The monuments the United States has constructed to remember its greatest leaders and the conflicts in which it has fought are some of the most recognisable edifices in popular culture. However, they are not only decorative or commemorative; they are also highly politicised, inevitably affected by the contexts in which they were commissioned. As Albert Boime (1997) suggested, the United States’ monuments function as organisers of national memory. Those who try to control our understanding of history in this way, become what Boime describes as ‘regulators of the social memory and hence of social conscience.’ (2)
American film and television have played crucial roles in the establishment, evolution and continued significance of the nation’s monuments. Here, I will look at two memorials to major wars in American history and their representations in mainstream television drama – The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in a fourth season episode of The X-Files entitled ‘Unrequited’ (Michael Lange, 1997), and the Korean War Veterans Memorial in a first season episode of The West Wing entitled ‘In Excelsis Deo’ (Alex Graves, 1999). Do they use memorials in a celebratory fashion, or to question and challenge the purpose of the wars to which the monuments are dedicated? Does their representation signal an affirmation of national unity as in the case of The West Wing, or, as in The X-Files, is it indicative of the fracturing and disintegration of this construct?
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial and The X-Files
Dedicated in 1982 after a long and controversial commission and design process, The Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington D.C. [Figure 1] is unlike almost every other monument to conflict in the capital. Consisting of large slabs of reflective black marble scored into the ground, and featuring the names of every American soldier killed or missing in Vietnam (in chronological order), the monument’s aesthetics are indicative of the intention to commemorate the soldiers and mourn their loss, without making an explicit political statement about the conflict itself. Although very popular with Vietnam veterans, the memorial had many critics, particularly as the Reagan administration had invested a great deal of energy in restoring the purity of the war’s initial intention. According to Kristin Ann Hass (1998), the memorial’s shape ‘was considered an affront to veteran and conservative manhood, especially when compared to the neighboring Washington monument’ (15). It was dubbed ‘the black gash of shame’, its sombre appearance too obviously an admission that the war – in intention and execution – had been wrong (15). It was such a divisive structure that two additions were made after its dedication: the more traditional Three Soldiers, dedicated in 1984, and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, dedicated in 1993.
The memorial is the structuring presence of ‘Unrequited’, an episode of The X-Files in which a ceremony to rededicate the memorial is placed under threat by the mysterious death of a general at the hands of an apparently invisible assailant. The phantom in question is American soldier Nathaniel Teager, a Rambo-esque killing machine who was left for dead in Vietnam, but has supposedly returned from beyond the grave to avenge the deaths of his comrades. Using the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as its point of engagement with this politically problematic and culturally sensitive history, ‘Unrequited’ seeks both to fulfil the intention of the memorial to restore and honour the memory of those who fought in the war, while acknowledging that the wounds that the war created have not yet healed.
The episode is structured around the idea of ‘seeing’ as traumatic: Teager’s ability to appear and disappear at will causes the eyes of those who see him to bleed. As the first of these instances occurs at the Memorial itself, this suggests the “wound” in the earth opened up by the structure has not healed. Teager confronts the widow of a fellow soldier to return her husband’s dog-tags and telling her, despite what she has been told, that her husband is alive and a prisoner of war. Shortly after, a blood vessel in her eye ruptures and she begins to bleed [Figure 2]. The episode, in rather crude fashion it must be admitted, suggests that to look at the legacy of the Vietnam War is so troubling and traumatic that the wounds will manifest themselves physically.
The way in which the episode concludes is crucial to the establishment of this critique. Teager is ultimately killed, and the other generals whom he had targeted are rescued. Typically for The X-Files, the case is covered up by an establishment who do not want to admit that they left soldiers to die in Vietnam. In order to emphasise this lack of closure, the episode’s final scene takes place at the memorial where FBI Assistant Director and Vietnam veteran Walter Skinner tells Mulder that the case is over and they must forget what they know. The final shot, featuring a slow-zoom into a close-up of Skinner’s face as he gazes at Teager’s name on the Wall [Figure 3], underscored by the ghostly music used throughout the episode which is now tinged with a militaristic drumbeat, leaves the impression that the questions raised by the Vietnam War about American society and identity remain unanswered. The ghostly reflection of the American flag in the wall suggests that the conflict continues to stain and sully the nation’s self-image [Figure 4]. The episode ends without true resolution. While popular culture of the 1980s sought to return the Vietnam veteran to the national fold, The X-Files questions whether this has been achieved: as Mulder says of the cover-up of the Teager case, ‘They’re not just denying this denying this man’s life, they’re denying his death.’ The cover-up of Teager’s case is indicative of the continued inability to face up to the traumatic legacy of the conflict. The memorial may have begun the healing process, but the nation’s eyes continue to bleed.
The Korean War Veterans Memorial in The West Wing
The Korean War Veterans Memorial (KWVM), commissioned in 1986 and eventually dedicated in 1995, was in part established as a riposte to the dark, mournful, reflective memorial to Vietnam’s veterans [Figure 5]. Similar in the sense that it remembers the soldiers generally and not the war in particular, the original concept of the KWVM placed considerably more emphasis on heroism in combat. However, as Hass (2013) argues, the resulting memorial is curiously non-specific (24-7). Taking the form of a triangle, the memorial features archival images representing the land, sea and air troops who fought in the war sandblasted onto the black granite walls that surround nineteen stainless steel statues representing a squad on patrol, with representatives of each branch of the armed forces.
Despite the lavish attention to detail, the war’s purpose, outcome and context are largely ignored. Its status as the first proxy war of the Cold War and the fact that the war resulted in a stalemate that has never been resolved are not mentioned, nor does it remember the nation for which and in which it was fought. Rather, the memorial closes off the kinds of dialogue and reflection that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has; instead of inspiring a personal connection, the memorial to Korea’s veterans wallows in generalities, allowing any global implications the conflict may have had to recede, comfortingly, out of sight.
One might say that the benign nationalism sought by the Korean War Veterans Memorial is the essence of The West Wing more generally. While it is often celebrated for its determinedly liberal vision, it is just as much about reconstructing a compelling image of the United States as an exceptional nation of noble intention and purity of heart. Its first season Christmas episode, ‘In Excelsis Deo’, is one of the programme’s very early expressions of this construct. At its centre is the story of a homeless Korean War Veteran, who dies of exposure on a bench next to the memorial. White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler is called to the scene because the man was wearing a coat of his that he had donated to charity. Toby is shocked at the indifference shown towards his death, and spends the remainder of the episode securing a full military funeral for him, in order to, as the memorial intends, honour his service and his sacrifice. At no point throughout the episode is anything made of the specificity of the Korean War; like the memorial itself, it is constructed precisely to bring the dead soldier back into the national fold.
The final scene of the episode confirms this intention: images of the homeless veteran’s funeral at Arlington are cross-cut with shots of the White House staff lining up at a carol service where ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ is sung. The song, sung in boyish falsetto, tells the story of a little boy who, without a gift for the infant Jesus Christ, plays the drum for him instead. Indeed, in many ways the White House staff are like the Little Drummer Boy himself, lining up one-by-one to watch the carol singers, smiling and confident [Figure 6]. Despite the challenges of their work, the tone of the carol, combined with the benign militarism of the accompanying funeral scene presents the United States as proud and noble, the people who serve it religious in their devotion to its cause. Mrs Landingham, President Bartlet’s secretary, attends the funeral, seeking solace for the deaths of her twin boys in Vietnam on Christmas Eve, 1970. Where the American flag in The X-Files was used to emphasise the lingering, traumatic effects of the Vietnam War on the United States, the traditional, ceremonial draping of the veteran’s coffin here is affirmative, placing the veteran firmly within a nation that recognises his sacrifice [Figure 7]. Unlike The X-Files, which emphasises the open wound that the Vietnam War continues to leave on the American psyche, The West Wing ties everything up in a neat little Christmas bow – the funeral of the homeless veteran and Mrs Landingham’s attendance provide welcome closure to the conflicts of the past. Where there exists ambiguity, doubt, and conflict in The X-Files, The West Wing seeks clarity, certainty and closure. I suggest this is only possible because the Korean War Veterans Memorial is vague and ill-defined; it has not invited or inspired challenge or critique in the way the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has. It is only in this way that it can function as a restorative memorial, providing timely reinforcement to the United States’ best image of itself as a benign superpower.
Albert Boime, The Unveiling National Icons: A Plea for Patriotic Iconoclasm in a Nationalist Era (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
Kristin Ann Hass, Carried to the Wall: American Memory and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).
Kristin Ann Hass, Sacrificing Soldiers on the National Mall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).