The Vietnam Veterans Memorial stands as a symbol of America’s honor and recognition of the men and women who served and sacrificed their lives in the Vietnam War. By separating the issue of individuals serving in the military during the Vietnam era and U.S. policy carried out there, the Memorial Fund hoped to begin a process of national reconciliation.
— Description of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Each wall is 126.2 ft. in length for a total length of 252.4 ft. — or slightly less than the length of a football field.
— Description of the Moving Wall
On May 1, 1981, a jury of architects, landscape architects, and artists plucked submission no. 1,026 — a set of moody pictures drawn in blue and green pastels — from a pool of more than 1,400 proposals for the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The drawings were accompanied by an evocative essay, handwritten on a single sheet of paper, that described the memorial’s proposed immensity: two walls, each more than 200 feet long and made of polished black granite, converge at a point, forming an expansive V. The names of more than 58,000 American soldiers, either killed during the war or declared missing in action, are carved in chronological order into the surfaces of the walls. “Seemingly infinite in number,” the essay stated, “[the names] convey the sense of overwhelming numbers, while unifying these individuals into a whole.… We, the living, are brought to a concrete realization of these deaths.” The jury’s announcement of the winning proposal, designed by Maya Lin, ignited a public controversy that would last for the next several years.
Meanwhile Jean Baudrillard, the French social theorist, published the first edition of Simulacra and Simulation in fall 1981. In this pivotal work of postmodern theory, Baudrillard posited that our conception of the world is no longer “real” or “unreal” — but, instead, “hyperreal.” One’s sense of hyperreality, Baudrillard suggested, is constructed through the process of simulation, or the mass production of objects based on a “generative core.” 
One of Baudrillard’s primary claims was that the production of simulacra has supplanted a society’s efforts to produce copies, counterfeits, or replicas of idealized forms. Instead, reproductions exist through independent — and sometimes irreverent — relationships to an original model. “There is no more counterfeiting of an original,” Baudrillard wrote, “… only models from which all forms proceed according to modulated differences.” Therein lies the internal paradox of simulation — while the production of objects may be inspired by a desire to replicate the model, the importance of the model falls away as reproduction occurs. Discrepancies between an experience of the original and one’s understanding of its reproductions are explained by Baudrillard’s notion of the generative core — the experience of the original model (as opposed to the thing itself) — that serves as the model for replication. Variations are the inevitable result, because the model itself is not a finite or known quantity.
Simulacra and Simulation can be described as a grand, sophisticated claim toward the power of subjectivity — or the notion that individual realities are constructed through signs of the real, or through the process of codification, rather than through an objective representation of the real itself. Baudrillard’s term for these newly constructed realities is “simulacra.”
A Strong, Clear Origin
The publication of Baudrillard’s theories on simulacra and simulation paralleled a spectacular effort to produce an object that would become the preeminent model for “proper” memorialization, not to mention one of America’s most recognized “originals.” Among architects and designers, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has set what some might call an inescapable precedent for the design of commemorative memorials. It is one of the most widely discussed memorials among historians, art and architecture critics, and cultural theorists, as well as an internationally circulated icon of America as a whole.
Although the length of the design and construction process measured less than two years, it was defined by both internal and external controversies from the start. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, whose principal financiers included Texas billionaire Ross Perot, raised more than $8 million to fund the memorial. When veteran Jan Scruggs founded the VVMF in 1979, one of the motivations behind the construction of a memorial was that it would help to quell the discord among veterans. But internal divisions were only deepened by Scruggs’s decision to effectively exclude the input of his fellow veterans, or the community for whom the VVMF supposedly stood. In November 1980, the VVMF — eager to push the plan through “Washington’s notoriously difficult architectural gatekeepers” — appointed Paul Spreiregen, a prominent Washington architect, to oversee the competition and selection of jury members. The result was a panel that included a compilation of eight artists and design professionals — but no veterans, family members of dead soldiers, or, for that matter, women or minorities.
On May 6, 1981, the VVMF had to subdue its own surprise in declaring Maya Lin, a 21-year-old senior at Yale, the winner of the competition. (One of the more memorable moments in Freida Lee Mock’s 1995 documentary A Strong, Clear Vision is Scruggs’s account of the awkwardness associated with first meeting with Lin in her college dormitory.) Nonetheless, the committee stood behind Lin — the author of what one juror described as “a simple and meditative design” — as she was dragged into the national spotlight and forced to conduct a highly public defense of her proposal.
The perceived emotional coolness of her minimalist design, not to mention the unconventionality of its designer, had only intensified the furor harbored by a group of veterans who were already livid over their exclusion from the selection process. On Oct. 24, 1981, in a New York Times op-ed column, Tom Carhart — a veteran and Purple Heart recipient — characterized Lin’s proposal as “a black gash of shame and sorrow, hacked into the national visage that is the Mall.” At public hearings in the Capitol, Lin defended the simplicity of her design with an uncanny, unwavering resolve and, in line with a statement previously published in the Washington Post, rejected suggestions to change it in any way: “I don’t think anything should be done to the design that adds or detracts from its power. You could say, I guess, that I’m stubborn.” In November 1982, the memorial — constructed exactly as Lin had envisioned it — was unveiled, in situ, on the Washington Mall. In 1984, however, a bronze statue of three servicemen and an American flagpole were added to the memorial site to appease some veterans’ objections to the original design.
John Devitt Goes to Washington
No sooner than the official VVM was unveiled had a plan for veterans to reclaim the memorial started to take shape. John Devitt, a former First Cavalry door gunner for the U.S. Army, sat among an audience of 6,000 at the VVM’s dedication ceremony on Nov. 13 (two days after Veterans’ Day) in 1982. Because he was unemployed at the time, Devitt’s trip to Washington had been sponsored by donations from members of his local community in San Jose, Calif. Devitt was aware of the controversy leading up to the memorial’s opening and shared some of the skepticism and resentment that had been publicly expressed by his fellow veterans — but he attended the ceremony nonetheless, grateful to his family and friends for their fundraising effort.
Devitt’s trip to Washington turned out to be life-altering. He returned to California deeply moved by his visit to “the Wall,” as veterans have nicknamed it, which he described as both healing and cathartic. “I walked up to ‘The Wall’ and felt this intense pride,” Devitt said in an interview with Jim Belshaw, a writer for Veteran magazine, in December 2000. “I hadn’t felt that since the day I left Vietnam. It was one thing nobody had mentioned in the twelve years I’d been home. Everybody talked about guilt. I had tried guilt and it didn’t work. I was very proud of the guys I was with and especially the ones who were killed. You can’t give more than that. I was so glad to see their names out there in the public.”
In addition to a heightened sense of personal pride, Devitt felt charged with a mission to move the experience of the Wall beyond the arena of the Washington Mall. “When you think about it,” Devitt wrote, “two or three million people visit the Wall every year. There are ten or twenty times that many people who, for whatever reason, will never be able to make the trip to Washington.… I wanted them to be able to see and feel what I had.” In other words, Devitt was not so much inclined to crystallize the power of his experience at the Wall as he was compelled to reproduce it.
The Original Copy
Devitt devoted the next 11 years to the development of a traveling half-scale version of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, an object commonly referred to as a “replica” of the original. Although there are at least nine known copies, Devitt’s was the first. The traveling memorial, first titled the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Mobile) in 1984 — but now, in its third iteration, known as the Moving Wall — has visited nearly 1,000 communities in the U.S. during the past 20 years. Although most of the sponsoring communities can be classified as blue-collar or working-class, the Moving Wall has made several appearances in metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and Atlanta. The Moving Wall has also traveled overseas: In July 1993, the Moving Wall was installed on sites in Guam and the Mariana Islands, where the United States maintained strategic military stations during the Vietnam War.
The success of the Moving Wall has spawned the design of subsequent replicas — or copies of Devitt’s copy — further expanding the spiral of individual meanings. The VVMF developed a traveling replica, the Wall that Heals, in 1996. Coors Brewing and Service Corporation International (SCI) have also developed traveling VVM’s. Members of Vietnam Combat Veterans, an organization formed by Devitt in 1986, have referred to these replicas as “rip-offs,” implicitly because Devitt has not been given due credit by these corporations as the inventor of the original copy. It seems that VCV looks more favorably upon the founders of a virtual replica, called the Virtual Wall, which can be visited at www.virtualwall.org or via a link on the Moving Wall’s website.
A Wall Moves to Bridgeport, Wa.
The Moving Wall was displayed on the soccer field behind Bridgeport Elementary School October 25-31, 2003. The installation was orchestrated by local residents Gene Schmidt and Ken Krugel, both of whom had visited the original VVM in Washington before the Moving Wall’s appearance in Bridgeport. Krugel, a Vietnam veteran, first visited the VVM in 1984, nearly two years after it opened on the Mall. He was hesitant to visit the memorial — as he claims many veterans were — and expected to encounter “a second-hand memorial.” Like Devitt, Krugel was unexpectedly moved by his visit to the VVM. He recalled spending an entire day — and night — at the memorial, an experience that served as a template for his vision of the Moving Wall’s appearance in his hometown. “We had the perfect setting for the Moving Wall in Bridgeport,” he said. “I’ve seen it installed in other places, in city parks or on brown dirt. But we had it against the hills, and near an orchard. With the subdued lighting, the fog, and the trees, it was very much like the setting in Washington.”
Krugel aided Schmidt, superintendent of the local school district, in assembling a team of 300 volunteers to help with the logistics of the Moving Wall’s setup and display. Since 1999, when Krugel and Schmidt began planning for the Moving Wall’s arrival, they had envisioned the school’s athletic fields as the perfect site for the installation — not only because it was both a picturesque setting and on level ground but because of the field’s location adjacent to the Bridgeport Cemetery, the burial ground for the five local soldiers who were killed in Vietnam. The volunteers erected an aisle of flags and several tents to display memorabilia — the flags, plaques, photos, and identification tags left at the Moving Wall, which are adopted as part of the traveling exhibition. They also monitored the computer terminals, where visitors looked up the location of specific names. Schmidt organized opening and closing ceremonies, a performance of “Taps” every day at dusk, and an oration of the 58,202 names inscribed on the wall that lasted four days. “People had their tissues out before they even got here,” Schmidt recalled. “And no one ran. It was apparent that this was a memorial, a commemorative scene. People stayed quiet and walked slowly.”
From Mobile to Moving
When Devitt first conceived of the Moving Wall in 1982, his primary goal was to evoke an emotionally powerful experience, not to replicate the exact physical features of the original memorial. He modeled its physical form as a carrier for the 58,202 names that are carved into the original. For Devitt, the names “were what counted, the primary concern” — the names, rather than an allegiance to the original memorial, were his main consideration in devising the traveling memorial. The names on the Moving Wall are arranged chronologically — as they are on the original — employing a design strategy devised by Lin to express a spatial connection between the number of U.S. casualties and the progression of the war. While the listing of names allows for the recognition of each individual soldier, the body of names, as a whole, communicates a wider political message about the immense scale of lives sacrificed to sustain U.S. involvement in the drawn-out war.
Devitt first attempted to reproduce the names photographically, but he found the polished granite surface of the original to be so reflective of its surroundings that the individual names became illegible in photographs. As a result, Devitt decided to silkscreen the names onto five Plexiglas panels, and the first moving memorial, the VVM (Mobile), was completed in time for Veterans’ Day 1984. Devitt recalled its immediate impact at its unveiling in Tyler, Tex.: “We hadn’t even put up the fifth panel when a Gold Star Mother placed a beautifully decorated candle at the base of the panel where her son’s name was displayed.”
In devising a system to “carry” the names, Devitt’s main challenges were durability and portability. The VVM (Mobile) was retired after the 1986 tour because the Plexiglas panels had weathered so poorly; initially it was replaced by a kit of masonite panels laminated by a formica display surface for the names, with steel-tube framing for support. In 1988 the VVMF provided Devitt with photographic negatives of the names, a template Devitt used to have all of the names laser-engraved onto the surface. In 1990, Devitt constructed yet another moving memorial, this time out of 140 aluminum panels coated with a black polyurethane finish and supported by a kit of adjustable steel poles; it was also at this time that Devitt obtained a copyright for the moving memorial and changed its name from the VVM (Mobile) to the Moving Wall.
The Moving Wall is recognizable as an attempted duplicate of the original VVM, but in most senses its form represents a vast departure from that of its model. Because it is not sunken down into the ground and has little width or depth, the Moving Wall acts primarily as a two-dimensional display surface for the names and thus looks like a flattened version of the original. In addition, the Moving Wall’s aluminum panels are flimsy compared with the gravity and permanence imparted by Lin’s use of granite to construct the original. These differences, however, are what define the Moving Wall as a simulacrum. They point to the give-and-take relationship between Devitt’s desire to evoke his experience of the original and his determination to make the replica portable. And it is through these discrepancies that the Moving Wall becomes a memorial on its own — or, in Baudrillard’s words, an “emancipated sign, in which any and every class will be able to participate.”
A Community Mobilizes
It took Gene Schmidt four years — and the help of a local senator — to successfully schedule an appearance of the Moving Wall in Bridgeport. Schmidt submitted Bridgeport’s first application in 1999 and was initially discouraged when the school district received no response from the Moving Wall’s headquarters in Michigan. But when he read about the Moving Wall’s appearance in Nespelem, Wa. — a rural town of only 200 people — Schmidt thought, “Well if they can do it, gosh, so can we.”
Schmidt enlisted Krugel, the local postmaster, to help with logistics. The pair began fundraising well before the Moving Wall’s appearance in Bridgeport was even confirmed. “We got on the waiting list,” Krugel said. “But I didn’t know if we’d ever really get it.” Schmidt’s outlook was more optimistic: “I knew it would be just a matter of time before we’d get it. And in any case, we needed to start planning and fundraising as soon as possible. For a small town like ours, it was a major undertaking.”
Relative to the tiny town of Nespelem, the city of Bridgeport may seem larger than it actually is — with a population of 2,000 residents, Bridgeport might be aptly characterized as a big small town.In a city where people struggle to make ends meet — half Bridgeport’s residents live with a median household income of $28,000 or less — Schmidt knew he could not rely on the community to make unsolicited donations to fund the Moving Wall display. It costs about $4,000 to display the Moving Wall for one week — plus nine days’ worth of food and hotel rooms for the traveling stewards. All display fees are used by Devitt’s organization, Vietnam Combat Veterans, to cover the Moving Wall’s travel and maintenance costs. “This is not [an effort] to make the Memorial Fund of VCV, Ltd. rich,” the group’s guidelines state. “It is to ensure that The Moving Wall is not used or abused.” In addition, local communities assume the costs of extras — everything from flags and marching bands to toilets and compensation for 24-hour-a-day guards.
Schmidt and Krugel collaborated with local individuals and groups to raise the necessary funds. Through this process, which involved hundreds of residents, the Moving Wall became specific to the Bridgeport community, generating a level of significance and meaning well before the replica had even arrived. Schmidt and Krugel asked Sen. Maria Cantwell to write letters to John Devitt on the community’s behalf, and the pair procured the help of the Columbia Quilters, a group of Bridgeport residents who raffled off a quilt and donated the proceeds to the Moving Wall fund.
Schmidt also obtained financial support from Bridgeport’s veteran community. According to Krugel, the older World War II and Korean War veterans felt that the time had come to recognize the younger generation of vets who had served during Vietnam, many of whom were treated with hostility after returning from active duty. Krugel had experienced such disdain firsthand stepping off of a Greyhound bus in Los Angeles in 1969: “I wasn’t in uniform, but I had a military haircut. And someone spat on me three times. Obviously that is something I’ll never forget. There were stories of drug abuse, massacring children, and rape, all of which certainly happened. But not all vets took part in this — I certainly did not. To say the least, it was not a popular war.”
Replicas — or Simulacra?
On the Moving Wall’s website, Devitt has posted the following statement to eliminate confusion between the original, not-for-profit version and other “so-called replicas” that have been sprouting up around the United States: “The Moving Wall is not just a generic name for any of the traveling replicas that copied The Moving Wall — it is a name that was given specifically to the nation’s first traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial during its fourth display back in February of 1985. The first visitors to the nation’s first memorial designed and built to be brought to the people were moved beyond words. Many expressed their thankfulness that absolutely nothing was expected of them — there was nothing for sale, no solicitations for money and no advertising. They found only the names on the wall and the memories that visitors brought with them. The Moving Wall is the only traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial that was actually designed and physically built by Vietnam Veterans with public donations.”
But is the copy of the original Vietnam Veterans Memorial best characterized as such? Is “replica” or “copy” an accurate designation for the Moving Wall, which, at approximately half the size of the original, packs neatly into four large bins and travels the United States on a flatbed truck? Baudrillard and his postmodern bedfellows have overthrown the concept of the “true” copy, or the notion that exact reproduction is even possible; in Baudrillard’s view, there is no more interpretive distance between the “real” and the “imaginary.” As it follows, there are no more copies — just simulacra. Baudrillard’s view of social progress, a scenario in which “every order subsumes the previous order,” renders the idea of the replica, and any belief in the existence of a “true” copy, mere nostalgia. The first order of the simulacrum is embedded in the second order, which is then absorbed by the third, making a total regression back to the era of the counterfeit impossible.
Even if the Moving Wall is widely referred to as a “replica,” it functions more like Baudrillard’s definition of a simulacrum, with each installation existing independently of the original VVM and making up one part of a spiraling network of individual experiences. In August 2005, Krugel described the Moving Wall less as a copy and more as a simulation of an effect — similar to Baudrillard’s notion of a “generative [experiential] core”: “It’s not granite, and it’s not down in the ground. It arrives on a truck and [is] put together with screws and bolts. But it’s not just about the visual experience — it’s about the emotions. When I think of other monuments, they’re just there. This just happens to be one that moves.”
As “Real” as It Gets
In Schmidt and Krugel’s estimation, approximately 8,000 people visited the Moving Wall in Bridgeport, some traveling from as far as 200 miles away — but only 2 percent of them had ever visited the original in Washington. “Even if they can afford the trip, many people don’t want to go. They feel nervous about confronting those emotions — especially in public. For those 20 and under, Vietnam is a lesson in history. But for those 40 and above, those are very real and oftentimes painful moments to remember.”
The nearly 4,000 school children who visited the Moving Wall did so at a safe remove; for kids, the experience is mostly educational. But for some visitors, the experience proved to be painfully personal. While the Moving Wall was in Bridgeport, Krugel and his wife paid several visits to the parents of one of the five soldiers from Bridgeport killed in the war. “We sat in their living room for an hour until we could even tell them why we were there. And then, we talked to this couple for four hours. The mother started to bring out pictures, newspaper clippings, and memorabilia from the soldier’s high school days that she had never shown to anyone. They were so resentful that they were unable to talk to anyone for 30 years about the death of their son. Bridgeport is close to Canada, where many people fled to avoid being drafted — the majority of people from here didn’t volunteer. That says a bit about how this couple and a lot of Bridgeport viewed the war.”
A few days later, Krugel accompanied the parents of the slain soldier to the Moving Wall, where they grieved and displayed their son’s honorary medals. “That memory alone,” Krugel recalled, “makes the whole operation worthwhile.”
Krugel also viewed the effort to bring the Moving Wall to Bridgeport as an opportunity to symbolize the unification of the local veterans community which, like most organizations with members of different generations, has suffered from internal divisiveness over the years. “There’s a saying among vets,” Krugel said, “that goes, ‘Never again.’ As in never again will vets of one war not support vets of another.”
“So Many” Memorials, So Many Meanings
Last April, in reference to the nine separate visits of traveling VVM memorials — including the Moving Wall — to southern Arizona, the Arizona Daily Star published an article, titled “Are They Too Much of a Good Thing?” In the feature, several local residents are quoted as agreeing that while traveling replicas like the Moving Wall were “a good idea,” there was the possibility that they could lose their meaning if the walls are displayed too frequently. Mike Brewer, a veteran living in Tucson, took a more equivocal stance, citing high public demand as the likely reason for the proliferation of the memorials. “If you look at the math,” Brewer told the Daily Star, “the war was 13 years long, 2.5 million served in Vietnam and 9 million were in the military during that era. The war touched a lot of people. And even with so many models on tour, they have not saturated the market.”
With “so many” replicas, and the exponential meanings generated through their production and display, a theorization of the Moving Wall resists total comprehension. As the Moving Wall is continually located and relocated on sites throughout the United States, it effectively defies a singularization of its meaning, and interpretations become multiplied through the ongoing process of simulation. Although millions of people continue to visit the original VVM in Washington, Baudrillard’s writings on the process of simulation — as applied to the case of The Moving Wall — provide a framework with which one is able to de-emphasize its importance as a discrete object and, in turn, recognize the presence of “so many” memorials and an even greater number of individually constructed realities. The Moving Wall does more than gesture toward the absence of an objective reality; it can be thought of as a traveling figure that generates multiple meanings in the absence of a singular truth. Unlike many of the minimalist memorials that we see today, it does more than merely gesture toward this eternal void. Instead it highlights the presence of more realities than we can know or name.
This paper is an extended version of the research, writing, and discussions that originated in a graduate seminar, Architecture and National Identity, taught by Greig Crysler in spring 2005. I am grateful to professor Crysler and to my classmates, many of whom helped to shape the thoughts presented in this paper.