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Remembering the Vietnam War and Those Who Served with Coins
I wrote about the Pacific island nation of Niue not too long ago, and a one-ounce, 99.9% pure silver coin it had issued commemorating the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. What I didn’t mention in that blog post was the fact the the Lincoln Memorial coin is part of a series of coins issued by Niue honoring America’s Monuments. Each one consists of one ounce of 99.9% pure silver and features a design by the American artist Michael Glass. The Jefferson Memorial in D.C. is also on one of the coins, but the most recent release is the most powerful so far: the 2015 Vietnam Memorial commemorative.
Which got me thinking. This means the tiny island nation of Niue has produced at least two coins honoring Vietnam War vets (a 2012 release commemorated Australian veterans of the war), while the United States has produced only one. Now there’s a lot that’s unfair with such a simple comparison, but if you grew up when I did, the Vietnam War was a large presence in the emotional life of the country. For or against, civilian or draftee, it affected you and was always somehow there in the background. It still is for many.
Nevertheless, as of April 30, 2015 it’s been 40 years since the official end of the war. A lot has changed since then--especially in the last 20 or so years--and I’ve noticed the memory of that feeling, the weight Vietnam left on our shoulders for so long, has started to fade.
Is it a cultural thing? Is it historical? Generational? Simply what happens with the passage of time? I’m not sure. Whatever it is, I hope it’s healthy.
I hope we’re not just forgetting.
But 21 years ago, the United States did honor Vietnam’s veterans with a commemorative silver dollar. Designed by John Mercanti, the obverse of the 1994 Vietnam Veterans Memorial coin captured the poignancy of the memorial and the nation’s quite different reaction to this war as opposed to others it had fought.
A hand touches the wall. Is it touching a particular name, or is it pressing against the wall for support as the visitor collapses in grief? And whose hand is it? A fellow veteran’s, a survivor perhaps of the same action that took the lives of the comrade or comrades his hand now reaches out to? A brother’s? A father’s? A son’s? Much like the stark beauty and reflective surface of the memorial itself, we are encouraged to put ourselves in the place of the visitor, to see ourselves as we are today mingled together with the names of an increasingly distant past.
It’s hard to understand now, but at the time Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial was a controversial choice. Many people thought it was too cold, too stark, too distant, inhuman. That it was depressing. That it was a memorial of defeat. And yes, some people took offense at the ethnicity of the designer, even though she’s as American as the rest of us.
The veterans themselves were the ones who really turned public opinion around on the matter. Big, burly ex-marines and infantrymen, reduced to tears by a wall and a list of names. They were the ones who got it first. Over time, the Wall has become something of a pilgrimage site for those whose lives were touched by the war, and I can’t imagine this memorial to this war being in any way different.
A fitting choice for a coin commemorating America’s veterans of the Vietnam War.
It wasn’t the only military-themed commemorative from that year. 1994 also saw the release of the Prisoner of War Memorial commemorative silver dollar and the Women in Military Service Memorial silver dollar. Both of these coins share an affinity with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial commemorative in that P.O.W.’s and women’s roles in the conflict were and still are significant aspects of our nation’s experience in Vietnam, though neither coin is strictly limited to honoring the servicemen and women of just the Vietnam War.
Now in 2015 we have another representation of the Wall on a coin. Michael Glass, its designer, has developed quite the portfolio in recent years, working with several foreign countries (such as Niue and Tuvalu) to produce legal tender Not-Intended-for-Circulation coinage. His take on the Memorial is simultaneously less abstract and less intimate. He provides us with a view of people visiting the Wall on what looks like a stormy day in Washington. The individual most prominent in the foreground stands in front of the Wall and salutes. We can’t tell if he’s saluting an individual name, a group of names or the entire Memorial. It’s a more formal and less emotional interaction with the monument, but equally valid and one that obviously deserves respect.
I would also say that there are a thousand different ways to approach a subject like this on a coin so paying attention to the commonalities should tell you what is most important about the subject matter. A person, symbolizing the present, confronts a wall full of names, symbolizing the past. Each person performs a ritual of sorts to show their respect and living connection to the deceased. Little else is allowed to intrude on the moment, frozen forever in silver.
About the only “issue” I have with the Niuean 2015 release is that it’s a bit strange to see one side of a coin honor the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and then to see the other side (the obverse, no less) honor the Queen of England. Strange, but ultimately not important.
I just hope that in 10-years’ time Niue isn’t the only nation issuing a Vietnam War veterans commemorative coin, and that future coin designers will be as sensitive to the emotional heft of that war as Mercanti and even Lin were in their work. Or will we have forgotten too much about how it felt by then?
Time will tell.