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From Sea to Shining Sea


Gary Fisher

There is a saying that one person in your family dying is the equivalent to two of your close friends, four in your block, eight in your neighborhood, and so on until the equivalency encompasses the entire population of any continent. This says something about scale. We tend to connect with that which is closest and most accessible and most personally meaningful. It's hard to empathetically relate to the death or suffering of thousands who you don't know in the same way that you relate to the death or suffering of a loved one.

Beyond scale, we habituate to unpleasant information and events in much the same way as we do to constant physical stimulation. Simply put, we "dull out." We are creatures programmed to react to change - not constancy.

During the Vietnam war the media reported the weekly body count of U.S. servicepersons killed in the conflict. These reports went on inexorably, week after week after week. And over time, perceptually, these numbers became just another mildly interesting statistic dropped in between the local news, sports and the weather. Predictably, the nation became habituated to the magnitude of the toll.

And then on June 27, 1969 Life Magazine published the pictures of a single week's Vietnam War American dead. Page after page after page of bright young faces and the realization that they were all gone, killed, dead. These faces had families. And these were just the American dead. The totality of the pictures made a statement that transcended all the rhetoric on both sides of the issue. They were shocking where the the numbers were not. The pictures personalized the war. They made it accessible. And for a brief moment Life Magazine wiped away the habituation. And I'm sure that even though it probably wasn't their intent, Life made some people re-think the war.

What makes the Vietnam War Memorial such an emotionally charged and magnificently successful monument is in part how scale is used on several micro and macro levels at the same time causing the viewer to simultaneously focus on the 50,000 dead and on each individual loss.

The day after Memorial Day I went out to the Veteran's Cemetery in Los Angeles. At other times of the year the cemetery is just there - a wide expanse of grass on the south end where the more recent dead are buried, and looking north, a gently curving hillside of uniformly spaced vertical tombstones. If the tombstones were not in the distance, the cemetery could be mistaken for a park. But on Memorial Day, tiny flags are placed on each grave - thousands of flags, a sea of flags and the cemetery takes on a special meaning. No matter what your position with respect to war, any war, on this day the cemetery brings abstract "commitment" into focus. And for a brief moment habituation is wiped away.

These brief moments brings us back into contact with who we are and how we got here. They re-ground us. And in doing so they help to bring us all together.

© 1998 Gary Fisher

Gary is Co-Director of Armchair World. To comment on this article please fill out our feedback form and reference the article in the subject field.

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