In the end what was most provocative about Maya Lin's memorial--and most disturbing to its opponents--is its willingness to dispense entirely with any evocation of the bodies of the fallen. Which is to say her conception underscores--even replicates--a central, irrefutable fact. Death is loss. When translated into sculpture, bodily absence may register as poignant or threatening, necessary or unbearable; viewers, Hart [, Frederick, a memorial designer who submitted a rival design] among them, have always responded and continue to respond in all these ways. But one thing is certain: with the body and its surrogates so thoroughgoingly banished by the work's abstraction, various animated rituals have been revived or devised to take its place. When viewers visit the Wall, they often supplement its blank surfaces by leaving some relic or talisman--a letter, flowers, photographs, a piece of clothing their loved one once wore--against its slick black planes. And they may well depart with a pencil rubbing of his name. (All the names on the wall, save those of eight female nurses, are male.) This pattern of giving and taking stretches back centuries and has been found at the holiest of sites. When it happens at the Wall, however, there can be no doubt that it responds to--is catalyzed by--Lin's radical simplicity of form.
As I've mentioned before, I think war memorials are endlessly fascinating. You can experience the wall, virtually, at Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund's website.