Seven years after the end of the Vietnam war, hawks and doves seem agreed that the veterans who never got their parades must not be forgotten.
Now, after 70 years of abstract art, the conflict is likely to be over a modern or traditional design.
The advocates of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial have received an overwhelmingly favorable reply to 200,000 fund-raising letters mailed early this year. They plan to send a million more letters on Memorial Day.
By that time, they say, the Senate is likely to have passed a resolution authorizing a privately funded memorial in Constitution Gardens on the Mall. a
The Senate resolution was introduced by Sen. Charles Mathias (R-Md.) and is backed by the entire senatorial spectrum, from George McGovern (D-S.D.) to Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.). A House resolution introduced by Rep. Paul Hammerschmidt (D-Ark.) is equally broad.
The idea for the memorial originated with Jan C. Scruggs, a Vietnam veteran, and some of his buddies. The Scruggs group does not wish to make a political statement about the war, the longest in our history. It simply believes that the 2.7 million men and women who served, the 300,000 who were wounded, the 70,000 who were disabled and the 57,000 who died deserve to be remembered even though many of us wish this war to be forgotten.
The Vietnam Veteran Memorial Fund was organized a year ago. Except for a salaried executive director, Robert W. Doubek, it consists entirely of volunteers. They work, in the words of Sen. Mathias, to create "a symbol of reconciliation and reunion that preserves us as a nation."
The fund would like to see the memorial in Constitution Gardens, the newly landscaped part of Washington's Mall along Constitution Avenue west of 17th Street, because it is close to the Lincoln Memorial, which symbolizes reconciliation after the Civil War.
The fund's plans call for a "landscape solution," a two-acre garden inviting visitors and passers-by to enter, rest, and contemplate. Its foremost feature should be the inscription of the names of all 57,661 Americans known to have died in Vietnam.
But Scruggs and his friends would also like to see "a sculptural statement, in one or more pieces, symbolizing the experience of Americans who served in Vietnam."
By law, the design is subject to the approval of the Fine Arts and National Capital Planning commissions, the National Park Service and the National Capital Memorial Advisory Committee.
So far, nothing has been said as to who might design the memorial or even how its designer or designers should be selected. That's a tough one, because if this memorial is to be a symbol of reconciliation, it must also reconcile established notions of "good art" and popular notions of meaningful art.
Our last experience along these lines -- the attempt to build a memorial for Franklin D. Roosevelt -- was a monumental disaster.
That was not for lack of trying. The FDR Memorial Commission was guided by the most distinguished advisory committee the art and architecture establishment could come up with at the time. It included the then-dean of architecture at MIT, Pietro Belluschi; historian-philosopher Lewis Mumford; the then-head of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Hideo Sasaki, and the head of the fine arts school at the University of Pennsylvania, G. Holmes Perkins.
Right from the start, this committee decided FDR should be honored by a work of art on Washington's Mall rather than by naming an airport, psychiatric hospital or some other "living memorial" after him.
The committee also decided that the design should be chosen in a national competition. The jury, also, consisted only of members of the art and architecture establishment. The style of the winning design was inevitably the established style.
It emerged from 574 submissions, distilled to six finalists. I happened to like it very much. But I am afraid that, aside from the jury, the designers and their mothers, I was the only one in the country.
Another able critic instantly dubbed the design "Instant Stonehenge" and "bookends out of a deep freeze." The epithets caused such hilarity that no one really looked at the design. It was laughed out of court.
Another proposal, commissioned from Marcel Breuer, the internationally famous architect, fared no better. All Breuer got for his trouble was a rude rejection slip from the Fine Arts Commission.
A third attempt, an elaborate outdoor museum with audio-visual gimmicks of all kinds, commissioned from San Francisco landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, was not even rejected. It just died in the budgeting process.
The truth is nobody wanted another big monument on the Mall, particularly not a modern monument.
Perhaps Lewis Mumford was right when he said: "The notion of a modern monument is veritably a contradiction in terms; if it is a monument it is not modern, and if it is modern, it cannot be a monument."
The last time we tried an old-fashioned monument, it did not work so well, either. What we got was mawkish photo-realism in bronze: Felix W. de Weldon's life-sized, three-dimensional rendering of AP photographer Joe Rosenthal's Pulitzer Prize-winning news picture of those marines on Iwo Jima.
The tourists love it, maybe. But those who think of themselves as being "serious about art" hold their noses. The word is "kitsch."
But then again, plain folks are likely to greet "serious art," as currently established in America, with the "my-3-year-old-could-do-better-than-that" refrain.
In other countries, however, there is no such polarization and our time has produced monuments that are neither modern nor not modern. They are simply emotionally moving.
The Fosse Ardeatine, near Rome, is one example. It is an enormous granite slab hovering above rows upon rows of stone coffins. The coffins hold the remains of Italian villagers, held hostage and then murdered by the Nazis.
Another example is a sculpture by Ossip Zadkine in Rotterdam. It is called "May 1940" and memoralizes the month in which the Luftwaffe all but destroyed that city. Zadkine evokes that memory with a semi-abstract human figure torn by such overwhelming despair that you seem to hear it cry out in unbearable pain.
The simplest yet most haunting memorials I have seen, or rather "experienced," is nothing but a dark space built of rough boulders. It is the "Hall of Remembrance" on Har Hazikaron in Jerusalem. On its somber mosaic floor are inscribed the names of 21 of the largest Nazi death camps.
None of these -- and there are other gripping monuments -- is "good art" or popular art, abstract or representational, "modern" or "traditional." They are simply powerful ideas translated into a powerful emotional experience.
And that is what I think the Vietnam Veterans Memorial group needs.
To elicit powerful ideas, there must be a competition. It would be corrupt for some more or less self-appointed committee to pick some favorite.
The key to a successful competition is a good jury, made up not exclusively of experts, professionals and the art and architecture establishment, but representative of the American people. It should include men and women of different backgrounds, callings and tastes, devoid of a vested interest in any particular style or any notion what is "good art."
This jury, probably with the help of the agencies that must later pass on the final design, should write a specific program for the memorial, a prescription of what is wanted, particularly in terms of the scale and the message to be conveyed.
The competition should be open to any American artist, architect or landscape architect with professional credentials or any team of artists of which one member is a registered architect or landscape architect. First-phase entries, however, should be limited to a small number of conceptual sketches and a very brief description. If that does not tell the story, it is not worth telling.
From these sketches, the jury would select six finalists. The ultimate selection of the jury should be binding (with minor modifications if absolutely necessary), because there is no point in holding a competition if its result is disregarded.
The emphasis should be on simplicity. As I think about the Vietnam memorial, Augustus Saint Gaudens' Adams Monument in Rock Creek Cemetery keeps coming to mind.
Created in memory of the wife of Henry Adams, the memorial represents a draped bronze figure, sitting in a shaded roomlike, landscaped space. The figure is so steeped in contemplative sorrow, that Mark Twain said it embodied all of human grief.