In his article "Art Disputes War: The Battle of the Vietnam Memorial," Tom Wolfe wrote that only 26 of the 1,203 members of the Harvard class of 1968 served in Vietnam. Because of a typographical error, the class year printed in Style was incorrect.
This is the story of art experts and the Vietnam veterans -- and of how the veterans asked for a war memorial and wound up with an enormous pit they now refer to as a "tribute to Jane Fonda." In all likelihood the Tribute to Jane Fonda, which lies near the Lincoln Memorial, will be dedicated as a national monument on Nov. 11, and that will be that.
The facts in this curious case are as follows. The idea of a memorial was dreamed up by a small group of veterans living in the Washington area. One of them was Tom Carhart, a graduate of West Point's class of 1966. Back in November of 1965 Carhart had become a Legend in His Own Time, as the saying went, by leading a commando raid in which he and some brother cadets stole the Naval Academy's pet goat on the eve of the Army-Navy football game. So much for the high jinks. After that, life turned grisly for Carhart and his brethren of the class of 1966. One of every 19 members of the class was killed in combat in Vietnam. One of every six was either killed or wounded. Carhart himself was wounded twice.
Another of the little group of veterans was Jan Scruggs. Scruggs was from a working-class family in Bowie, Md., and went into the Army infantry straight out of high school. After months of constant combat in the bush in Vietnam, Scruggs was severely wounded and sent back to the United States. Carhart and Scruggs were typical of the two groups who did the fighting for the United States in Vietnam: the professional military and the proles. The sons of the merchant and managerial classes in America sat this one out, in college, graduate school, Canada and Sweden. Of the 1,203 members of the Harvard class of 1960, for example, 26 served in Vietnam and none of them got a scratch.
The tension between the young men who fought in Vietnam and those who didn't was one of those themes of a highly praised novel of the war, "Fields of Fire," by the man who was probably the best known of the group, James Webb. Webb was a Naval Academy graduate who had led a platoon of marines in Vietnam and been awarded the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts -- practically every medal for bravery short of the Medal of Honor. All of them, even those who no longer speak to each other, seem to look back upon the group's early meetings fondly. The meetings managed to bring alive two things that only men who had actually been through combat in Vietnam could understand. One was exhilarating. The other was so perverse, it was hard to deal with.
Both had to do with the fact that combat in Vietnam was as severe a test of manhood as any American warriors had ever been through. Twenty-four percent of all marines sent into combat in Vietnam were killed or wounded. It was the worst casualty rate in the history of the corps. Such were the statistics; the Army and Marine veterans themselves had seen the most riveting sort of graph out in the field. Periodically there would be ceremonial company roll calls. Those killed in action were represented by rifles with the bayonets stuck in the ground and the stocks up in the air with helmets up on top of them. To see half a company replaced by these ghastly dummies was nothing unusual.
Yet for the most part morale remained unbroken. Under the incessant threat of death, men formed especially close bonds of comradeship. The stories of self-sacrifice rivaled those of far more popular wars. Young men who passed Vietnam's horrifying tests of manly honor felt that they were part of a special, even elite, brotherhood, although the use of any such term would have been taboo.
That was why they found their reception in the United States after the war so perverse. The antiwar feelings back home and the antiwar movement, as a political development, were the least of it. The perverse part was something far more subtle.
In other American wars, such as the first and second World Wars, a big index finger, Uncle Sam's, so to speak, had pointed at all young men of the proper age who had not served in the armed forces. It was an accusing finger. He who did not serve had to come up with an explanation, for his family, his pals, his neighbors and, usually, himself. The amazing thing about the antiwar movement was not that it had aided the enemy -- which it had -- but that it had managed to swing the big finger 180 degrees in the other direction. On the campuses the New Left had succeeded in changing the great accusing question to: "You there, why did you serve?"
When Webb went across the country in 1979 on a promotion tour for "Fields of Fire," he kept having the same astonishing confrontation. Some perfectly well-intentioned and probably apolitical young man or woman would say: "You've written a novel. You're obviously an intelligent and sensitive man. So why on earth did you let them send you to Vietnam?"
And there you had it! They had done it! They were the best and the brightest, all right, these sons of the doctors and the lawyers and the CEOs and investment counselors who had dug in back there on the campuses during Vietnam! They were clever and resourceful, just as they had been reared and educated to be! They had not only been smart enough to duck the threat of death in combat -- they had also managed to shift the onus onto those who fought. Never mind Ho Chi Minh and socialism and napalmed babies and the rest of it. The unspeakable and inconfessible goal of the New Left on the campuses had been to transform the shame of the fearful into the guilt of the courageous. And they had won their war! Such was the secret triumph of Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, William Sloane Coffin and the rest!
Most veterans who wanted a Vietnam war memorial entertained no hopes of refighting that battle. But they did want to remove the stigma from men who, as they saw it, had served their country honorably. They kept talking about a memorial "to honor and recognize those who served in Vietnam"; and, indeed, that phrase was written into the congressional mandate authorizing the veterans to erect the memorial on a choice stretch of Capital park land between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.
Most of them, if the truth be known, had only a passing interest in "remembering the dead." They wanted to remove the big accusing index finger from those who had returned from Vietnam and were living in its shadow.
They had in mind a statue, like the Iwo Jima Memorial of the second World War or the Grand Army Plaza memorial of the Civil War. Carhart himself would eventually enter the competition for the memorial, even though he had never done a work of art before in his life. He came up with a clay model of an Army officer in jungle fatigues lifting up a wounded enlisted man toward Heaven. It was an amateurish piece of work but its approach represented what most of the group probably expected: a realistic statue dramatizing the anguish and intimate bonds of the men who fought against horrifying odds in the bush in Vietnam -- something that would announce, symbolically, that the accusing finger was no longer pointed perversely toward them.
The veterans could have gotten any kind of sculpture they wanted -- since they paid for the memorial with money they raised by themselves -- had they not come up with the bright idea of turning the choice over to a jury of art experts. But that they did. They approached a Washington landcape architect named Paul Spreiregen, whose specialty was arranging architectural competitions.
Spreiregen set up a nationwide competition, open to any American, and presented the veterans with a pool of nearly 30 eminences of the art world, from which they picked eight jurors: landscape architects Hideo Sasaki and Garrett Eckbo; architects Harry Weese and Pietro Belluschi; sculptors Constantino Nivola, James Rosati and Richard Hunt; and Grady Clay, editor of the magazine Landscape Architecture. The veterans were delighted. Over their long and distinguished careers these men had won enough gold medals to light up a hallway. Certainly they were mature. Their average age was 65. They were the elder statesmen of their world.
The catch was that the veterans didn't have the faintest notion of what . . . their world . . . was like. It turned out to be a world as bizarre and totally removed from the rest of American life an anything any soldier had ever run into in Vietnam.
Aside from Hunt, who was only 45, the judges of the Vietnam memorial competition had been young men, students in most cases, when Europe and modernism had swept through the arts in America in the 1930s and 1940s. The look of modernism is familiar to anyone with the slightest interest in contemporary art: the abstract sculpture, the two-dimensional and usually abstract paintings, the so-called glass-box buildings wth flat roofs, sheer fac,ades, and no decoration. Not so well known is the peculiar mental atmosphere that arrived with the glass boxes and the abstract art.
At the major universities, such as Harvard, modernism was regarded not as a style but as the millennium. The result was a Savonarola -- or Red Guard-style cultural revolution. Students drew up manifestoes and refused any longer to undertake such laborious and superannuated tasks as China-wash renderings of classical and beaux-arts details. Professors who persisted in the old methods and models were forced out. Other faculty members either caved in or were swept up themselves in the fervor.
The two most eminent historians of European modernism, Nikolaus Pevsner and Siegfried Gideon, actually encouraged students to ignore architectural history that did not lead in a straight line to modernism. Janitors were instructed to throw out the plaster casts, those thousands of Corinthian capitals and Esquiline vases and whatnot that students had been using as models for drawing. For that matter, the hell with drawing itself. It was an outmoded requirement. Modernism was abstract. For a talented student to concentrate on human anatomy and drawing and sculpting from live models might even retard his imagination in the new era. Students who were so bourgeois, so weighed down by the dead hand of the past, as to value the art of the human figure above all else -- these poor devils were quietly advised to move on and seek instruction elsewhere.
And of what were the arts being so earnestly purged? Why, of "bourgeois taste." This was a notion that had been imported from Europe along with the styles. The term "bourgeois" meant little enough in Europe. It meant absolutely nothing in the United States, where there had never been an aristocracy or even a stable upper class, much less a bourgeoisie to contrast it with. Here "bourgeois" quickly came to refer to nothing more than the tastes and habits of everyone not involved in the art world; which is to say, the public at large.
Just what was purely non-bourgeois was a source of unending debates. But certain things were indisputably and hopelessly bourgeois: among them, beaux-arts buildings with their fussy columns and pediments and quoins and groins, realistic paintings with their pat little scenes and cozy emotions -- and statues of realistic human figures. Statues of heroic soldiers were the most inutterably bourgeois of all.
By the last 1940s the universities were turning out students who acted as if modernism were encoded in their genes. You could put a gun at the temple of one of the new breed and you couldn't make him sculpt a realistic figure of a soldier to put up on a pedestal. Such a thing seemed so immoral -- yes, immoral! -- he could not generate the motor impulse necessary to compel his hand to undertake the task.
The judges of the Vietnam memorial competition were, for the most part, men whose outlooks had been formed in those years when the millennial flame burned hottest. All of them (even Nivola and Belluschi, who were born abroad) were students or teachers at Harvard, Yale, or MIT. Nivola and Rosati became orthodox abstract sculptors, school-of-Brancusi. Hunt, the youngest juror, did abstract steel pieces. Weese and Belluschi were orthodox Bauhaus-style glass-box architects. Sasaki and Eckbo were the very archetypes of the two reigning modernist orthodoxies in landscape architecture, which were known as Bauhaus Outside and California Curvy Wurvy.
One cannot presume to read the minds of these men. But from all outward appearances they are the typical successful sons of millennial modernism. Men of their age who rose to success in the art world seldom did so by displaying the anarchic instincts of that 19th-century figure, the genius. They made it by displaying the absolutely orthodox instincts of a mullah. To this day Belluschi, for example, is infuriated by even the timid departure from orthodox modernism represented by the so-called post-modern movement.
By the late 1950s the orthodox modernists were in their forties and fifties. They were becoming the art establishment. But what did their orthodoxy mean? It meant that they were committed, by the sincerest of principles, to non-bourgeois art. Which is to say, art that baffled the general public. If it also annoyed the public, that was a wholesome sign. There was much more that could be said about the modernist approach, of course; but non-bourgeois purity remained always an essential precondition. The word "bourgeois" gradually withered away. The nonbourgeois attitude, however, only became more fierce as the years went by. So what one had by the late 1950s was an art world whose reigning eminences were dedicated to art that baffled or annoyed the public.
So long as the game of non-bourgeois was confined to the galleries, museums and university art departments, it made little difference. But what was going to happen if governments, corporations, institutions or Vietnam veterans turned to the mullahs for guidance when they had the civic itch to erect a public monument in the middle of town? It would mean they were turning to men who were profoundly dedicated to artworks that baffled or annoyed the public . . . and asking them to provide the public with works of art. One might assume that the most stupefying sort of collisions would occur.
And occur they did, with stunning regularity. The history of American public sculpture since the 1950s, when the mullahs rose to their eminence, is one of the most ludicrous chapters in the history of Western art. The fun began in a big way in 1959 with the competition for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial. The public (bourgeoisie, if one insists) was waiting for some classic FDR . . . Roosevelt with his great leonine head thrown back, his prognathous grin and cigarette holder, his cape with the silk frogging . . . and what the public got was eight enormous upright abstract marble slabs that became known as "Instant Stonehenge." The Roosevelt family and most of the Congress were furious. Instant Stonehenge was never erected. What else was available? Nothing. All 10 of the entries rated highest by the jury were abstract. One was by Hideo Sasaki. The chairman of the jury was Pietro Belluschi.
Since then, fiasco has followed upon fiasco (and the game has by no means run its course).
Six years ago the City Council of Hartford, Conn., decided to erect a major piece of sculpture in the center of town and turned to the art experts for guidance. The mullahs duly considered the problem and one day a sculptor named Carl Andre arrived and deposited 36 large but ordinary rocks on the ground and named them the "Stone Field" and presented the City Council with a bill for $87,000. The councilmen began banging their heads with the heels of their hands and making imaginary snowballs, while the citizens hooted and jeered and called them imbeciles. But they paid up, nonetheless, and the rocks are still there.
Last year the art experts were called in to provide a piece of plaza sculpture for the new Javits Federal Building in Manhattan. So one nice summer day at noontime all the desk captains and Xerox machine tenders went out to the little brick-and-concrete plaza in front of the building to do the usual, namely, eat their tuna puffs and drink their Shastas, and there was a wall of steel, 12 feet high and 120 feet long, running through the middle of the place and smacking you right in the face. They couldn't believe it. The freaking thing made the Berlin Wall look like a white picket fence. Thirteen hundred of the building's employes signed a petition asking the General Services Administration to get it out of there. But the GSA said they had the solemn assurance of the art experts that this was, in fact, an important work by the renowned sculptor Richard Serra and would provide them with a "learning experience." Serra himself said it would "redefine the space" for them and indicated it would help wean them away from a culture dominated by "advertising and corporations." The black wall is still there.
Here one gets a good whiff of the attitude of the mullahs themselves toward the fact that for the last quarter-century the American public has despised or been bewildered by the public sculpture they, the experts, have chosen. The mullahs are not fazed. After all, they are missionaries! They regard it as their mission to bring the arcane principles of modernism out of the museums and galleries and onto the streets and to impress them upon the consciousness of the public, whether the poor beast likes it or not. But shouldn't public sculpture delight the public or inspire the public or at least remind the public of cherished traditions? Nonsense. Why reinforce the bourgeoisie's pathetic illusions?
So the incicient of the Tribute to Jane Fonda was inevitable once the art experts were brought in. In a blind selection (no names were allowed on the entries) the eight judges chose the pit designed by Maya Ying Lin, a 22-year-old Yale student who had first done the design for a course in funerary architecture at Yale. The pit is 10 feet deep and 450 feet across with a polished black granite wall shoring up one side and bearing the names of the 57,000 servicemen who died in Vietnam (all entries were required to allow for this). The Lin design ruled out any flag; and nowhere on the memorial was any reference to be made to the war in Vietnam. Visitors were to walk down into the pit and come upon a black wall bearing the names of 57,000 dead men (and a few women)--with no explanation as to how, much less why, such a dreadful hecatomb took place.
Veterans like Carhart and Webb were dumbfounded and then outraged. Far from "honoring" and "recognizing" those who served in Vietnam, the Lin design simply buried the dead of Vietnam, put them in a pit, below ground, in funereal black, as part of something too horrible and shameful to be mentioned by name or even associated with the American flag.
Carhart delivered a long statement before a hearing of the national Commission of Fine Arts in which he called the Lin design "a black hole" that was "directly and intentionally insulting to all who served in Vietname." The Marine Corps League withdrew its support for the memorial, calling it "a tribute to Jane Fonda." All they could see was a natural meeting ground and wailing wall for the draft dodgers and New Lefters of the future. The great majority of Vietnam veterans appeared to agree, judging by a poll of 250 former prisoners of war taken by the Gallup organization and underwritten by H. Ross Perot, who had put up $160,000 to pay for the jury competition.
Fifty-six percent believed the memorial would appeal specifically to those who had not served in Vietnam; only 18 percent thought it might appeal to those who had fought the war. Ninety-six percent thought the memorial should have a flag; 82 percent thought the monument should be above the ground rather than under it; 70 percent thought it should be white, not black.
By early this year the anger of the veterans had forced a compromise. A flag, a realistic statue and an inscription concerning Vietnam and including the word "honor" would be added to the Maya Lin design. The statue would be by Frederick Hart, a 38-year-old Washington artist who had designed the only piece of realistic sculpture that appeared among the 10 entries rated highest by the judges. The other nine entries were abstract, and Hart's sculpture (of two soldiers coming to the aid of a third) was merely part of a large scheme by a team of landscape architects. Hart was best known in Washington as the sculptor of a frieze called "Creation" at the Washington National Cathedral.
To accompany the Lin wall, Hart designed a group of three young soldiers in jungle combat gear, carrying rifles. There would be no pedestal and practically no base; the three youths, only slightly larger than life-sized, would appear to be walking along the ground about 150 feet away from the wall and turning their heads toward it, as if they had just come upon the amazing black object sunk 10 feet in the ground and stretching the length of a city block, which turns out to be the tombstone of all 57,000 of their dead comrades.
Since the figures were to be so small and would be set half the length of a football field away from the wall, one might think that this would be a modest enough addition, if it pleased the client--in this case the Vietnam veterans. The Grand Army Plaza memorial in Brooklyn, built at the urging of Civil War veterans, combined the work of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead (designer of Central Park), John Duncan (designer of Grant's Tomb) and three sculptors, Frederick MacMonnies, William O'Donovan and Thomas Eakins (who is best known as a painter). The design was altered many times and took more than three decades, 1870-1901, to complete. But, then, that was a good 40 years before the mental atmospheres of the mullahs had closed over the art world like a 7-foot-6-inch Bauhaus ceiling.
Over the past two months art mullahs of every description have begun a holy war against the addition of the statue. The president of the American Institute of Architects, Robert M. Lawrence, has sent out a call to architects all over the country to lobby against the three hateful figures. The rhetoric of the campaign is fascinating and revealing. Lawrence speaks of "this trio of soldiers" who will "cut the soul out of" Maya Lin's design, causing a "breach of faith." Lin said the three soldiers would "make it appear they're going to shoot you when you start walking down toward the walls." Grady Play, one of the eight judges, called the three soldiers "an outrage" being "foisted on" a "great work of beauty." Paul Spreiregen, who had set up the competition, said that "soldiers coming out of the trees" near Lin's wall would constitute an "outrageous desecration."
It was marvelous! "Soul" . . . "faith" . . . "desecration" . . . it was the language of religion and of religious fervor, obviously. But the religion of what? Some of the veterans, being unfamiliar with the art world, thought there was some morbid anti-militarism at work here in all the scathing and snearing references to "the soldiers." Some even began to believe that it is what motivated the judges in the first place (especially after it was discovered that two of them had spoken out against the war during the late 1960s, and one had lent his name to petitions encouraging draft resistors). Ah . . . but little did they know the soul, the faith, the consecration of the art world!
In the United States prestigious artists and architects are seldom profoundly political. Their political sense and their moral sense are bound instead in the orthodoxy of the art world itself. There is the truth, the light, and the flag. When the eight judges chose Maya Lin's buried wall, it must have been as natural as breathing. What she had designed was a perfect piece of sculptural orthodoxy for the early 1980s. The style of sculpture the mullahs today regard as most pure (most non-bourgeois) is minimal sculpture. The perfect minimal sculpture is an elemental, even banal, form comprised solely of straight lines and flat planes (this year curves and waves are bourgeois). It must also "express its gravity." It must hug the ground or the floor of the gallery or else be propped up against the gallery wall. "This year bases or any other form of support are bourgeois." Lin proved to be a model student of this year's orthodoxy. Her work was not only elemental and composed soley of straight lines and planes -- it also expressed its gravity with breathtaking virtuosity. It did not merely "hug the ground," like Carl Andre's rocks in Hartford -- it entered it! -- it began the ultimate journey of today's sculptural orthodoxy down toward the molten core of the earth . . . where gravity begins!
There . . . one had orthodoxy in all its pristine rigor. As for a realistic statue of three soldiers -- well, my god, it was enough to make one's flesh crawl. The idea was not nearly bourgeois, it was a very archetype of the bourgeois in sculpture and had been for 50 years. A statue of heroic soldiers . . . how very -- how inutterably bourgeois.
But what about the Vietnam veterans and all their problems and their feelings of rejection and their hopes for a symbol of "honor" and "recognition." Nonsense. Why reinforce the bourgeoisie's pathetic illusions? Something more important by far for the veterans and the American public was at stake here. Here was the perfect opportunity to bring the millenial message of the museums and the galleries out onto the highway, or the parkland of life. And please -- let's hear no more about flags or, God forbid, soldiers.
As for the veterans, they, like the city fathers of Hartford, will now have a chance to bang their heads with the heels of their hands and make imaginary snowballs and look at their wall. Far from lifting the accusing finger from those who fought in Vietnam -- it will be the big forefinger's final perverse prank.
A tribute to Jane Fonda!