AT FIRST GLANCE, it would seem that To Heal a Nation, the saga of the intense battle over the building of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam, have little in common. One reveals relic letters of the past. The other recounts the struggle later waged to memorialize the dead. But ultimately these two books are intertwined.
Dear America concludes with this letter from a mother to her long-dead son:
" . . . I came to this black wall again to see and touch your name, and as I do I wonder if anyone ever stops to realize that next to your name, on this black wall, is your mother's heart. A heart broken 15 years ago today, when you lost your life in Vietnam." She ends: "But this I know. I would rather to have had you for 21 years, and all the pain that goes with losing you, than never to have had you at all."
Millions of relatives, veterans, friends and observers have wept and touched those names daily since the memorial was dedicated in 1982. But there is a cliffhanger story about this memorial -- a memorial now so popular it completely transcends the bitter battle told in this chronological recounting.
Jan Scruggs, a wounded Vietnam veteran and son of a milkman, had a true-grit dream about building a memorial after a flashback one night in 1979, in which bodies of friends were scattered, bloodied on the ground. Scruggs was helpless, with but one bandage. He screamed for help. After the dream he sat in distress thinking that nobody remembers the names. Nobody. Scruggs told his wife he was going to put the name of everyone who was killed in Vietnam on a memorial. Even his wife smiled a tolerant smile. Scruggs never imagined the dogged years of anxiety and frustration, the roller-coaster of small victories and large defeats to follow.
Scruggs held a press conference -- although he had never even been to one -- and naively told reporters that the only problem would be raising too much money. Months later the grand sum collected was $144.50. Then came incredible struggles: Pleading with uninterested congressmen (with the exception of Senators Charles Mathias and John Warner) to co-sign a bill for a memorial. A fight over the monument ground -- the first suggestion was to stick it somewhere on the road to Arlington. Scruggs and associates Robert W. Doubek and John P.Wheeler III wanted a monument that would bring reconciliation. Refighting the war was what they got. Hawks wouldn't send a red cent because peace candidate George McGovern's name was on the letterhead. Lettrs yelled that Vietnam veterans were a bunch of crybabies. Veterans wrote that they needed jobs more than monuments.
Finally in June of 1980 President Carter signed a bill setting aside two acres on the mall near the Lincoln Memorial. At the suggestion of one donor, Texas millionaire H. Ross Perot, Scruggs sought money from former government officials who got America involved in Vietnam. He called former Defense Secretary Robert M. McNamara and, blunt as ever, explained "we need big bucks." McNamara said they would talk. Scruggs never heard from him again.
Maya Lin's winning design -- two black granite walls, starting at ground level and rising to 10 feet at their apex, touched off one huge mortar round. Scruggs had worried that the antiwar people would be the enemy. Instead, the enemy turned out to be right-wing veterans -- albeit only a handful. Exaggerated in importance by the media, they came close to halting the monument. The ancient artistic disagreement about realism versus abstractionism was heightened by divisions over what the monument "said" about war. Critics wanted white marble and soldiers. They called the monument a black ditch, symbolizing only death. "They wanted the Memorial to make Vietnam what it had never been in reality: a good, clean, glorious war seen as necessary and supported by a united country," wrote Swerdlow, a John Wayne movie come to life.
The terms of the memorial agreement explain why a mere handful could so nearly destroy this remarkable and emotional addition to Washington's pigeon flecked men-on-horseback monuments. The design had to be approved by the Fine Arts Commission, the National Capital Planning Commission, and, above all, by then Secretary of Interior James Watt. "A wild man," writes Swerdlow, "he held life or death power" over the memorial. Watt once screamed at Scruggs, "There are 200 ways that I can kill that design and I am tempted to prove that to you."
The working compromise was to add a realistic statue of three soldiers and, nearby, a flag.
To Heal a Nation has its flaws. There is little reflection and some of the minutiae of the infighting will lose the casual reader. Uninteresting black-and-white photos of the men who played a part in the struggle are unnecessary. But strength comes from the photos of people at the memorial -- men in wheelchairs, mothers' faces shattered by grief, a soldier in combat fatigues sobbing against the wall. Every name on the wall is listed in a special section of the book.
For all its flaws, this book is vital. As the Vietnam Memorial becomes the most moving monument this city has ever known, it is important to remember the dedication of those who, against the smaller minded, fought -- and won.
THE NAMES of many of the men who speak in Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam are on the memorial. Some of them had premonitions about death. "We're all scared . . . As of now, fear is in me. I hope I can keep it from possessing me." So wrote Pfc William A. Maguire Jr. He died on September 28, 1979. He was 20. Had been in Vietnam four weeks.
This kaleidoscope of letters written to commemorate the dedication in New York City of a Vietnam memorial?? details desolation, loneliness, homesickness, the futility of "chasing Charlie," the horific devastation of losing countless friends at Khe Sanh. The letters speak of the beauty of Vietnamese women, the plight of orphans. "I went down to this orphanage the other day, and these little kids are pitiful," writes Pfc Dan Bailey to his mother."(They) don't get hardly anything to eat . . . I want you to tell everyone to help them . . . because I feel I may have killed some of their parents and it makes me feel sick to know they have to go on with nothing."
Some correspondents are antiwar, some believe in it. Some hate antiwar protesters. Many seem simply confused or disillusioned. One could write "the frightening thing about it all is that it is so very easy to kill in war. There is no remorse, no theatrical 'washing of the hands' . . . not even any regrets." Then comes an opposing view. "I can't accept the fact of the human damage. Not just the dead, but the GIs who can't talk in coherent sentences any more . . . I feel like I'm at the bottom of a great sewer."
Sometimes the grimmest details were written in staccato panic. "I can't help but cry and wonder how I am still alive . . . In my squad of nine, only four of us survived . . . I can't help crying now because I think about the horror of those three days . . ."
Someone named Johnny Boy wrote to the mother of a friend who was killed. "What can I say to fill the void? . . . I'm sick both physically and mentally . . . All of us are in this general condition . . . All we can do is count the days till we go home. We're all in desperate need of love. When we go to Saigon, we spend all our money on women and beer . . . I can't stand being alone at night. I'm hollow, Mrs. Perko. I'm a shell, and when I'm scared I rattle. I'm no one to tell you about your son. I can't. I'm sorry."
This book deliberately begins with the arrival of raw young men in Vietnam, builds to combat, life in the rear, and then moves toward agonizing questions about why we were there. It suffers from excess in the early section which is filled with its repetitious "Hi, Mom, I've finally arrived" banalities.
But the book's strength is in its diversity. There is also a warming touch -- notations after many letters relate that the men are alive and well today -- lawyers and business executives, maitre d's and firemen.
Recent polls indicate veterans feel better about their tour of duty than these letters indicate. Yet, in-depth interviews in some current books echo the same feelings as in these letters. Either pollsters are finding veterans for whom time has faded the wounds or they are not plumbing deeper emotions.
But this book tells of an ache as ancient as time -- adolescents off to war with high expectations, who soon change greatly. Ambiguities abound -- from pain, disillusionment and sorrow for dead comrades to a hard-earned measure of individual strength and survival.