Names aren’t supposed to mean much. They’re simply a title that our minds link to an appearance to create recognition. Heroes on a history book page would still be heroes, no matter what you called them by. Who we are and what we do isn’t decided or defined by something that insignificant. It’s the kind of thing that’s just there, making no more difference than the decision of what umbrella to take with you on a rainy day. Sometimes, though, a name is all you have left.
Roughly 58,195 names fill the shining black marble wall of the Vietnam Memorial. There are no pictures, no lists of heroic acts for any one of them; nothing that draws your eye to one particular person, and yet it’s still powerful. Names aren’t especially meaningful, but people die, the sadness over it comes close to dwindling out, and every memory eventually fades like an old family photograph, but even after all that time, a name remains. The name of somebody who may not have fought because they felt it was their duty, but because they had something worth fighting for. The name of somebody who, so many times, just wanted to give up, but remembered something, or someone, that kept them trying to get back home. The name of somebody who threw away everything they had because they wanted to help someone else in their time of need. The name of a hero.
In my opinion, Maya Lin’s simple design couldn’t be more beautiful. The Memorial may not be considered art in the eye of a cynic, but it means something. Maybe she was trying to show us that it’s the words that matter. Sure, a statue can be beautiful and inspiring, but does it really bring out every valiant soldier that made the ultimate sacrifice for a worthy cause? Their names are a symbol of honor, valor, courageousness, and are more hope inducing than any depiction of what had happened during a dark and turbulent war- the only one we’ve ever lost. So maybe a spouse or child never saw their family member’s body, or couldn’t be there for the burial, but at least they were given the consolation of knowing that their own hero’s name lives on forever, etched into the darkness.