Flags, poppies and The Wall – places of pilgrimage

It is a human desire, to remember those who are gone – whether a small memorial on a road for a person who died in a car crash, or a bigger memorial for large numbers of people who died in a conflict. 

It seems to me that war memorials have changed, as war has changed. They have become less elaborate, more personal places of pilgrimage. They’re on our level, not towering over us. That’s what I was thinking when I read Tanja Maier’s latest Weight of the World blog post.

Tanja, who has been helping Ukrainian refugees in Austria since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, was visiting Kyiv recently. She shared a video of a peoples’ memorial at the Maidan, Kyiv’s main square. Thousands and thousands of tiny flags commemorating those who have died fighting for Ukraine are clustered there. A Tiktok shows the size of the memorial.

It reminded me of two other memorials I think of as peoples’ memorials. One was the thousands of ceramic red poppies that filled the moat at the Tower of London to commemorate the British dead in the first World War. The other is the Vietnam Wall in Washington DC.

Historic Royal Palaces Dec. 18, 2014

The art installation at the Tower of London, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, saw 21,688 people install the 888,246 handmade poppies between July 28 and 11 November 2014.

Each poppy represented a British military fatality during the war, and each day at sunset, the names of 180 Commonwealth soldiers killed during the war were read out as part of a Roll of Honour, followed by the Last Post. Members of the public nominated names for the Roll of Honour using a weekly ‘first come, first served’ nomination system to be read the following week in this nightly ceremony.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, also called The Wall, honours members of the US armed forces who served and died in the Vietnam War (1955–75). The black granite V-shaped wall is inscribed with the names of the approximately 58,000 men and women who were killed or missing in action, chronologically.

US Dept of Veterans Affairs, June 3, 2014

The minimalist design submitted by architect Maya Lin while a senior at Yale University, was chosen from more than 1,400 submissions to a nationwide competition sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and dedicated on Nov. 13, 1982. Controversial at the time, it has become the most-visited memorial on the National Mall in Washington, attracting more than 5 million people each year. 

“What is often called “The Wall” also led to unanticipated outcomes, including the Korean War Memorial in 1993 and the World War II Memorial in 2004, on America’s Mall,” Jan Scruggs wrote in 2019. “If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, The Wall deserves awards.” Scruggs, an infantryman in Vietnam, was the founder of the memorial.

Pensacola, Florida, made a granite replica (The Wall South) a few years later, and a full-scale granite replica was dedicated in Missouri by a Vietnam vet. Some of the half million items left at the Wall have been displayed in the Smithsonian and the Imperial War Museum in London, Scruggs wrote. “The Wall is like Mecca or the Western Wall in Jerusalem that compels the faithful to visit.”


Gallery | Scenes from Kyiv amid the war in Ukraine. Stars and Stripes, Oct. 26, 2022

Why the Vietnam War Memorial is amazing. Military Times, May 20, 2019

These Emotional Pictures Show How People First Reacted To The Vietnam Veterans Memorial,Buzz Feed News, Nov. 11, 2019

What It Was Like Seeing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for the First Time Before You Could Instagram or Tweet It. Washingtonian, Jun 26, 2018

Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund announces the Wall That Heals will make its first visit to Hawaii in 2024. Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Mar 8 2023 

Cover image: Vietnam Memorial Wall,US National Parks Service