A Rift in the Earth: Art, Memory, and the Fight for a Vietnam War Memorial. By James Reston Jr., Arcade Publishing, 2017.

The Viet Nam War, the 10- part epic documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, is currently telling for the country, in segments that are equal parts beautiful and unbearable, the complicated history of the conflict that lasted for nearly 20 years and cost the United States over 58,000 dead.

That history is infamously divisive and has been from the very beginning. Thanks to the increased reach and broadcast capabilities of the war-correspondent press, the civilian population of the United States witnessed the fighting and killing and dying in Viet Nam in ways they’d never seen one of their own wars before, and the experience repulsed large segments of the population. Even as the casualties were mounting and wounded fighters were returning, the home front response was curdling. Americans were able to see with visceral clarity that their country wasn’t just fighting a squalid, barbaric war, it was losing that war.

More than two million men and women were deployed to Viet Nam, and they found themselves caught in the middle of the cultural chasms the war opened in the country, chasms that split along some fundamental questions. As bestselling author and U.S. Army veteran James Reston puts it in his new book, A Rift in the Earth, the questions could be summed up as: “how to thank the solider who prosecuted the war at the same time as the protester who ultimately stopped it.”

Specifically, how do you create a public memorial to a war the public repudiated?

A Rift in the Earth tells the long and fascinating story of the conflict that arose around just that question — and the two very different monuments that resulted. As Mr. Reston points out, Jimmy Carter was the first peacetime president elected after the war had ended, and it fell to his presidency to find some kind of reconciliation after “the most unpopular war in American history and the most divisive since the Civil War.”

On the second day of his term, President Carter pardoned nearly 3,000 draft dodgers living abroad, and in July of 1980, he signed a bill into law authorizing the creation of a Viet Nam War Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. — a move he made in the teeth of strong opposition from almost all sides. Among other objections, at the time there were no monuments to commemorate the fallen soldiers of either the First World War or the Second.

President Carter was determined, but as the opening chapters of Mr. Reston’s book make clear, his determination paled in comparison with that of 29-year-old veteran and PTSD sufferer Jan Scruggs, who wrote an article in the Washington Post in May of 1977 stating: “Perhaps a national monument is in order to remind an ungrateful nation of what it has done to its sons.”

He organized a drive to fund such a monument, a drive that included soliciting a quick $10,000 from famous Texas billionaire and future presidential candidate Ross Perot, who turns up for some Yosemite Sam comic relief at odd intervals throughout Mr. Reston’s book. Mr. Scruggs was indefatigable; it’s one of the book’s great understatements to describe him as “very persistent.”

Once the project was officially underway, a nationwide contest was held to find the artist who would get the commission for the monument. The judging committee received 1,421 entries, and the eventual winner was perhaps the most unlikely of all the candidates: a 21-year-old student at Yale’s Architecture School named Maya Lin, who’d been born in Ohio of Chinese immigrants. Ms. Lin won the contest in 1981 with a design every bit as unconventional as she was: not an oversized classical expression of sadness or grace or power like the Lincoln Memorial, but rather an unadorned black granite wall inscribed with the names of the fallen.

The design drew growls of protest immediately. “For the dead whom few wanted to remember after a war few could forget, a woman who was four years old when the first bodies came home has designed a national memorial to be built on the Mall,” fumed reporter Henry Allen in the Washington Post. “Her design does not mention the war itself, or the Republic of South Viet Nam, only the names of the dead.”

Another critic called it “an erosion control project,” and Charles Krauthammer wrote that the monument treated the Viet Nam dead like “victims of some monstrous traffic accident.”

Perhaps the monument’s most consequential detractor was a sculptor named Frederick Hart. “The Renaissance was his ideal, as much for the philosophy of the artists as for their virtuosity of technique,” Mr. Reston writes of this temperamental young man. “Then, unlike now, he felt, art was not an end in itself but a form of service.”

Mr. Hart was eventually given permission to craft a kind of companion piece to Lin’s black wall — a trio of haggard Viet Nam combat veterans that was dubbed The Three Soldiers. Mr. Reston writes that the true purpose of this statue was to “change the metaphor” and push back against the nihilism of the wall itself. Certainly the piece evoked more sympathy from many veterans. One marine visitor told Mr. Hart he had captured the dignity of how veterans actually looked, allowing them to say with pride, “Yes, that is us, that is how we went into battle.” That marine was one of many over the decades to comment that it almost looked like Mr. Hart’s three soldiers were looking for their own names on the wall.

Fittingly, the most memorable assessment of that wall comes from Lin herself. “I really did mean for people to cry,” she told an interviewer years later. “Of your own power, [you have to] turn around and walk back up into the light, into the present. But if you can’t accept death, you’ll never get over it.”

Visitors to the Viet Nam Memorial today can attest to this eerie feeling. The wall evokes an emotional reaction unlike any other piece of sculpture in Washington — not only because it very purposely has no beauty but also because it has managed to maintain its visceral power over newcomers despite confronting them with no context for itself. The wall doesn’t explain itself, it doesn’t extol the dead, and it doesn’t ask visitors to extol them either — it simply makes their roll-call, every day, in all weathers. In its own grim way, it is now a beloved fixture on the Mall, which makes A Rift in the Earth all the more fascinating. In so skillfully dramatizing the now-forgotten controversies surrounding the wall’s origins, James Reston has given readers a vivid reminder that all great art is born in conflict and must fight for its chance to move us.