The power of the wall, the sheer emotional force of great civic art in the right place at the right time, is well known by all who have been there. Maya Lin's apt, simple, stunning conception for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has passed the test of time.
How long ago, and how mistaken, now seems the fiery antagonism it once aroused. It would be a "black gash of shame," shouted veteran Tom Carhart. It would become a "wailing wall for anti-draft demonstrations," predicted "Fields of Fire" author James Webb. To build it would be "to memorialize 57,000 war casualties with something resembling an erosion control project," wrote architecture critic Paul Gapp.
But if these criticisms, after only six years, already seem definitively outdated, the wall continues to suffer slings and arrows, potentially harmful despite being well intended. There are at present two meddlesome proposals awaiting action by the Congress, each with strong bipartisan support and each proposing to complete the memorial by adding elements to it.
As if this great statement of sorrow and healing were somehow incomplete. It is a sad, tiresome irony: The very success of the memorial has made it irresistible to factions that would reduce the beauty, the force, the cohesiveness of the object of their professed affections.
A Senate bill, introduced by Sens. David Durenberger (R-Minn.) and Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) with 40 cosponsors, strongly urges the addition of a statue of an Army nurse. Committee hearings will be held on this measure Feb. 23.
A House bill conceived by Rep. Robert Dornan (R-Calif.), with nearly half of that august body signing on to cosponsor, proposes that a standard flying the American flag be placed at the memorial's most prominent point, where the two slices of the wall come together. There's some concern that with so many sponsors, this resolution could be brought to the House floor for action without hearings.
Things do get curiouser and curiouser on Capitol Hill. It's as if there were no memory at all up there of the original intentions for the memorial and the tremendous struggle to preserve the integrity of Lin's concept while making room for a flag standard and Frederick Hart's statue of three servicemen. That these elements do work together to form a mighty whole is something of a miracle, and one that certainly can be undone by further political tinkering.
The Senate bill endorses the proposal advanced by the Vietnam Women's Memorial Project with the support of Interior Secretary Donald Hodel, who heads one of the three government bodies whose approval is required by law. The other two, whose principal mandates are the esthetic and planning issues of the capital city, already have rejected the idea.
Last October the Commission of Fine Arts voted it down. Last month, after discussing the issue in executive session, the National Capital Planning Commission informed Hodel that its members are opposed "to any further additions to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial site, regardless of their design, location or subject matter."
There are very good reasons to take such a position, none having to do with disrespect for the flag or the contributions of the 10,000 or so women who served in Vietnam.
Despite the precedent created by the original compromise on this memorial design, the policy of allowing esthetic matters to be decided by legislative fiat is extremely questionable. Congress can order or approve the erection of a memorial, but it is ill equipped to determine its design and placement -- these are crucial artistic decisions and should be left to artists overseen by agencies established for that specific purpose. This is a procedure wisely followed by the Congress for all recent memorials, with the singular exception of the one for the Vietnam vets.
Similarly, it is ludicrous for Congress to assume the responsibility to declare an existing memorial "complete," as this Senate bill does, after the addition of just one more little ol' statue. Obviously a ploy to disarm critics of the nurse sculpture, who pointed out that the tree-lined ridge in Constitution Gardens was big enough to accommodate an entire platoon of statues honoring specific military and even nonmilitary specialties, this portion of the bill begs the essential question of whether such a statue is at all needed.
The truth is, it isn't. Not only is it not needed, but to construct it would subtly yet conclusively alter the symbolism embodied in the finely tuned spatial sequence of this memorial. It's useful to return to Lin's original words, describing her entry to the competition for the memorial design.
In this gentle green setting, she wrote, "the memorial appears as a rift in the earth -- a long, polished black stone wall emerging from and receding into the earth." The names inscribed on the wall (a listing of which was a competition requirement) would begin at the center with that of the first American to die, and end at the center with the last, and "thus the war's beginning and end meet; the war is 'complete,' coming full circle yet broken by the earth that bounds the angle's open side, and contained within the earth itself."
We now know just how predictive of the final effect was her poetic conception, and how finely these forms and spaces honor the "men and women" who served (as it says on the wall). We also know how splendidly were placed the added features of Hart's sculpture and the flagpole, to form an entryway to the wall, to complement rather than compete with this central spatial sequence. The memorial is big, sure, encompassing 2.2 acres, but there really is no good place to plop down another statue there -- it'll seem like a curious and unnecessary afterthought.
But if it's possible to sympathize with the intentions of those pushing for the women's statue, Rep. Dornan's flag-waving proposal can only be viewed with puzzlement and scorn -- the former because it so wrongheadedly misinterprets a memorial the congressman deems his "favorite place in the whole city," the latter because in his remarks on the House floor he meanly attacked Lin, the person he most should thank. She was just "some 21-year-old architect who knew nothing about the struggle in Indochina," he said, who, "to use her own words," decided the memorial was to be " 'a black gash' in the earth, a symbol of sadness and shame." Obviously, these peculiar sentiments are Dornan's, not Lin's.
Dornan's proposal, of course, simply resurrects the notion of the wall's original opponents concerning the placement of the flag. They wanted the flag atop the wall, as if it were a pedestal, and the soldiers out in the middle of the field, as if the wall were a fortress to be attacked -- never mind the esthetic and symbolic absurdities of such an arrangement.
The really sad part, though, is that today so many of Dornan's fellow solons would subscribe to such nonsense. What we're seeing in both houses of Congress is a sort of political free ride, a chance to gain some votes by appearing to make a big stand in favor of women, or Old Glory, without having to face or even to care about other consequences, such as the harm done to a monumental work of art.
Fortunately, the two commissions whose job it is to care have stood up pretty well to such political pressures. One can only wonder, though, how many times this dreary game will have to be played before all realize that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is complete, already.