Thursday, October 18, 2007

the American War

In Chicago recently at the Museum of Contemporary Art (a great museum, by the way), I saw a piece by Chris Burden called The Other Vietnam Memorial.

The piece is intended to help viewers visualize the stark disparity between American and Vietnamese deaths in what is known in Vietnam as the “American War” by comparing the standard mental image most Americans have of Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial with an as-yet unrealized memorial listing the 3,000,000 Vietnamese who died in the war.

James Tatum reviewed Burden’s piece a few years ago:

Knowing that no such official war monument could help but omit as much as it commemorates, the antiwar activist and artist Chris Burden took Maya Lin's design and used it to unheal memory's wounds. A preliminary sketch of his Other Vietnam Memorial foresaw a "list of three million Vietnamese killed during the US involvement in Vietnam"; it would be on "Copper pages, hinged on [a] central pole," and could be turned by viewers. In the catalogue prepared for a 1992 exhibition of The Other Vietnam Memorial at the Museum of Modern Art, Burden is quoted as saying, "I just thought somewhere there should be a memorial to the Vietnamese that were killed in the war. So I wanted to make this book, sort of like Moses' tablet, that would be an official record of all these three million names. I would suspect that we will be lucky if we get twenty-five percent of the names; other ones would be nameless, basically faceless, bodies. . . . I want the size of the sculpture . . . to reflect the enormity of the horror."

The anonymity inherent in a project of killing so many people in an impoverished, autocratic country is reflected in Burden’s work, for which the names were randomly generated by computer. I hope one day a large-scale version of the memorial is erected somewhere so that Americans can realize the terror and pain bound up in this simple ratio:

58,000 < 3,000,000

Or, for every American who died in Vietnam, 52 Vietnamese died.

There’s no need for numerical manipulation based on relative population size here, the numbers are clear, though the latter is more an educated guess since the U.S. government doesn’t like to count with too much precision the people it has killed.

Or, for the contemporary sensibility, there’s this:

3829 < 75,151

Or, more worryingly, this (now a year old):

3,000 < 655,000

(approximate U.S. deaths as of 10/2006 vs. excess Iraqi deaths related to the war estimated by the Second Lancet survey)

We’re in the middle of another “American War” with no terminus in sight. What we can count on with certitude is that we will suffer less than they do—in the end, that is what these wars are all about.

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