- - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Just two months ago, the nation marked the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, and many of the stories in the media were illustrated with images of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall, which over the past three decades has become an American cultural icon — symbolizing that difficult period in our history. Yet, that memorial, as we know it today, almost didn’t happen.

While sailing on its way to federal approval and realization, the design of the memorial encountered a perfect storm of opposition that almost sank the ship.

The expression “a perfect storm” is often used to describe the convergence of rare, and usually dangerous, circumstances that make an event dramatic or harrowing. Examples of perfect storms are seen in natural, political and other kinds of events. The book and movie of that name depicted the great Northeast storm of 1991, which was a confluence of two powerful weather fronts and a hurricane. Similarly, the controversy over the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was aggravated exponentially as it touched and teased a number of fault lines in American culture and society. The fault lines, intertwining to generate the tremendous public debate, included the issues of whether:

the war itself was right or wrong;

it was ill conceived from the outset or was lost due to a domestic fifth column;

the veterans and the dead could be honored, regardless of whether the war was right or wrong;

the war’s active opponents were traitors, or could be patriots and even honor those who served;

only members of the group being honored were capable of choosing a design that honored them;

a memorial had to be didactic (realistic) stating an unequivocal message, or could be contemplative and evocative (abstract), allowing a viewer to form his or her own interpretation.

Other sore points touched by the design controversy involved differing attitudes on the part of those veterans who identified themselves as warriors, as opposed to those who saw their role as citizen soldiers doing their duty. Also and inevitably came the issue of race. Was it appropriate for a person of Asian heritage to design a memorial honoring men and women who fought against Asians?

The leaders of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, all former junior officers and enlisted men, perceived the purpose of the memorial as affirming the dignity, and recognizing the service and sacrifice, of those who served in Vietnam, instead of using them — once again — as tools in arguments for and against the war.

As a hoped-for byproduct, the memorial could help reconcile the country’s divisions over the war. Ideally, both the war’s supporters and its opponents could agree that the veterans deserved recognition, of which — we believed — the continuing rancor over the war had deprived them. The memorial therefore could not make a political statement about the war itself. It would separate the war from the warrior. It turned out that we were naive, as others perceived a different role for the memorial.

We had expected any opposition to the memorial to come from the liberal and antiwar elements of American society. To our shock, it came mostly from conservatives, including powerful and influential individuals such as billionaire H. Ross Perot, James Webb (expected to be a Democratic presidential candidate in 2016), conservative columnist Patrick Buchanan, novelist Tom Wolfe, congressmen and senators, as well as members of the staff of Secretary of Interior James Watt and the Heritage Foundation.

According to their vision, the memorial would serve to justify the war and rebuke the antiwar movement. It would celebrate the heroism and glory of those who fought. They couldn’t separate the issues of the war from the service of the veterans. Expecting that the memorial would give the last word on the war, they saw the competition-winning design as a betrayal.

At first glance, their pique was understandable. After all, in contrast to the white tower of the Washington Monument, the design by Maya Ying Lin was black and receded into the ground. It constituted a space for contemplation, rather than a three-dimensional edifice or object that made an unequivocal statement.

Yet, as the debate dragged on, the fault lines that aggravated it continued to reveal themselves. We heard that the memorial had been “designed by a Gook,” that one of the jurors was a communist, and that other jurors had been antiwar activists. Also, that only combat veterans were capable of choosing a design, and that the memorial’s abstention of any statement about the war amounted to a statement against it. The controversy reached a point where Mr. Watt was ready to reject the design summarily. How we finessed the final approval is another story.

Robert W. Doubek served in Vietnam in 1969 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force and was in charge of building the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall. He is the author of the book “Creating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: The Inside Story” (McFarland & Company).

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