Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

American Shantytown

By David G. Young

WASHINGTON, DC, May 16, 2000 --  

The view down the National Mall from the Lincoln Memorial is stunning. Only the glistening white marble of the Washington Monument breaks a two-mile expanse of green reaching to the Capitol dome. These colors -- as well as that of the blue sky on a nice spring day -- shimmer in the expanse of the reflecting pool as the breeze gently stirs the water.

But step just a few feet off of the center axis of the Mall and that view changes dramatically. Makeshift shacks of plywood and plastic sheeting mar the landscape like a third-world shantytown. The vicinity has an ambiance akin to the favelas in the hills of urban Brazil or invaded farms on the plains of Zimbabwe. The temporary shacks -- manned by self-described Vietnam veterans and prisoner of war activists -- have stood at various locations near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial since the "Wall" was built 18 years ago.

Veterans hawk their wares in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial.
Photo © 2000 David G. Young

These shacks were founded as vigils to the hundreds of American soldiers unaccounted for at the end of the war, and served s a political outpost for what was then the widespread belief that Vietnam or other communist states still held American soldiers against their will. Only the most extreme zealots continue to hold this belief, yet a quarter century after Saigon's fall, the shanties still stand.

The time to remove them is long overdue. The National Park Service, which maintains the area, has permitted them on free-speech grounds in the same manner as it would a political demonstration. But the focus of these stands has long since degraded from politics, and now centers around commerce. Inside these shacks, bearded, tattooed societal discontents sell books, pins, patches and any other paraphernalia remotely relating to the Vietnam War and veterans issues. Until thee years ago, the ragamuffins also sold huge quantities of tacky souvenir t-shirts. It took a National Park Service regulation and a federal court ruling before the defiant squatters ended the practice.1

POW/MIA posters feature prominently in the squatters' shacks.
Photo © 2000 David G. Young

Today, the t-shirts are gone, but the sales of other souvenirs not covered by the ban continue. (Technically these items are not for sale -- they are given for free in exchange for a specific donation.) The operations run day and night during the tourist season. The serene environment is spoiled in the evening by the buzz of portable gas generators fueling the shanties' electricity.

That the National Park Service would put up with such deplorable behavior in the shadow of important national monuments was understandable 20 years ago. The plight of the Vietnam Veteran was at its peak in the American Consciousness at the time. Having suffered the trauma of war, the disrespect of a public that did not support it, then the economic crises of the late '70s and early '80s, the Park Service could not be faulted for cutting a break to down-on-their-luck veterans.

But much time has passed since then. It has been 25 years since the end of the war. After another 25 years, should we still expect to see aged men in frayed uniforms selling trinkets by America's greatest monuments? At some point it is reasonable to expect that everyone -- Vietnam Veterans included -- should move on.


  1. The Washington Post, Judge Ends Challenges to T-Shirt Sales Ban, November 5, 1997