The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is possibly the most poignant sight in Washington: two long, black-granite walls in the shape of a V, each inscribed with the names of the men and women who gave their lives, or remain missing, in the longest war in American history. Even if no one close to you died in Vietnam, it’s moving to watch visitors grimly studying the directories to find out where their loved ones are listed, or rubbing pencil on paper held against a name etched into the wall. The walls list close to 60,000 people, most of whom died very young.

Because of the raging conflict over U.S. involvement in the war, Vietnam veterans had received almost no recognition of their service before the memorial was conceived by Vietnam vet Jan Scruggs. The nonprofit Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund raised $7 million and secured a 2-acre site in tranquil Constitution Gardens to erect a memorial that would make no political statement and would harmonize with neighboring memorials. By separating the issue of the wartime service of individuals from the issue of U.S. policy in Vietnam, the VVMF hoped to begin a process of national reconciliation.

The design by Yale senior Maya Lin was chosen in a national competition open to all citizens ages 18 and over. Erected in 1982, the memorial’s two walls are angled at 125 degrees to point to the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. The walls’ mirrorlike surfaces reflect surrounding trees, lawns, and monuments. The names are inscribed in chronological order, documenting an epoch in American history as a series of individual sacrifices from the date of the first casualty in 1959. The National Park Service continues to add names as Vietnam veterans die eventually of injuries sustained during the war. Catalogs near the entrances to the memorial list names alphabetically and the panel and row number for each name that is inscribed in the wall. Elsewhere on the grounds of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, though not part of Maya Lin’s design, are two other sculptures honoring the efforts of particular servicemen and women: the Three Servicemen Statue and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial.