December 7, 1981 | Backgrounder on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

The Vietnam Memorial


(Archived document, may contain errors)

158 De cember 7, 1981 THE VIETNAM MEMORIAL INTRODUCTION With the enactment July 1, 1980, of Senate Joint Resolution 119, authorizing the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Fund to establish a memorial in honor and recognition of the men and women of the Armed Forces of t he United States who served in Vietnam it appeared that at long last the U.S. would pay tribute to the 2.7 million Americans who fought in Southeast Asia. The broad support for building such a monument was demonstrated by the fact that 196 Members of the House and all 100 Senators co-sponsored the law In short order, the VVMF assembled an impressive list of project sponsors ranging from Bob Hope, the perennial champion of GI's, to George McGovern, one of the Vietnam War's harshest critics.

For the Vietnam veteran, authorization of a memorial was of special importance In contrast to his World War I1 and Korean War predecessors, the Vietnam veteran came home to no triumphal welcome In too many instances, he was received with hostility and ostracism. At worst , his contemporaries viewed him as some sort of wanton destroyer who supported a corrupt and repressive regime. At best, he was simply ignored No one thanked him.

The media also made reintegration of the Vietnam veterans difficult by constantly portraying them as drug-crazed walking time bombs. This characterization has been used so frequently that it has now become a Hollywood cliche despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Vietnam veterans have proved themselves responsible, productive members of their communities.

Negative characterizations simply have reinforced the subtle prejudices which militate against the complete assimilation of the Vietnam veteran into the American mainstream. Is it thus any wonder that many Vietnam veterans monitored t he progress of the VVMF with anxious anticipation of the day when their sacrifice 2 would receive the same tribute and of prior conflicts?

Recognition is well-deserved recognition as that of veterans The average combat veteran of a year in-Southeast Asia saw more actual fighting than the World War I1 G.I. who fought in every major campaign in Europe. U.S troops in Vietnam had one of the lowest desertion rates in Ameri can military history and fought in one of the roughest climates ever experienced by Amer i cans THE DESIGN OF THE MONUMENT The most traditional means of designing a national monument Designs were judged by a blue-ribbon has been to choose a noted architect or sculptor to execute it The design of the Vietnam veteran's memorial, however, was sele c ted panel, with the winner receiving a $20,000 prize. Money was raised from the public and few problems arose until the design selection was announced by a national competition I The selection panel chose the proposal of Maya Ying Lin, a Yale undergraduat e . Her design consists of two 200-foot long horizontal walls of black granite, forming a l'V.ll The top of the walls are level with the ground, and the inside of the 'rV1l is at the bottom of a five degree incline so that only that portion is exposed. Thos e killed or missing in Vietnam are to be listed on the ten-foot high exposed portion in chronological order of their death or disappearance.

Almost as soon as the design was announced, controversy erupted. The Washinqton Post characterized the design as II a black rift in the earth Tom Carhart, a decorated combat veteran called it a "black gash of shame and sorrow.'t Other veterans expressed similar dismay at ''the black trench Contributors to I the memorial fund were also taken aback. The VVMF was to be I s upported solely through private contributions solicited through direct mail. All solicitation letters were of a general nature stressing patriotic themes and the need to pay some sort of tribute to the Vietnam veteran. By and large, contributors expected t hat a conventional design would be selected and that the design would honor the living as well as the dead. Many who learned of the stark nature of the proposed monument thus feel that they have been misled its support An official of the Fine Arts Commiss i on, one of the agencies which approved the design, called it !la suitable, digni fied, and understated type of memorial.Il Marine Corps League, Robert W. Doubek, Executive Director of the WMF, stated that the memorial !I makes a powerful statement that th i s society pays tribute to Vietnam Veterans Those involved in the design's selection quickly rallied to In a letter to the 3 A MEMORIAL FOR WHOM Many veterans, however, seriously question how the memorial is supposed to pay them tribute the traditional sym b ols normally found on monuments erected to veterans, but nowhere on the Vietnam veteran's memorial is there any indication that the nation is grateful or appreciative to those who fought. The prologue inscribed before the list of honor states simply Not o nly does the memorial lack In honor of the men and women of the Armed Forces of the United States who served in Vietnam. The names of those who gave their lives, and of those who remain missing, are inscribed in the order they were taken from us.

This insc ription fails even to include the minimal language of the law authorizing the memorial to be in l'honor and recognition.ll The epilogue following the names uses the same minimalist tone Our nation remembers the courage, sacrifice, and devo tion to duty of its Vietnam veterans.

These inscriptions contrast sharply with other memorials.

To many veterans of the Vietnam conflict, the language of the memorial seems but one more manifestation of the fact that they are an uncomfortable reminder for many Americans of a conflict which they would like to forget C. L. Kammeier, Executive Director of the Marine Corps League, wrote to the VVMF there appears to be a general consensus that nothing in the design represents the purpose of the commitment of those who served and survived the Vietnam experience. The [sic] particular common sense criticism is based on the fact that none volunteered to serve their country in Vietnam for the express purpose of dying or to ultimately have their name engraved on a tombstone; as rep r esented by the current design of the memorial. Most readily agreed, however, that duty honor, and country were the main motivating factors toward their service I The notion that the Vietnam veteran memorial, as currently designed, is a monument only to th e dead particularly offends veterans. The congressional mandate is quite clear in calling for a memorial for those "who served in Vietnam According to VVMF guidelines for those submitting designs, however the purpose of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is to r ecognize and honor those who served and died It will provide a symbol of acknowledgement of the courage sacrifice, and devotion to duty of those who were among the nation's finest youth. Whether they served because of their belief in war policy, their bel i ef in their obligation to answer the call of their country, or 4 their simple acquiescence in a course of events beyond their control, their service was no less honorable than that rendered by Americans in any previous war. Those who served and died embod ied values and ideals prized by this nation since its inception. The failure of the nation to honor them only extends the national tragedy of our involvement in Vietnam.

While the phrase "served and died" might have been uninten tional, other evidence also points to an intention to honor only the dead In a article published in the Washington Post on May 25, 1977, VVMF President Jan Scruggs stated No effort can provide compensation, of course, to the Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice in Viet Nam. Fo r them, perhaps, a national monument is in order to remind an ungrateful nation of what it has done to its sons."

Other aspects of the design also are being criticized A principal complaint, for example, is the choice of black granite as the material for t he memorial. Black normally is associated with death and dishonor. While a number of other war memorials use some black stone, it generally is for heroic figures, rising from the earth. The Vietnam veteran's memorial, however, is not just black, but also d escends into the ground, further reinforcing the image of a 'ltomb.'l Another complaint is that the memorial will be relatively inaccessible to wheelchair-bound veterans; some 75,000 Vietnam veterans are permanently disabled. When queried about this by th e Army Times, Jan Scruggs stated: III hadn't even thought of that According to Robert Doubek, Executive Director of the VVMF, artifical turf may be installed to make wheelchair access somewhat easier and at least would meet Park Service minimum requirement s for access by the disabled.

Listing of the names of the dead and missing in chronological order also is being criticized. Although this may be of some symbolic value, it will make it extremely difficult for family members to locate the name of a relative . Present plans call for a directory of names in a closed pavilion near the memorial's entrance. The directory is to be in the form of a rotating card file. This means that when large numbers of visitors come to the monument, which is very likely during t he summer months, there will be a great deal of inconvenience. Any mechanical breakdown in the file's mechanism, moreover, could make it impossible to look up a name. It would seem preferable to list the names alphabetically.

Other criticisms of the design include that it readily lends It also has been suggested that the memorial itself to graffiti may present a hazard at night since visitors unfamiliar with the park might inadvertently fall off the upper level. 5 The most telling complaint is that nowhere at the memorial site will there be the Stars and Stripes, the flag under which the Vietnam veteran fought. It is on this issue more than any other that the veterans seeking changes seem to agree. As C. L.

Kammeier stated in his let ter to the WMF for the sake of the many non-artists who have served their country under the standard American symbol of duty, honor, and country, in every war since our nation was founded, as represented by our flag; I suggest that your committee make eve ry effort to include the flag in a suggested modification to the current design, or even scrap the current design altogether and reopen the bidding for a selection by a committee comprised of at least several members who have actually served in Vietnam.

The extent and vehemence of the opposition to the design selected raises questions about the process of the selection.

One brochure used by the VVMF to solicit entries for the design competition states It was the longest war in our nation's history, and the most unpopular. Not since the Civil War has any issue so divided Americans. Although many of our present problems such as inflation and lack of confidence in our institutions have been attributed to the war, the average citizen has eliminated it from his consciousness. Any discussions of Vietnam tend to recall the bitter and seemingly unresolvable debate over whether the U.S. should have become involved militarily in Southeast Asia and subsequently how the war was conducted.lf The brochure goes on to desc r ibe the experiences of the Vietnam veteran as Ilhorror, bitterness, boredom, heat, exhaustion and deathgf and states Ilbecause of inequities in the draft system the brunt of dangerous service fell upon the young, often the socially and economically disadv a ntaged It is not until the fourth paragraph that the brochure discusses the memorial. And there the emphasis is on the negative aspects of the Vietnam conflict, ending with what is surely, at best, an extremely questionable statement The failure of the na tion to honor them only extends the national tragedy of our involvement in Vietnam."

Ironically, after thus restating most of the anti-war charges and describing the conflict as a national tragedy, the brochure adds that "The memorial will make no politica l statement regarding the war or its conduct.If Many veterans, however, regard the lack of any statement about the role of the American serviceman in defending the freedom of the Vietnamese people as a political statement of the strongest kind a statement that their war was a meaningless sacrifice. It is this, perhaps which triggers the most strong feelings about the memorial. Given the rhetoric of the brochure, it is understandable why the designs entered conveyed a negative feeling about the Vietnam conf l ict 0 6 Throughout the materials for those submitting designs and on which the jury was to make its selection, an anti-heroic theme was stressed Is it surprising that an anti-heroic design was selected? To make matters.worse, not a single Vietnam veteran sat on the selection jury. Indeed the jury contained at least one anti-war activist, and several members were strongly opposed to the war.

Had there been a broader participation by Vietnam veterans the anti-heroic nature of the design might have been modif ed, or even rejected. Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of the selec tion is that rather than fulfilling the goal that "the memorial will begin a healing process, a reconciliation of the grievous divisions wrought by the war," it has added yet another e lement of controversy to one of the most controversial episodes in our history.

Milton R. Copulos Policy Analyst lilton R. Copulc.;s is a disuled veteran of two tours of duty in Vietnam where he served with elements of the 25th Infantry Division.

He holds the Bronze Star Medal among other decorations.

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