In May of 2004, when I was eighteen and the Iraq war had been proceeding in fits and starts for more than a year, Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau filled his Sunday strip with the names of seven hundred American soldiers who had died since the start of the conflict. I was just home from my first year of college, and just beginning to shape my political self. I cut out the panels and stuck them to my bedroom door with Scotch tape. Looking at the list, I alternated between reading the names to myself and not reading, taking in the block of italic text.
Something about the plain list swayed me. I had no soldiers in my family – my father was not drafted for Vietnam – and in my hometown of Pittsburgh, I knew only a few classmates who wanted to join the military. The list of names brought the war closer, nearly as close as I imagined Vietnam must have felt when my parents were my age. Cutting it out and pasting it to a wall, the way I made most statements as a teenager, was a way to announce what I felt about war, in case anyone asked. (I was not alone in feeling its potency — although it ran on Memorial Day weekend, and aimed to be neutral, left-leaning newspapers expected controversy; just weeks earlier, Bill O’Reilly had accused Trudeau of “using others’ pain to push his own personal agenda.”)
Why is the memorial in list form so compelling, and yet so often controversial? When I taped Doonesbury to my door, I was still years away from the children’s memorial at Yad Vashem, which features a recorded voice reading names of child Holocaust victims. I had not yet read about Maya Lin’s hotly contested design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., with its list of 58,022 names; or read Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Facing It,” about standing before that memorial.
In “Facing It,” Komunyakaa doesn’t pronounce the list of names before him – he “go[es] down” it, “half-expecting to find/ my own in letters like smoke.” He’s looking for himself, watching himself appear and disappear in a list so large as to seem to include the world, but which in its apparent exhaustiveness omits something less tangible about recording and remembrance. Listing hard personal data – how can a name be disputed? – seems at first an act of neutrality, of certainty. But for Komunyakaa, the reflective background the list is engraved in creates ambiguity and even the illusion of violence: “In the black mirror/ a woman’s trying to erase names:/ No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.”
Does the memorial architect who creates a wall or scroll of names have Komunyakaa’s searching eye in mind, the hunt for the familiar letters that call up a face or conversation; the ability, as Komunyakaa puts it, to “touch the name Andrew Johnson” and “see the booby trap’s white flash”? Or does the architect imagine that the sheer volume of names astonishes, as it does filmmaker Claude Lanzmann as he stands beside a wall of Holocaust victims’ names in a Prague synagogue, in his film The Last of the Unjust? “We’re close to illegibility,” he admits, as he puts a finger on a red name against a sea of black letters.
Maya Lin’s plan for the Vietnam memorial, in a story now well known, was slammed by conservatives who accused the black granite structure of being anti-war because it did not allow fallen soldiers’ actions to be framed as heroic, as they believed a more representational monument might. The design for the 9/11 memorial, around which the recently opened museum is structured, was also initially criticized as too minimalist – perhaps as a rejoinder, part of its permanent exhibition is a “Wall of Faces” of the three thousand victims, rather than simply names. Part of the historical public resistance to lists may lie in that an encyclopedia of names, which when examined closely threatens to overwhelm with the specificity and unrepeatability of each human life, can appear impoverished when held against photographic or sculptural representation, or better, of footage. Images frame and communicate narrative – seeing a photographed face is almost like seeing a fraction of a second of a real life. Names can only point and call, in a memorial failing again and again to summon their flesh-and-blood objects.
In the memorial-as-list, the names of once-living people seem isolated from those lives. This separation is why I fell to pieces at the children’s memorial at Yad Vashem – the cleaving of names from people is exacerbated by the architecture of the memorial, a structure separate from the rest of the museum. The mezuzah on the right-hand side of the entrance is hung at a height higher than most adult humans, transmitting the feeling of being smaller than the world – of being a child. Inside, the darkness is total, and as footlights lead you on a circular path you hear only the children’s names coming from an invisible speaker. When I visited, I began messily weeping after only a few minutes of this, and a traveling companion put a hand on my shoulder, thinking I was overwhelmed by the stone weight of the Holocaust – its symbolism more than its events – laid on my shoulders. But I was not; it was the darkness, the absence of faces, the stubborn lack of acknowledgement that there had been life: those things wrenched me.
To suffer the names without the lives may feel, briefly, like it’s possible for those lives not to have happened. This is part of why, in Komunyakaa’s poem, his face “fades” into the memorial; having survived the war with his name and life intact, he still feels the possibility of becoming someone who can only be imagined; whose existential fear, as he alludes to in the poem’s last lines, is no longer of dying but of being erased.
But to face the names alone is also to conjure lives. The misguided 2013 book/ concept And Every Single One Was Someone, conceived by a mathematics teacher named Phil Chernofsky, misses this point by actually erasing its subjects. The book was meant to be the most concrete kind of Holocaust memorial, one that gives the reader the ability to hold the dread number six million in his hands. Except that the book instantly subverts its title’s claim: the entire text consists of the word “Jew” repeated six million times. It’s supposed to help us imagine the way European Jews were seen by their Nazi murderers; but instead it severs the line of remembrance, disables the receiver of the text from being able to imagine the life of Pnina, or Ester, or Efraim, and leaves her with neither the comforting fantasy of representation nor the raw material for history. Chernofsky, an article about him reported, “is the kind of man who cannot climb stairs without counting them.” A lover and chronicler of numbers, not of people.
If part of a memorial’s aim is to lay the foundation for history when witnesses are still too much in shock to begin to write it, then it must include room for story, for something close to fiction – for survivors to take over telling their lost ones’ stories. Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker essay on the 9/11 Memorial and Museum notes that after the Vietnam Veterans Memorial had been up a while, visitors spontaneously left ephemera associated with soldiers they had lost: a favorite hat, a book, a bottle of whiskey. The homemade 9/11 memorials that surrounded Ground Zero and dotted Lower Manhattan for years before the official structure was finished also bore traces of this transfer of agency, as New Yorkers created their own open archives of the attacks.
The list allows that openness – it invites submissions, much in the way a roadside memorial to a dead teenager might. It is not a denial of the selflessness it takes to go to war, or the senselessness of a life ended too soon. It is not a numbers game, either, although the length of the list makes a blunt point. What we would rather not say to ourselves, in this age of continuous footage, is that as the years since the bombing or war or massacre pile up, names provide a crucial, skeletal, first bridge between the dead and the living, better than video, better than photographs. And therein lies the controversy: when people are bereaved, they don’t have to look very far to see other, powerful people using certain images, certain language to make them behave. The list urges us not to accept someone else’s camera angle, a politician’s press-conference account – but instead to use the name, that shred of the indisputable, to begin to tell the truth.
First/ featured image courtesy of National Park Service.