Photo credit: Steven Zucker, Smarthistory co-founder licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Hearing is so primal, so instinctive, you’re often unconscious of sounds around you. Until they’re gone.

A monument whose deep silence awakens people is the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC. A fitting date to visit is March 29, designated by Congress as National Vietnam Veterans Day.

What’s remarkable is how your ears trigger myriad emotions as you enter it. A long, silent black gash on the landscape below but within view of its opposite–the astonishingly bright and erect Washington Monument. The Vietnam Memorial was controversial from Day 1, as it symbolizes America’s failure and tragic losses in a “war” that lasted 20 long years from November 1, 1955, to May 7, 1975.

What an astonishing contrast between the Washington Monument’s bold and bright symbol of aspiration and the dark trench of despair and failure lined with the names of every one of the 58,209 Americans who died there–without even mentioning the estimated 200,000 to 250,000 Vietnamese dead whose names are not recorded anywhere. For them the silence of absence.

Nine million Americans served on active duty during that 20-year period—six million of them are still alive. And for vets and families who survived those two decades, the silence of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington triggers another kind of silent reminder–of the long humiliation that for decades surrounded the very subject of Vietnam, a period when veterans, like Senator John Kerry, threw away their combat medals and burned their uniforms as furious acts of disavowal.

No one talked about it. If there’s a Vietnam veteran in your family, chances are that person responds with silence to your questions—if you’re bold enough to ask.

March 29, 2021, was part of a multi-year memorial, marked each years through 2025 on that date. Whether you visit the DC memorial or not, it’s troubling and resonant silence will reverberate down history’s long halls.