The Wall, China Beach, and Memories

wall viet nam veteran memorial

In Constitution Gardens in Washington, D.C., a bit beyond the World War II Memorial, across and down the street from the Institute for the Study of Peace, not far from the Lincoln Memorial, there are two statues, and a wall.

One statue is of three soldiers. The other shows two women helping a wounded comrade. Rising out of the ground, in between the trees, there’s a wall faced in black stone.

All of these things make up the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial. Unofficially. it’s known as the Wall after the part of it that has become the centerpiece for those who visit. Etched into that black stone are the names of more than fifty eight thousand men and women who died or went missing in Viet Nam. The polished stone reflects back the images of those who come to look at the wall, too. This is one of the ways architect Maya Lin, who created the design, chose to suggest connections between past and present.

The Wall, and those connections have been on my mind lately. Those things, and China Beach.

China Beach is an American television show which tells stories of the Viet Nam war focused on the perspectives of women who were there — nurses, Red Cross workers, USO entertainers, and others who for one reason or another spent time in that conflict. Viet Nam veteran and writer William Broyles Junior and producer John Sacret Young came up with the idea for the series, which had its first run for four seasons in the late 1980s. A twenty fifth anniversary box set of the show and a stand alone of the first season have recently been released on dvd.

The action of the show itself, especially the first three seasons, is set in Viet Nam from 1967 to 1969. The fourth season tears up the time line, moving back and forth from the conflict to the lives of its characters back in the world, as they live on after their time in southeast Asia. The central character is army nurse Lieutenant Colleen McMurphy, played by Dana Delany.

The set, which was in Indian Dunes in California, readily evokes the the Five and Dime, the fictional 510 Evac Hospital and R & R center, as well as, when needed, the countryside of southeast Asia. That set, the writing, the acting (regular cast members included Michael Boatman, Robert Picardo, Jeff Kober, Concetta Tomei, Brian Wimmer, and Marg Helgenberger), the production, and the music evoked the time and place and told stories of it in ways that had not been done before. It opened up conversations from veterans who’d long been silent and people who loved them and needed to understand. Twenty five years on, the stories still hold. Though they are told through spot on details of time and place, they are conversations which are still relevant, relevant to the timeless issues of how human beings handle war and violence — and their aftermath — in body and in spirit, the nature of friendship, the nature of memory, and the nature of trust, to suggest just a few things you’ll find in watching the episodes.

There’s also top notch use of music, at times central to the action and at times a subtle underscore. Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrel, Walk On By from Dionne Warwick, A Whiter Shade of Pale by Procul Harum, Crazy by Patsy Cline are just a few of the musical choices that set the scenes — scenes that were framed by the open of each show, the song Reflections by Diana Ross and the Supremes.

At the show’s last episode, the characters of China Beach make an unplanned trip to visit the Wall.

I’ve been to the Wall too, both soon after it opened, and several times since. It is a place of camaraderie and solitude, connection and silence, past and present. In her design, architect Maya Lin has created an artwork that respects the sacrifices and courage of war without glorifying the struggles and hard choices and sorrow that attend it. It is a place well worth your time to visit, whatever your thoughts about the Viet Nam conflict or war in a wider sense. China Beach needs to be on your make time to watch list for those reasons as well, and for insight into ways creative artists work with these challenging subjects.

Kerry Dexter is one of five writers who contribute to Perceptive Travel’s blog. You’ll most often find her writing about travels in Europe and North America in stories that connect to music, history, and the arts, including such things as an evening along the Falls Road in Belfast and Julie Fowlis singing of her home in Scotland’s Western Isles.

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  1. Liz Lewis Reply