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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Memorializing lives

When Maya Lin’s design for a Vietnam War memorial won the competition Congress established in 1980, there was a loud outcry. Jim Webb, then on the staff of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs (later a U.S. senator from Virginia), pronounced, “I never in my wildest dreams imagined such a nihilistic slab of stone.” Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior James Watt originally refused to issue a construction permit.

One result of the antipathy was the nearby placement two years later of The Three Soldiers, who look more like the heroes we want to believe our endless wars produce. That monument was designed by Frederick Hart, who had finished third in the original competition. For it he was paid quadruple Lin’s award.

Hart’s banal creation appealed to the keepers of the flame of war, but it’s been neglected by tourists. The Memorial Wall, by contrast, is visited by more than three million people each year. In 2007 the American Institute of Architects ranked it tenth on its List of America’s Favorite Architecture.

What’s the power of the Wall? Could it be the absence of state ideology, which dictates the design of war memorials around the globe? Could it be that, as we look at those names cut into the stone, it comes home to us that these were 58,300 unique lives and they were lost for no good reason? And because the stone is so highly polished that we see ourselves as we look at the names, are we led to reflect on our involvement with those lives and deaths?

No, Jim Webb, the Wall isn’t nihilistic. It’s violence that denies human value, and when we grieve its toll and regret our complicity, we affirm life. You never got it, did you?

The collectivization of death (Savages, Krauts, Gooks, Queers, Jihadists) is its best ally, the individualization of death its most powerful corrective. And nothing bespeaks our individuality like our names.

In the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S., when the vast majority of those known to be afflicted were homosexual men, there was widespread social stigma attached to the disease, bound up with the stigma attached to their sexual orientation. One result was that families often wouldn’t cooperate in laying their dead to rest, and many funeral homes and cemeteries refused to handle the remains. Those rejections are why the panels of the AIDS Quilt are 3’x 6’. That “grave” was often the deceased’s only memorialized resting place.

Officially the AIDS Quilt is called the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Launched in 1985 and displayed on the Washington Mall in 1987, it elicited widespread sympathy for the victims of the epidemic and influenced adoption of rational federal policies for stemming it. The quilt currently consists of more than 48,000 individual panels memorializing over 94,000 people.

Ashland artist Cathy DeForest, with the assistance of Peace House, has just launched the Vision Quilt to individualize for Americans the victims of our gun violence. All of us connected with the project hope that, like the Wall and the Aids Quilt, the Vision Quilt will cut through ideological abstractions, focus us on the needless loss of precious lives, and allow our grief to shape public policy. Approximately 50 completed panels will be on display at Ashland’s Historic Armory for the annual MLK Day observance.

For more about the project, to view some of the panels already created, and to learn how to contribute panels and/or funds, go to www.visionquilt.org.

Herb Rothschild's column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.