SHRAPNEL IN THE HEART Letters and Remembrances From the Vietnam Veterans Memorial By Laura Palmer Random House. 243 pp. $17.95 THE WALL Images and Offerings From the Vietnam Veterans MemorialConceived by Sal Lopes Collins. 128 pp. $24.95
Among the nearly 20 million Americans who have visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial since its dedication five years ago, few can have escaped a sharp sense of loss at the rows and rows of names inscribed on its polished black wall.
For some of those visitors, though, the grief is particular, not general. These are the fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, children, friends and fellow veterans who come chiefly to remember and mourn not the whole wall of 58,156 names but one special name; not the abstraction of a country's loss but a unique and specific loss of their own.
Many mourners leave letters or other remembrances at the wall -- "crossing over their moat of grief," as Laura Palmer writes, to tell the dead that they are still missed, honored and loved. Those tokens of love and sorrow, all of which are collected and saved by the National Park Service, are the raw material for Palmer's "Shrapnel in the Heart"; they also furnish the text accompanying the photographs collected in "The Wall."
Palmer, who spent some time in Vietnam as a journalist in the early 1970s, tracked down and interviewed a number of people who had left messages at the wall, seeking more details about both the dead and the living -- and finding a pain and confusion that have hardly diminished in the years since the war.
Palmer's interviews are often affecting. But it is her raw material -- the original messages themselves -- that keeps making one want to cry. Though these express their grief in many different ways, they are unified by their common bewilderment and searing pain at the waste of a young life in an ambiguous and unsuccessful war. And they document, sometimes in astonishing fashion, the release of emotion that can come from the wall itself. One mother, in a letter that must also speak for the experience of many others, wrote to her dead son:
"We had been looking for about half an hour when your father quietly said, 'Honey, here it is.' As I looked to where his hand was touching the black wall, I saw your name, William R. Stocks. My heart seemed to stop. I felt as though I couldn't breathe. It was like a bad dream. My teeth chattered. I felt as though I were freezing. God, how it hurt. I looked around at all the people up and down this black wall, this memorial to all those men and women who had lost their lives in Vietnam, these thousands and thousands of names. I reached for your father's hands. They were ice cold. His face was pale. He looked at this black wall and then at me and said, 'What a waste. All these men and women dead, and for what? For fighting a war they had no way of winning.' "
With the hurt, though, somehow there is also healing at the wall. "As I see Bill's name, with all the others," that mother later explained to Palmer, "it helps me to know I am not alone in my pain ... When I touch his name, my pain momentarily increases, if you know what I mean, yet it decreases. So what am I trying to say? On this black wall, there is much pain, yet there is much love."
The same blend of pain and love fills the pages of "The Wall," a collection of photographs by Boston free-lancer Sal Lopes and 16 other photojournalists.
The words in this book are from the same National Park Service archive -- in some cases from the same letters -- used by Palmer. But instead of being accompanied by interviews, they are here linked with images: some of the memorial itself, but more of the visitors who go there to remember and mourn.
Those most often pictured in these photos are other Vietnam veterans, for whom the wall represents not just the memory of dead comrades but also a recognition that was denied to most of them for many years after they came home.
There is a sense of healing release in many of these images -- veterans weeping, embracing, reaching out to touch the cool black stone or simply standing in respectful tribute and sorrow for the dead. The veterans' messages, though, often have an edge of continuing bitterness at their country's long indifference. "You can tell which are the vets," one of them wrote. "We are the ones who don't have to a about the size or type of material used to make the wall. We just stand and look, not caring who sees us cry, just like no one cared who died."
I found both books moving, but there is something missing: some recognition that the memorial in Washington, powerful as it is, does not represent the whole tragedy of Vietnam -- or even the greater part of the tragedy. In these books, as in most American literature on the war, the Vietnamese and Lao and Cambodians are invisible.
It is natural, of course, for Americans to remember and mourn chiefly our own dead. But until we learn that ours was not the only pain to be remembered, the true meaning of Vietnam and its war will continue to escape our understanding.
The reviewer, a correspondent in Vietnam from 1972 to 1975, is the author of "Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia."