A Rift in the Earth: Art, Memory and the Fight for a Vietnam War Memorial by James Reston Jr.

A Rift in the Earth: Art, Memory and the Fight for a Vietnam War Memorial

A Rift in the Earth tells the remarkable story of the ferocious "art war" that raged between 1979 and 1984 over what kind of memorial should be built to honor the men and women who died in the Vietnam War. The story intertwines art, politics, historical memory, patriotism, racism, and a fascinating set of characters, from those who fought in the conflict and those who resi...

Title:A Rift in the Earth: Art, Memory and the Fight for a Vietnam War Memorial
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A Rift in the Earth: Art, Memory and the Fight for a Vietnam War Memorial Reviews

  • Richard

    A quite remarkable book. The story of the genesis and establishment of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC, USA.

    The subtext of the title says "Art, Memory and the Fight for a Vietnam War Memorial."

    It is a complex issue and a deep scar in the American psyche. Not surprising given the political fall out of a conflict they government loss the ability to win, the honesty to admit its futility and the courage to withdraw in terms of saving combat lives rather than face.

    It is a book that might n

    A quite remarkable book. The story of the genesis and establishment of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC, USA.

    The subtext of the title says "Art, Memory and the Fight for a Vietnam War Memorial."

    It is a complex issue and a deep scar in the American psyche. Not surprising given the political fall out of a conflict they government loss the ability to win, the honesty to admit its futility and the courage to withdraw in terms of saving combat lives rather than face.

    It is a book that might not immediately appeal to me but kept me engrossed throughout not to take sides but to understand both arguments. In essence how could a national memorial be representative of a defeat, a waste of a country's youth and a reflect those from the anti-war lobby.

    Brilliantly written, with an independent voice that has the measure of all aspects of the struggle to remember those that died and those who dodged the draft.

    But it also gives great insight into the world of art and design. The chance for serendipity when a competition is launched and the potential winner being an unknown graduate student. How one person's version can move a nation. How a memorial can salve wounds and heal memory sufficient to finally move on.

    The aspects of a national consciousness and a corporate meaning and that of an individual were well discussed and explored beyond what was immediately seen. That use of sensual responses to a slab of black granite rather than to regurgitate the past. It strikes me that is the principle role of art design in the widest sense, through architecture, the use of landscape and the focus of remembrance.

    I enjoyed the summery of the difficult years between the concept and its construction. It was good that the story of the major players continued in the epilogue.

    Finally I found it absolutely fitting that the author revealed his own journey and associations with that War. I loved his trip of remembrance and physical attachment to the wall.

    I love books that point to other works you may be interested in, the authors other works may also now pique my desire further. It is also good to be reminded of books you have previously read like Perfume River by Robert Olen Butler in the grand scale of things it shows me why it was such an emotional aspect of his novel.

    Finally this is a book of academic value and standing in its range and delivery. However, at no time did it seem dry and part of a study project as it reads like the best fiction and with the same drivers.

  • Dave

    This is a comprehensive look back at the the design process of the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial. The author tells the story very well, and the story flows through the book.

    I recommend this book for anybody who is interested in the Memorial or how American dealt with the aftermath of the war decade after it ended.

  • Brady

    Fascinating book. I have a new, profound appreciation for the Vietnam Memorial. But more than that, this book demonstrated (whether intentionally or not) many parallels to the country we live in today - it was fascinating to see themes play out in relation to a piece of public art that are playing out today in relation to public policy.

    To be frank, I historically never really had much interest, understanding or appreciation for art. Well, let's say I had an appreciation for appreciating art, but

    Fascinating book. I have a new, profound appreciation for the Vietnam Memorial. But more than that, this book demonstrated (whether intentionally or not) many parallels to the country we live in today - it was fascinating to see themes play out in relation to a piece of public art that are playing out today in relation to public policy.

    To be frank, I historically never really had much interest, understanding or appreciation for art. Well, let's say I had an appreciation for appreciating art, but more often than not, I just didn't get it. As I've matured, however, I've been able to think less literally and my appreciation for art has expanded greatly. And that's one of the major points of contention in the designing, planning, building and unveiling of the Vietnam Memorial - and I had no idea of that history. The tension between literal and figurative thinking played out dramatically in this story, as it continues to play out today.

    Secondly, the machismo surrounding the implementation of a memorial, and how that machismo manifested itself, was simply astounding to me. Male insecurity and overcompensation drove some of the fiercest battles over the memorial, and contributed to the lingering tension that the memorial intended to alleviate. It didn't help that the majority of the process happened under Reagan's watch, who was a master of playing to the insecure male and encouraging them to demonstrate strength (in word more than deed) when it was more appropriate to employ critical thinking. Seems very reminiscent of what's going on in America today.

    Finally, what really stood out to me was the tug of war between being right and winning. The two sides that waged the fiercest, most public fights over the memorial fell distinctly into two camps: the camp who wanted everyone to know that they were correct/intellectually superior, and the camp that didn't care about being correct, just getting their way. The reality is, most people resided in between those two camps, but their voice was seemingly unimportant in the process. Today, all you have to do is open a newspaper and you'll see that no one is either a) interested in, b) speaking for, or c) governing for the vast majority of us who don't support the ultraconservative or the progressive liberal.

    I'd highly recommend this book - the story of the memorial alone is pretty incredible, but the reflection it inspires is quite meaningful.

  • Mac

    I came to

    with a preconception to like the book before reading it. Some reasons: The Vietnam Memorial is among the most moving architectural achievements I have experienced. Additionally, I have always wanted to learn more about the arguments for and against the abstract wall vs representational statues. And sadly, I have a deep emotional attachment to the memorial because a dear friend's name is on the wall (February 17, 1968); my visits to the memorial have been a source of

    I came to

    with a preconception to like the book before reading it. Some reasons: The Vietnam Memorial is among the most moving architectural achievements I have experienced. Additionally, I have always wanted to learn more about the arguments for and against the abstract wall vs representational statues. And sadly, I have a deep emotional attachment to the memorial because a dear friend's name is on the wall (February 17, 1968); my visits to the memorial have been a source of sorrow even after all these years.

    And the result? The book is a good read that delivers on its promise. It is informative, clearly organized, deeply researched, reasonably objective in its (tilting negative) assessment of the war, and full of anecdotes as well as you-are-there descriptions of the debates surrounding the construction of the memorial.

    In particular, I learned about the designer, Maya Lin, her inexperience, her vision for the wall, her personality, and her challenging interactions with others on the project. And before reading the book, I had known nothing about Frederick Hart, who created the three soldiers added to the memorial; his character, interests, and philosophy are fully explained. So there's lots to learn and appreciate in

    ; not to mention the book is full of photographs showing Lin's (extremely abstract) design submission as well as numerous other designers' entries in the competition.

    So for me, preconception and reading result converged.

    enlightened me, even surprised me, about the architecture, the design competition, as well as the condemnation and praise for the wall. Particularly I learned about the battles over wall vs statues. Reston poses this conflict as classical (representational) vs modern (abstract), and that's an informative frame for understanding. I have long considered the difference in a Myers-Briggs framework--intuitive vs sensing--and I wish Reston had also delved into this analysis as well.

    Last point. This is a rational book, a clear, logical analysis. Reston does explore the feelings of the many constituencies--the veterans and the defectors, the artists and the politicians, the traditionalists and the modernists, the pro and anti war factions; and he makes clear how heated were the debates among competing viewpoints. But somehow the book informed me but didn't move me emotionally. Maybe that's because I left my feelings in Washington standing before the wall.

  • David Askanase

    This is a magnificent book. It is the story of the fight over the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial beginning with the announcement of the competition through the award of the design to Maya Lin to the vicious fight between the artistic community and the detractors oved the design and purpose to the completion and dedication. Fascinating and recent enough to be almost current!

  • Judy

    I have always been fascinated by Maya Lin - how a young woman could design a memorial for the ages that is so moving. When I read a review of this book, I knew I had to read it. I remembered that there had been quite a bit of acrimony over the memorial but I had forgotten just how bitter the fight had been. This book gives the history and the stories behind the building/designing of the Vietnam Memorial in a very readable approachable way.

  • Christina

    I picked this book up after finishing Ken Burns' ten-part documentary on the Vietnam War, which ends with a brief overview on the controversial efforts to build a memorial to a complicated and hated war in the nation's capital. Reston's book provides the straightforward yet comprehensive explanation of the politics surrounding Maya Lin's stark (and moving, in my opinion) memorial to the 58,318 men and women who were killed in action or are missing in action that I was looking for after the docum

    I picked this book up after finishing Ken Burns' ten-part documentary on the Vietnam War, which ends with a brief overview on the controversial efforts to build a memorial to a complicated and hated war in the nation's capital. Reston's book provides the straightforward yet comprehensive explanation of the politics surrounding Maya Lin's stark (and moving, in my opinion) memorial to the 58,318 men and women who were killed in action or are missing in action that I was looking for after the documentary.

    An explanation I clearly needed because, while I've visited the Vietnam War Memorial at least twice, I have zero recollection of three soldiers statue installed at the memorial as compromise to those who felt Lin's design was more apology than honorific. I also appreciated how Reston included a chapter on how Vietnam has chosen to memorial its war dead; its a chapter I'm not sure I would have known to ask for but appreciated all the same.

  • Patrick Macke

    It makes sense that the Vietnam War and the "war" for the Vietnam Memorial produced the same basic result - divisiveness. The story starts out interesting but then becomes a catfight that ends up dragging the book down. The level of namecalling and backbiting and political posturing - that we were and are that small - simply make the book depressing ...The book isn't about The Wall it's about the "politics" of The Wall, a subject that's much less compelling.

  • Ann

    The politics surrounding the wall - and the personalities. It is a miracle that it ever came together in a way that is meaningful and continues to be meaningful over time. And yes, it does echo the politics of today: entrenched positions, larger than life personalities, shouting, women and their role...and the artist as reflector and celebrator of what has happened and is to be remembered.

    Reston's trip to Vietnam and his meeting with the English professor was a meaningful conclusion: "... we do

    The politics surrounding the wall - and the personalities. It is a miracle that it ever came together in a way that is meaningful and continues to be meaningful over time. And yes, it does echo the politics of today: entrenched positions, larger than life personalities, shouting, women and their role...and the artist as reflector and celebrator of what has happened and is to be remembered.

    Reston's trip to Vietnam and his meeting with the English professor was a meaningful conclusion: "... we do not glorify soldiers....You will find no Rambos here... We only go to war when we can't avoid it....But when it is over, it is over, and we focus on peace and development and rebuilding."

  • Lara

    This was a great book and easy read for this type of non-fiction. I didn't want to stop reading. I can't say I know much about the Vietnam War itself so the historical background at the beginning set the stage well. Really interesting how angry people got about this memorial. Very fascinating.

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