoration of 9/11, a subsequent national trauma, revisits the contested memorialization and historization of the Vietnam War. As a moment of spectacular violence, the terrorist attacks resulted in the tragic loss of thousands of people and the collapse of the iconic buildings of the World Trade Center that embodied the dominant American narratives of capitalism, national power, masculinity and technological superiority. Therefore, drawing on Sturken’s concept of the screen, I consider Ground Zero, the symbolic center of events, as a starting point on which the diverse narratives, memories and histories of 9/11 have been constructed. With examining the public memorialization of the Vietnam War and 9/11 side by side, I attempt to point out the similar patterns in the commemoration and historization of the two traumatic events.

Debates surrounding the permanent public memorials

The creation of a memorial that would commemorate those who sacrificed their lives in the Vietnam War was the initiative of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF), a group of Vietnam veterans (Sturken 1991, 119). The organizers of the construction specified only two expectations for its design: to include the names of the missing and the dead, and to create a design that would be harmonious with the surroundings without promoting any of the political standings in connection with the highly criticized war. However, violating the taboos about the commemoration of wars, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial became an object of attack even before it was constructed (Sturken 1991, 122).

As Sturken pointed out, the examination of the design reveals some crucial and symbolic aspects of the memorial: the black color of the walls symbolizes shame and sorrow, the relationship between the memorial and the site evokes defeat, while the listing of names refuses to indicate a body of men, rather, it individualizes the victims (1991, 123). Being cut into the earth of the National Mall, the memorial appears as a physical wound on the landscape that is enclosed by vertical monuments that reflecting heroism and triumph commemorate the greatest chapters and leaders of American history. The black walls of the memorial are connected in an extended V, which allows a variety of interpretations. Sturken identified several possible readings and explained that a V can be a reference to Vietnam but also, it can indicate such taboo words as victim, veteran or violate (1991, 123). Moreover, she argued that the most important, but largely unexpressed point of criticism is the antiphallic presence of the design (Sturken 1991, 123). Evoking an open wound, the memorial reflects the divisive effect of the war on the American society and remains as a permanent reminder of an unsuccessful war that emasculated the American soldier and thus, the presence of the United States as a world power (Sturken 1991, 123).

The antiphallic form of the memorial is further intensified by the fact that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was designed by a young Asian-American student, Maya Lin. Consequently, the debates directed toward her gender, age and ethnic background. On the one hand, regarding her immediately as ‘other’, the American public resented Lin’s appointment as the primary interpreter and narrator of a war that was fought in Indochina. Additionally, as Sturken explains, Lin’s ‘otherness’ was considered as a possible negative reference to the mistreatment and the marginalization of the veterans following the Vietnam War (1991, 124). On the other hand, many feared that being designed by a young woman, the memorial would reflect female sensibility in this way emphasizing the loss of masculinity (Sturken 1991, 124).

In 1984, as a result of the controversies surrounding Maya Lin’s work, a figurative sculpture designed by Frederick Hart was placed near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Hart’s design approaches the Vietnam War in a more traditional way (Doss 2002, 65). Doss argues that by portraying three American soldiers in a war situation, the statue emphasizes traditional codes of commemoration such as sacrifice, heroism and masculinity (2002, 66). The presence of bodies, as part of the national memorial, reflects the intention to indicate that survival and heroism are the preferred narratives rather than loss, defeat and shame. In 1993, an additional sculpture was added to the site, depicting three nurses and a wounded soldier, honoring the sacrificial participation of women in the war (Doss 2002, 66).

The controversial memorialization of the Vietnam War was partly revived by the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site following the tragic events of 9/11 still; as Geoffrey M. White argues, the acts of public commemoration appeared less controversial than in the case of the Vietnam War (2004, 296). As Sturken explained, the urgency to honor and grieve the victims heightened immediately after the terrorist attacks, primarily as a form of dealing with the tragedy (2004, 321). Subsequently, Ground Zero has become a site of memory and mourning and also, the embodiment of the lost dominant American narratives that were symbolized by the World Trade Center. According to Sturken, Ground Zero has become the place where “practices of memory and mourning have been in an active tension with representational practices and debates over aesthetics” (2004, 312). As she argued, this

rush to memorialize will have a profound impact on the way in which lower Manhattan is rebuilt, on the kind of neighborhood and commercial district it becomes, and on the ways in which the meaning of September 11 is inscribed within the history of the United States and within the landscape of New York City. (2004, 321)

Thus, as Haskins and DeRose proposed, the public discussions about the rebuilding of Ground Zero had to deploy the multiplicity of narratives that have emerged: the proper commemoration of the victims, the revitalization of Lower Manhattan and the restoration of the iconic skyline (2003, 390).

Accordingly, Ground Zero, as the symbolic center of the attacks, has been embodied with several powerful meanings that regulated the reconstruction of the area. As a result of the violent and sacrificial death of thousands of innocent people, the most profound meaning attributed to the site was its sacredness. As Sturken pointed out, the sacred status of Ground Zero has been continuously reinforced as the meanings attributed to the site changed (2004, 312). In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, inches of dust, as the only remain of the towers, covered the cityscape. Initially, the shocking substance was perceived as “something otherworldly, unexpected, uncanny, yet also strangely familiar” (Sturken 2004, 312) that has to be cleared away in order to revitalize the everydayness of the area (Sturken 2004, 312). However, when the missing people shortly became victims, dust was endowed with a new meaning, and began to symbolize the material remains of bodies transforming Ground Zero, and particularly, the footprints of the towers into burial sites (White 2004, 300). Here, I would like to emphasize that given the dominant sacred meaning of the site, similarly to the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the most powerful voices in the planning of the proposed memorial were those hit the hardest by the events: the families of the victims. With unified voices and personal experiences, families proved to be persuasive enough to become privileged when discussing plans about the future of the site (Lewitt 2011, 68-69). Thus, they managed to specify the main expectations as regards the design of the future memorial. As Edie Lutnick explained, the primary claims were the protection of the sacred ground where the greatest portion of human remains were found, the recognition of the footprints and the mall area of the original towers as a memorial, and the respectful treatment of the names of the victims (2011, 101).

In 2004, Reflecting Absence was revealed as the winning design for the permanent memorial designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker (Doss 2010, 7). Applying minimalist rhetoric and omitting human motifs, I argue that the National 9/11 Memorial (2011) borrows the language of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in several ways. Located in the footprints of the original towers, the situation of the memorial evokes the similar image of the open wound that reflects the absence of human lives, the iconic buildings, and the disrupted dominant narratives along with the public feelings of fear, anxiety and pain after 9/11. As the central elements of the design, the two reflecting pools are surrounded by waist-high parapets inscribed with the names of people who were killed in the attacks. Importantly, recalling the aesthetics of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the black color and the reflective surface dominate the design. While the color of the parapets reflects sorrow and grief, the reflective surface with the engraved names emphasizes the loss of individuals.

The reflecting pools of the memorial are located in the Memorial Plaza that, containing more than 400 trees, is an oasis within the heart of the metropolis. Symbolically, the trees were picked from places impacted directly by 9/11: the immediate surroundings of the World Trade Center, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania. Swamp white oaks were selected because of their durability and the changing colors of its leaves during the different seasons. Since the trees would never look the same, they intend to function as reminders of the individual lives that were taken (“Selecting trees…2015). Also, an even more symbolic element of the site is the ‘Survivor Tree’ that, enduring the events of 9/11, was found in the ruins of the World Trade Center serving as a symbol of “resilience, survival and rebirth” (“The Survivor Tree…2015). Besides the similar language of the memorials, in my opinion, both sites attempt to encourage the construction of a more preferred, heroic narrative by applying features that evoke survival, endurance and revival. While, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Hart’s sculpture embodies masculinity, heroism, pride and strength, at the National 9/11 Memorial, natural elements represent survival, rebirth, perseverance and recovery.

The names on the memorials

Without a doubt, the most powerful feature of both the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the National 9/11 Memorial is the unusual presentation of the immensity of names engraved in black stone on the memorials. Referring to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Jeffrey Karl Ochsner defined the moment of experiencing the myriad of the names for the first time as a ‘recognition’, “a moment when the individuality of the names become real to us” (1997, 161) and the realization “that these are the names of individual human beings who were born, lived, served, and then died or disappeared in a distant conflict” (Ochsner 1997, 161). Thus, as he argued, the memorial evokes the incomprehensible cost of a human conflict (Ochsner 1997, 161). As Sturken examined the inscription of names on the walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, she explained that the individual listing resonates with the premise of abstract art that enables the creation of multitude of narratives and memories about the war (1991, 126). As she argued, the immense number of names expands cultural memory that is “subverting, rescripting, and contributing to the history of the Vietnam War as it is currently being written (Sturken 1991, 126).

The organization of the names on the walls is the primary peculiarity of the memorial. In contrast with the traditional typology of war memorials, Lin decided to list names in a chronological order completed by two dates: 1959, when the first soldier was killed and 1975, when the last American died in Vietnam. As Sturken explained, even though, veterans opposed to this idea worrying that chronological listing would confuse visitors and would complicate the location of the names, Lin insisted on her design arguing that the proposed alphabetical listing would present names not as individuals but as a cultural entity (1991, 128). Moreover, with the chronological listing, Lin provided a time frame for the Vietnam War in this way reciting the history of the events. Importantly, this resulting narrative framework is not linear as the listing begins on the right side and goes on to the end of the same wall, while on the other wall, the listing begins on the left end and continues to the center. As Sturken argued, this circular presentation of the names indicates that the memorial refuses to offer a closure, rather, it opens up possibilities for the construction of intersecting discourses (1991, 128).

Similarly, as Geoffrey M. White points out, the commemoration of 9/11 has been all about the names since the collapse of the towers (2004, 302). Hours after the attacks, desperate family members and friends went to the streets surrounding the site with photos and posters to find their missing relatives (White 2004, 302). Moreover, during the coverage of the attacks, one of the main all-news television channel CNN displayed the names of the victims with their ages at the bottom of the screen, constantly updating whenever new names were identified. Therefore, the victims of 9/11 became a group of individuals, who were introduced to people who did not even know them. Also, in the following months after the attacks, New York Times dedicated a section, entitled Portrait of Grief to the victims, and each day, it introduced the obituary of the individuals killed in the attacks (White 2004, 297). Additionally, the central and most touching feature of the annual commemoration ceremonies has been the reading of the long list of names in alphabetical order by the family members and friends of the victims (White 2004, 302).

Being the dominant element of the memorialization of 9/11, the listing of the names on the memorial generated similarly heated debates just in the case of the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The original plans urged for the random listing of names but families resisted to it as it would “dehumanize the people who died, and deny the visiting public an emotional connection to them” (Lutnick 2011, 185). The initial disagreement on the layout of names between the families and the designers led to compromises: it was agreed that the listing of the names on the parapets would reflect meaningful adjacencies, meaning that victims with personal affiliations would be grouped together. Accordingly, around the North Pool, the names of those who died in the North Tower, on Flight 11 or during the bombings of 1993 February are listed, while on the parapets of the South Pool, the names of the victims of the South Tower, Flight 175, Flight 77, Flight 93, the Pentagon and the first responders are inscribed (“Memorial Guide…” 2015).

Being the crucial elements of the public commemoration of both the Vietnam War and 9/11, I argue that the names inscribed on the memorials contribute to the memorialization and historization of the events in diverse ways. Firstly, in both cases, the listing of the myriad of names communicates the incomprehensible cost of human lives but it also emphasizes the loss of individuals. Additionally, the inscription of names narrates the multitude of personal narratives and histories of the events: the experiences of the Vietnam soldiers, the marginalization of the veterans, the victims of terrorism and the pain of the grieving families. Secondly, with the layout of the individual names, both memorials attempt to offer a memory map. Whereas the Vietnam Veterans Memorial narrates the timeline of the war by presenting the names in a chronological order, the listing of the names around the memorial pools at the National 9/11 Memorial conveys stories from the World Trade Center.

The Vietnam veterans, 9/11 heroes and the healing wound

The Vietnam War had been a painful, confusing and controversial period in the history of the United States. Known as the ‘living room war’, the Vietnam experience was the first conflict, that being broadcasted daily, entered images of fighting, suffering and dying into the American homes, in this way challenging the dominant war rhetoric of victory, success, clarity, masculinity and pride (Boelkins 2003, 5). Generating feelings of shame, disappointment and anger, the Vietnam War frustrated and divided the American society even after the war came to an end. As a result, the most common response to the Vietnam conflict was denial. As Sturken explains, this “incommunicability of the experience of the Vietnam War” (1991, 129) had been the central narrative in the veterans’ discourse (Sturken, 1991, 129). Upon arrival, veterans were not welcomed or celebrated, the public refused to acknowledge their struggles and sacrifices and, even the dead were buried and grieved privately (Ochsner 1997, 159). These experiences of suffering, mistreatment and alienation resulted in their collective marginalization. However, as Boelkins argues, the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial with the long list of names forced American public to dissociate from vague concepts such as victory or heroism, and to approach the memorial as a memory dedicated to individuals (2003, 5). Thus, as an official recognition of their sacrifices, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has become a central icon for the veterans as it “has given them a place – one that recognizes their identities, a place at which to congregate and from which to speak” (Sturken 1991, 129).

Drawing on Sturken’s proposition that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is “as much about survival as it is about mourning the dead” (1991, 129), it can be argued that the memorial offers two main kinds of closures. On the one hand, as an open wound, it epitomizes both the unsuccessful and emasculating U.S. participation in the war, and the marginalization of veterans since the war. However, as Sturken argues, “the memorial is seen as representing a wound in the process of healing, one that will leave a smooth scar in this earth” (1991, 132). According to her, this concept of the healing wound as a bodily metaphor represents the process of healing of the different bodies affected by the war: the victims, the veterans and the whole American public (Sturken 1991, 132). The absence of the bodies of the victims is invoked by the presence of their names on the walls, as a promise that their sacrifices would always be remembered. Furthermore, as Ochsner contended, being etched into stone in a national setting, the names of the victims, their sacrifices and the trauma of their death are officially integrated into the national historical memory (1997, 159). On the other hand, though the Vietnam War is generally considered as the site where American masculinity was lost, the mistreatment and marginalization of the war veterans, ironically, initiated a masculine discourse that finally recognized their strength and integrity (Sturken 1991, 132). As Sturken argued, with recognizing both the sacrificial efforts of the veterans and their experiences as ‘others’, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial gives them identity and serves as a place of belonging to the war veterans (1991, 129). All in all, as Jonathan Boelkins formulated, “a polarized society found an opportunity for reconciliation” at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (2003, 5).

As opposed to the Vietnam experience, an apparent consequence of September 11 was the “patriotic canonization” (Haskins and DeRose 2003, 390) of firefighters and police officers, who rushing to the burning towers and constituting nearly 20 percent of the almost 3000 victims of the attacks, emerged as the dominant characters in the 9/11 discourse (White 2004, 299). Evoking stories of humanism and heroism, the “figure of the uniformed rescue worker” (White 2004, 299) has become one with the image of the fallen soldier and the veteran survivor. Although first responders appeared as the most visible participants in the traumatic events at Ground Zero (White 2004, 304), the heroic commitment of those with direct connection to the site and the debris was celebrated, too. Accordingly, as White points out, once it became clear that there was no hope of finding survivors, and the clearing of the pile could begin, the heroic commitment of construction workers had been praised as they were the only people having the closest connection to the debris of the World Trade Center and the dust that symbolized the vaporized victims (2004, 298). As Sturken further recalls, forensic scientists and technicians were also complimented for spending months with identifying remains thus, giving families the opportunity to mourn the dead relatives properly (2004, 313). Even though under the tragic circumstances of 9/11 those who were attacked could not fight back, heroic stories about employees who, risking their lives, turned back for those trapped in their offices, along with the passengers of Flight 93, who crashed their plane, offered examples of courage and sacrifice, resulting in the heroification of the 9/11 victims (White 2004, 298).

The collapse of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center caused two visible open wounds: the footprints of the buildings and the void in the skyline. In my opinion, similarly to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Ground Zero offers discourses not only about mourning and honoring the death but also about survival, revival and pride. The reflecting pools of the National 9/11 Memorial occupy the footprints, as solemn spaces, that serve as the final resting place for the victims and, with the inscription of names, it can also be regarded as a vow, promising that the individual lives would always be remembered and honored. As the initial discussions about the reconstruction of the site suggest, besides the protection of the sacredness of the site, another main claim was the mending of the skyline because as Sturken explained, the Twin Tower’s “absence has spoken more loudly, and with more resonance, than their presence ever could have” (2004, 319). As a result, immediately after the collapse of the buildings, several proposals were submitted to fill the skyline. To temporarily restore the ruined cityscape, for instance, on the six-month anniversary of 9/11, two vertical columns of blue light reached to the sky from adjacent the World Trade Center. Though Tribute in Light was intended to honor the victims of the tragedy, Sturken argued that it might have been actually the loss of the towers the lights mourned (2004, 319). Besides being the most iconic elements of the Manhattan skyline, the towers of the World Trade Center embodied the most powerful American narratives of masculinity, democracy, freedom, patriotism, financial power and technological superiority. Consequently, many argued that not restoring the skyline would be the admission of weakness, defeat, pain, vulnerability and the loss of innocence.

Ultimately, in 2003, Memory Foundation, designed by Daniel Libeskind, was chosen as the winning design for the World Trade Center site. His plan, successfully adjusting both memory and aesthetics, included four skyscrapers including a permanent memorial, a museum, a transportation hub, a performing arts center, retail spaces and most importantly, One World Trade Center that was designed to be the highest skyscraper in the city (“World Trade Center Site Master Plan….” 2015). Libeskind presented himself as a ‘mourning citizen’, a ‘grateful refugee’ and a ‘patriotic New Yorker’ that appealed not only the mourning families but to the public as well (Sturken 2004, 321). During his presentation he claimed that

I arrived to by ship to New York as a teenager, an immigrant like millions of others before me, my first sign was the Statue of Liberty and the amazing skyline of Manhattan. I have never forgotten that sight or what it stands for. That is what this project is about. (“Studio Daniel Libeskind….” 2015)

As Sturken argued, drawing on the narrative of an immigrant, Libeskind endowed his plan with meanings that have resonated powerfully with the American narratives that were disrupted on September 11 (2004, 321). Here, I would like to point out the ways in which relying on the rhetoric of a grateful refugee; Libeskind successfully integrated the concepts of freedom, patriotism, democracy, endurance and integrity into his design. The most iconic building of the new site, One World Trade Center fills the void on the Manhattan skyline symbolizing survival, rebirth and perseverance. Additionally, with its symbolic height of 1776 feet, the skyscraper is not only an apparent reminder to one of the most patriotic, heroic and sacrificial American war but also, it refers to the Declaration of Independence, the document that promised freedom and democracy to the American public.

Memorials as pilgrimage sites

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, as the most visited memorial in the nation’s capital, has evoked profound emotional reaction from the millions of visitors since it was constructed. As Rodrigo argues, it might be the highly criticized “difficult formal language of minimalist art” (2013, 65) and particularly, its strong sense of site and interactive nature that contributed to this outpouring of sentiments (Rodrigo 2013, 65). Similarly, Sloane agreed that revolutionizing public memorial architecture, the new aesthetic with its participatory, democratic and individualistic design encourages visitors to emotionally and physically interact with the memorial (2005, 64). Thus, providing visitors with the opportunity to own the memorial and express emotions publicly, a more intimate relationship was established between the work and the viewer (Sloane 2005, 67).

The most powerful aspect of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the black reflective surface that intensifies intimacy and strong connection by diminishing the distance between the memorial and the visitor. Walking along the walls, each viewer can see others and themselves in the reflections in this way becoming one with the memorial (Ochsner 1997, 164). As Boelkins explains, this intimacy between the walls and the visitor implies bodily interaction, thus touching the wall and making rubbings of the names have become a traditional ritual (2003, 7). Given the immense popularity of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, thousands of people arrive to the site everyday leaving flowers, flags, photographs, letters and personal objects in this way creating historical artifacts and becoming owners and authors of the divergent histories (Sturken 1991, 136).

The shift in both the vitality of public memorials and the public participation of public commemoration initiated by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial affected significantly the memorialization of 9/11. As an expression of the public desire to mourn, pay tribute and honor the victims, spontaneous memorials emerged in diverse public spaces around New York City hours after the attacks. Along with the fence around Ground Zero, these public places were covered with flowers, candles, photographs, drawings and other personal offerings (Low 2004, 329). In accordance with Sturken’s argument that leaving behind objects is an active participation in the construction of history (1991, 136), several personal artifacts are now part of the permanent exhibition of the 9/11 Museum. Moreover, I would like to emphasize that, similarly to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; the design of the National 9/11 Memorial also encourages personal involvement and physical interaction. The reflecting surface of the parapets integrates the visitor into the memory generating the desire to touch the memorial. The practice of making rubbings of the names established by the visitors of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a usual activity at the National 9/11 Memorial as well, allowing the public to create a permanent reminder of the memorial experience.

As the healing process progresses and doubt, frustration and grief transform into pride, Sturken argues that sites of tragedies and built forms, commemorating traumatic experiences, are transformed into spectacles and commodities (1991, 134). This emerging nostalgia industry has brought about the flourishing of merchandising that recounts images of specific events (Sturken 1991, 134). As regards the selling of products portraying the Vietnam War, a wide variety of goods such as T-shirts, hoodies, scarves, bags, posters, notebooks, calendars, cards, mugs, miniature statues and even telephone and laptop cases can be purchased (“Vietnam War Gifts….” 2015). As Sturken pointed out, the events and the aftermath of the Vietnam War are also subjects of several books, documentaries, television dramas and Hollywood productions (1991, 135).

In my opinion, the transformation of Ground Zero into a spectacle and the selling of products commemorating 9/11 prove that merchandising sites of traumas is indeed blooming. As Sturken explained, Ground Zero was initially blocked away from public view, however, shortly after the clearing of the pile began, officials recognized the people’s right to look thus, viewing ramps were constructed and after buying tickets, crowds were awarded with the view of the construction. Hence, Ground Zero officially became a tourist destination and travel guides with suggestions about where to have lunch after visiting the site were published (Sturken 2004, 316). Due to the flourishing tourism, local street vendors were established where postcards, photographs and miniature versions of the Twin Towers could be purchased but FDNY and NYPD T-shirts and dolls were also among the most popular products (Sturken 2004, 317). Merchandising 9/11 has been institutionalized with the 9/11 Memorial and Museum Store where clothing items, jewelry, books, flags, mugs, keychains, posters, bags, toys for children and even Christmas ornaments can be purchased. As it is stated, proceeds from the sales support the development and sustainment of the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum (“Museum Store…” 2014).


In this essay, I attempted to examine the ways in which the public memorialization of 9/11 revisits the contested commemoration and historization of the Vietnam War. Relying on Sturken’s concept of screen, I considered Ground Zero as a starting point that, similarly to the walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, has allowed the projection of multitude of narratives, memories and histories. Moreover, the essay aimed to point out the similar patterns in the complex public memorialization of the Vietnam War and the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Following the examination of the design of the memorials, I would like to conclude the ways in which the minimalist and abstract rhetoric of the memorials contribute to the memorialization and historization of both the Vietnam War and 9/11. On the one hand, the language of the memorials recognizes the immensity of the tragedy by emphasizing the visible display of sorrow, grief, loss and defeat, and encouraging the public negotiation of issues of death, trauma and mourning. However, I would like to point out that both memorials attempt to ease the incommunicability of the events by offering a more heroic discourse at the sites with features that represent survival, pride, revival, endurance and rebirth. On the other hand, the historization of both the Vietnam War and 9/11 is shaped exquisitely by the unique listing of the names. The myriad of names engraved on the memorials realizes the loss of individuals who, with their multitude of personal stories, are constantly shaping the history of the events. Also, both memorials have a special contribution to the historical narrative of the events: the chronological listing of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial offers the timeline of the war, while the layout of names at the National 9/11 Memorial reflects meaningful adjacencies in this way unfolding stories from the World Trade Center.

Importantly, the memorial sites also attempt to rewrite the history of the Vietnam War and 9/11 thus, restoring the disrupted American narratives of masculinity, innocence and triumph. As Sturken argued, the open wound created by the Vietnam War is “in the process of healing” (1991, 132) that affects both the veterans and the American public. With the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the sacrifices and struggles of the veterans were acknowledged and a masculine and heroic discourse started that finally recognized their strength and integrity. Even though the patriotic canonization of the visible participants of the evens of 9/11 began immediately after the attacks, in my opinion, the healing process has been truly initiated by the rebuilding of Ground Zero. I would like to argue that as the reconstruction of the site and the skyline progresses, the discourses of patriotism, masculinity and imperialism are becoming more dominant in the national narrative as well.

All in all, I would like to conclude that both the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the National 9/11 Memorial have produced two primary narratives. On the one hand, the memorials recognize the immensity of the tragedies in this way initiating a complex discourse of remembrance that enables veterans, families and the mourning public to express grief, anxiety, fear and shame publically, to honor their loved ones, and to participate actively in the memorialization process. On the other hand, both memorial sites attempt to offer a shaped historical narrative to the events by presenting a rewritten history of the Vietnam War and 9/11 in this way restoring the disrupted dominant American narratives.


Works cited

Primary sources
  • Memorial Guide.” In Memorial Guide. Available: http://names.911memorial.org/#lang=en_US&page=about&id=0. Access: 2 November 2014.
  • “Museum store.” In Museum Store. Available: https://www.911memorial.org/catalog Access: 3 November 2014.
  • “Selecting trees.” In Design Overview. Available: http://names.911memorial.org/#lang=en_US&page=about&id=0. Access: 2 November 2014
  • “Studio Daniel Libeskind.” In New World Trade Center Site Designs. Available: http://renewnyc.com/plan_des_dev/wtc_site/new_design_plans/firm_d/default.asp. Access: 6 December 2015
  • “The Survivor Tree.” In Design. Available: http://www.911memorial.org/survivor-tree. Access: 2 November 2014
  • “Vietnam War Gifts & Merchandise.” In Vietnam War. Available: http://www.redbubble.com/shop/vietnam%20war. Access: 6 December 2015.
  • “World Trade Center Site Master Plan.” In Studio Daniel Libeskind. Available: http://libeskind.com/work/ground-zero-master-plan/. Access: 6 December 2015.
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