The Power of a Name

March 27, 2017

Next week marks the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I. On April 6, Yale will hold a commemoration on Hewitt University Quadrangle involving Yale veterans, students in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), and other community members. Paul Kennedy, J. Richardson Dilworth Professor of History and Director of International Security Studies, will speak about the significance of the war in American and global affairs.

Memorials to Yale veterans occupy a central place on campus. The cenotaph on the quadrangle honors the hundreds of Yale students and alumni who died in World War I. Behind it, the names of seven major battles are carved into the Memorial Colonnade. Every day, hundreds of students, staff, faculty, and visitors walk through Memorial Hall, surrounded by the names of 1,020 Yale alumni killed in wars since the American Revolution.

The Memorial Rotunda helped inspire Maya Lin ’81, ’86 M.Arch. in her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. (Last fall, Lin kicked off the President’s Women of Yale Lecture Series.) In 1981 her proposal for the Vietnam memorial—which was ultimately selected among 1,421 entries as the design for the site—was also a project for her Yale architecture class.

In 2000, Lin reflected on the passage in Woolsey Hall: “I had never been able to resist touching the names cut into these marble walls, and no matter how busy or crowded the place is, a sense of quiet, a reverence, always surrounds those names,” Lin wrote. “Throughout my freshman and sophomore years, the stonecutters were carving in by hand the names of those killed in the Vietnam War, and I think it left a lasting impression on me…the sense of the power of a name.”

During and after the first world war, it was hard to imagine how the public could adequately remember and honor the millions who had died. Wilfred Owen, whose poems captured the tragedy and loss of the conflict, wrote in “Anthem for Doomed Youth”:

    What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
    — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

Yet public memorials—like the ones in the center of Yale’s campus—can help us honor the lives lost in war. Names, as Lin points out, help us remember individuals even when the number of deaths seems staggering. They should also inspire us to action.

I completed my clinical psychology internship and then for a number of years served as a consultant at the West Haven Veterans Administration Medical Center. Veterans in Connecticut and across the United States need medical and psychological assistance and support returning to civilian life. Today, we have an important responsibility—not only to remember the sacrifices of men and women who have died serving in the military, but to help those who have returned to us.

As we mark this centennial, please join me in remembering all veterans with the words Laurence Binyon wrote in the early weeks of World War I:

    They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
    Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
    At the going down of the sun and in the morning
    We will remember them.