When the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated 10 years ago this fall, the wounds of the Vietnam War were still raw. The memorial itself, which supporters hoped would become a symbol of national reconciliation, spurred a torrent of criticism when the design was first unveiled.
Among the critics was Ross Perot, who contributed $160,000 to help underwrite the design competition only to denounce the winning entry as a "trench." The critics were mollified only with the addition to the site of a flag and a statue of three servicemen.
In the decade since that fierce debate, which echoed all the conflicting passions of a divisive era, the polished black granite wall has become one of the nation's most-visited memorials. For most of the visitors to that quiet spot on the Mall, the flag and statue hold relatively little interest. Their attention is fixed on the wall - on the names of Americans who died in Vietnam.
Maya Ying Lin, the Yale undergraduate who submitted the winning design as a project in funereal architecture for her senior seminar, understood something about death and remembrance that eluded the noisy, self-proclaimed patriots who derided the design as a "gash of shame." Names - simple human names - have a quiet power that exceeds the reach of more heroic monuments to battle.
But the lesson was not lost on Cleve Jones, whose desire to commemorate his friends provided the inspiration for the AIDS memorial quilt. That quilt has been on display on the Mall this weekend, with more than 20,000 panels covering an area between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument equivalent to the size of 12 football fields.
According to the NAMES Project, the organization which oversees the quilt, this handmade memorial has grown so large that this weekend's showing will probably be the last time it can be seen in its entirety.
That's both good news and bad. It demonstrates how important it is to the living to commemorate the dead, how the act of naming and remembering can also be an act of healing.
It also indicates the scope of the AIDS crisis facing this country. This vast patchwork of memorials represents only a fraction of the American lives claimed by AIDS - and there is no end in sight.
Five years ago, when the AIDS quilt was first displayed on the Mall, it included less than 1,900 panels, each commemorating a person who had died of AIDS. At the current rate of growth, it won't take too many years for the number of panels handed over to the NAMES Project to exceed the number of names - 58,175 - chiseled into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The quilt and its quiet message of remembrance is especially powerful on the Mall, a symbolic space that holds a special importance in our national life. Like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial nearby, it is a dramatic departure from the more heroic monuments Americans often erect.
Yet the naming of names somehow touches feelings within people that few statues ever reach. The wall has become a place to go and remember, a place to leave flowers and mementos of a life that was lost in war.
Likewise, a visit to the quilt is a time to grieve but also to heal. A quilt is not as solid or permanent as a granite wall. But quilts are comforting and cozy. They suggest home and hearth and the love and caring of a family circle. With no cure for AIDS in sight, these are the best weapons we now have against the ravages of a terrifying disease.
The quilt is an exercise in serendipity. The NAMES Project specifies only the size of the panels and requires that each one carry the name of the person it commemorates. Beyond that, the panel's design is up to the quilters. What strikes most visitors is the way in which the endless variety of panels contributes to a similar theme - the notion that behind every name is a life that is unique, irreplaceable and worth remembering. There is a richness in the diversity of these panels.
In some ways, the NAMES Project is a victim of its own success. Conflicting visions of the quilt and its purpose have caused tension among the staff during the past several months. But the quilt seems destined to survive and grow - another testament to the human need for memories and the simple eloquence of names.
Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each Sunday.