Review of The Vietnam War in American Memory: Veterans, Memorials, and the Politics of Healing
(Patrick Hagopian – University of MA Press, 2009).
Review for Kentucky Historical Society, Spring 2011.
Hagopian’s first book, almost two decades in the making, is a rare combination of years of fastidious information gathering, a critical engagement with a variety of perspectives, scholarly thoroughness, and a remarkable personal investment.
The book’s primary focus is on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the first three chapters lay the contextual, rhetorical foundations for that memorial project and others. While these memorials have been studied before in regards to “healing” (though never in such detail or as convincingly), Hagopian follows with truly novel chapters on the Vietnam Veteran’s Leadership Program, the Kentucky Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, and representations of children in Vietnam memorials. Far from being tangential, these chapters tie in with his larger portrayal of the cultural memory of Vietnam in America and its social politics. They also serve to demarcate continuities and novelty in memorialization, “distinguishing idiosyncratic, accidental matters from recurrent themes” (p. 231). In this way, Hagopian avoids broad generalizations throughout the book and reports opinion polls without exploiting them as faulty empirical evidence of “social,” “cultural,” or “collective” opinion, a typical stalking horse for hastily researched and theorized books about national memory.
In fact, there is nothing “hasty” about Hagopian’s work. The discussion of Vietnam memorials and the rhetoric of healing have been ongoing for decades. Hagopian’s book grounds the conversation, which is all-too-often aloof amidst psychoanalytic theory without the practical grounding this important topic deserves. Indeed, Hagopian is more interested in footnoting secondary sources and other scholars in favor of exploring and analyzing primary texts, interviews, and documents (though the lack of bibliography makes the 94 pages of endnote citations frustratingly unalphabetized and inaccessible).
In this way, Hagopian’s book is especially useful for experts in the field, providing the most exhaustive survey of primary sources surrounding the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. in particular and other forms of memorialization more generally. Scouring through political speeches, interviews, newspapers (both national and local), and even printed programs for memorial dedications, its clear that Hagopian has more than gathered documents from these sights—he’s experienced them.
First and foremost, Hagopian’s study shines as a rhetorical analysis, examining the language employed in political arenas and public documents to illustrate a “therapeutic discourse of wounds and healing” (p. 19). Hagopian’s larger mission, however, extends far beyond exploring a discourse of healing. He thoroughly documents how it was made meaningful on both local and national scales and the effect it had for individuals and groups, veterans and civilians, elected officials and the general American public. In his most insightful moments, Hagopian illustrates how national discourse can extend from Vietnam memorials to Reagan’s contemporary Central American policies. The relevance of Hagopian’s methods extend beyond simply how we remember the past, as it also provides an analytical primer for understanding the rhetorical memory politics of the present.
Hagopian’s book attempts to remain as even-handed and unbiased as possible, considering the author attended many of the opening ceremonies he describes, conducted thousands of interviews with planners and veterans, and took virtually every photo in the book. He endeavors to stay as non-political as the Vietnam Veteran’s memorial itself claims to be (though, of course, Hagopian is the first to admit the impossibility of maintaining goal). In the end, he doesn’t shy away from noting that the memorial’s designer, Maya Lin, was treated unfairly (he even notes her absence from the printed program at the dedication). And in his timely conclusion, he boldly parallels the American conflicts in Vietnam and Iraq, claiming it is difficult “in the aftermath of the revelations about Abu Ghraib and Haditha, to avoid recalling Jonathan Schell’s warning of the ‘alteration’ that the nation would undergo if it failed to examine itself after the My Lai massacre” (p. 429).
Yet these comments are measured and, ultimately, a necessary part of the political necessity of working through national memory that the book demonstrates. This book is truly a “life’s work,” and hopefully the first of many from Hagopian.Download PDF