At a meeting of the Commission of Fine Arts last October, a Vietnam veteran delivered a passionate denunciation of the war memorial whose design the commission already had approved. "Black walls," he said, "the universal color of shame and sorrow and degradation."
This unfortunate if strongly felt refrain was picked up by opponents of Maya Lin's competition-winning design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Today, because a few of them are rich and a few are congressmen who managed to get the ear of a headstrong secretary of the interior, these opponents are busily engaged in forcing through a "compromise" design that promises to muck up an extraordinary work of memorial art.
The Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission have been asked to approve this disastrous compromise, and on Thursday the NCPC fell into step by approving, in "concept," the addition of a statue of a serviceman somewhere in front of the intersecting walls of polished black granite that are the essence of the original design.
The commissioners could not swallow the pill without insisting that "the additional features be located and designed so as not to compromise or diminish the basic design of the memorial as previously approved." This language may salve consciences but it is undeniably contradictory.
Black is indeed the color of sorrow and of mourning, but not of shame. In Lin's design those black walls, engraved with the names of our Vietnam dead, will emerge from the earth with a healing force and speak, as columnist James J. Kilpatrick observed on Veterans Day last, "with a poignant, almost unbearable eloquence." To transform those noble walls into a backdrop for a lonely statue is an absurdity that ought not be countenanced. To do so would be the true shame.