Born in controversy, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is now the most poignant monument on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall. Designed in 1981 by a Yale undergraduate named Maya Lin, the memorial consists of polished black granite panels that form a 125-degree angle and are inscribed with the names of the U.S. military personnel dead from that conflict. The two walls, low at the ends and high where they meet in the middle, list the deceased chronologically — an individual accounting, day by day, of each American life lost.
It took 20 years, from 1955 to 1975, for the United States to lose 58,220 men and women to the nation’s most divisive conflict since the Civil War. In less than four months, just as many Americans have died from the Covid-19 pandemic — the toll, on Tuesday, hit 58,947, surpassing the total number killed in Southeast Asia. If this is indeed a war, as President Donald Trump has described it — in his words, “We’re waging a war against the invisible enemy” — a question can be asked: Where and how will the dead of this conflict be memorialized?
Will a president who staked his legacy on a “big, beautiful wall” along the Mexican border actually be remembered for a very different wall: one that bears the names of scores of thousands of Americans who died on his watch? This wall could be inscribed with the names of all those who perished on the front lines of this pandemic, like Vitalina Williams, a 59-year-old immigrant from Guatemala and grocery store worker in Massachusetts; Ferdi German, 41, an Army veteran who worked as a subway car inspector in New York City; Craig Franken, a 61-year-old – married for nearly 20 years – who worked at the Smithfield Foods meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and four members of the Franklin family from New Orleans, 86-year-old Antoinette and her sons Herman, 71, Timothy, 61, and Anthony, 58, who survived a previous cataclysm — Hurricane Katrina, associated with (and exacerbated by) a prior U.S. president — only to succumb to another disaster, 15 years later.
Then there are the health care workers, the doctors, nurses, EMTs, and other medical professionals who — like so many of the Army medics and Navy corpsmen whose names appear on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial — ran toward danger and sacrificed their lives in an effort to save their fellow Americans. These courageous people include Celia Yap-Banago, 69, an immigrant from the Philippines who spent nearly 40 years as a nurse at the Research Medical Center in Kansas City, Missouri and fell ill after caring for a patient believed to have had Covid-19 and Madhvi Aya, a 61-year-old Indian immigrant who worked as a physician’s assistant at Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn, New York, and treated Covid-19 patients wearing only a surgical mask.
About 300 feet from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial stands a sculpture made by Glenna Goodacre, who died, at age 80, on April 13. Modeled after Michelangelo’s “Pietà,” it depicts three women in uniform surrounding — and one of them gently cradling — a wounded male GI. “The emphasis of this tribute is centered on their emotions — their compassion, their anxiety, their fatigue, and above all, their dedication,” said Goodacre when the statue was unveiled. Could there be a better template for a sculpture honoring the efforts of health care workers like Yap-Banago and Aya to accompany a wall memorializing the fallen of this pandemic?
For years, American presidents touted progress during the disastrous war in Vietnam. “We can rightly judge … that the progress of the past three years would have been far less likely, if not completely impossible, if America’s sons and others had not made their stand in Vietnam,” said President Lyndon Johnson in March 1968. In August 1972, his successor, Richard Nixon, said: “I pledged to seek an honorable end to the war in Vietnam. We have made great progress toward that end.” Trump has repeatedly revived the Vietnam War-tainted phrase “light at the end of the tunnel” during this pandemic and similarly claimed headway despite the increasing deaths. “As we continue our battle against the virus, the data and facts on the ground suggest that we’re making great progress,” he said recently during his own version of the 5 o’clock follies.
Last week, Trump suggested that the death toll of the Covid-19 pandemic might top out at 50,000 American lives lost. “We did the right thing, because if we didn’t do it, you would have had a million people, a million and a half people, maybe 2 million people dead,” he said. “Now, we’re going toward 50, I’m hearing, or 60,000 people.” An April 20 prediction of an American death toll of 50,000 was as unrealistic as Trump’s baseless January claim that “we have [Covid-19] totally under control,” and his February fictions that the virus “will go away in April” and “within a couple of days [the number of Americans with Covid-19] is going to be down to close to zero.”
Earlier this month, at one of his coronavirus press briefings, Trump also touted the fruits of his efforts along the Mexican border. “We’re up to about 168 miles of wall,” he boasted. But having devoted far more time and energy over the past three years to that project than to pandemic preparedness, the body count of Americans killed by Covid-19 during his tenure has, in four months, exceeded two decades of armed conflict in Southeast Asia. (The number of Vietnamese civilians killed during those years is estimated at about 2 million, nearly the same as the worst-case scenario forecast of U.S. deaths without efforts to slow the coronavirus through social distancing.)
It took two 200-foot walls made up of 70 separate panels to list the more than 58,000 dead on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Just how many names — of grocery store employees, warehouse workers, delivery drivers, custodians, meatpacking plant workers, doctors, nurses, and EMTs — will need to be etched into a Covid-19 memorial won’t be known for years. Some projections put the total number at more than 67,000 Covid-19 deaths by August. The White House previously warned of the possibility of as many as 240,000 fatalities. Some estimates put the number at 300,000 Americans lost to the disease over the next several years.
For now, we need to keep counting the fallen and begin thinking about how to memorialize all the heartache, all the deaths faced alone, all the bodies consigned to mass graves, all the lives lost too soon. We already know that a wall to honor America’s Covid-19 casualties would be big, far too big. And we know, however poignant the design, however it stirs the soul, however iconic it becomes, there’s never going to be anything beautiful about it.
Nick Turse, a contributing writer for The Intercept, is the author of “Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.”
Update: April 28, 2020
This story has been updated to note that the Covid-19 death toll has now surpassed the Vietnam War toll.