WHAT IS THE MEANING of the current controversy over the design of the proposed Vietnam memorial to be built on the Mall? Is this just another case of self- pitying Vietnam veterans whining and whimpering and wallowing in Weltschmerz? Will we never be satisfied by anySeveral years ago, a group of Vietnam veterans coalesced into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, with the stated purpose of building a memorial to Vietnam veterans. I worked with the memorial fund as a volunteer. We received the support of all 100 senators and an overwhelming majority of the House. The bill they passed, signed into law by President Carter, authorized a memorial in West Potomac Park "in honor and recognition of the men and women of the armed forces of the United States who served in the Vietnam war."

That is the license from the U.S. government for the fund to build this memorial. It says nothing about any special treatment for the dead, such as a listing of their names. It says nothing about the need to "authentically capture the national feeling about Vietnam" or "make a statement about our collective memory," to quote William Greider's Outlook column last Sunday. It says nothing about "providing deserved tribute to those who did not survive," or a requirement to "offer only the names of the dead ... theirs was the ultimate sacrifice -- it is to them that honor is due," as James J. Kilpatrick wrote in his Veterans Day column in The Washington Post.

Yes, honor is due to the 57,000 who gave their lives in Vietnam -- but this memorial is also intended, by law, to honor the 2.5 million of us who rendered faithful service in Vietnam and came home. What of us -- are we really to feel honored by a black ditch?

How did this happen? What went wrong?

In order to choose the design for the memorial, the fund held an open competition and received 1,421 entries. The jury which selected the winner was made up of architects and artists, but none of them was a Vietnam veteran. It is accepted practice in competitions of this sort to include members of the subject class -- here, Vietnam veterans -- on the jury that chooses the winner.

The failure to do so only emphasized the dual nature of that war. The jurors could know nothing of the military war in Vietnam, but they were obviously caught up, as everyone was, in the political war that raged through this country. This means that any winner they chose would necessarily reflect their perceptions of the political war they lived through at home in America. While it may be that a black ditch on the Mall is an appropriate statement of that war, that is not the war whose veterans Congress authorized the memorial fund to honor and recognize.

The formal failing of this design is that it violates one of the critical criteria of the design competition -- that it must make no political statement. Even if this black gash is not a statement of dishonor and shame, it is clearly at least a statement of sorrow -- "of sorrow," as Kilpatrick put it in his column, "not of glory, not of victory, not of defeat" -- and that, of course, is a forbidden political statement. I am a combat Vietnam veteran with two Purple Hearts and I feel no sorrow. I regret the deaths of brothers in arms, but they died noble, principled deaths, and I salute them and honor them. I am proud of our service to America, not sorry for it. Should this jury, made up of men who never served in Vietnam, tell Vietnam veterans and the nation how to feel and how we will be remembered in history?

What can be done? This looks like a misuse of a congressional license, which would call for congressional oversight. But that step might result in the destruction of what has been achieved to date through the efforts of those at the memorial fund.

A few cosmetic alterations to the design have already been agreed to, and I think that's really all that's called for here. If the color were changed from black to white, the symbol of faithful national service and honor, and the walls were brought above ground, and an American flag were installed at the juncture of the walls, then all the problems would disappear.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial would then be in beautiful harmony, rather than stark contrast, with the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. There would be no question of abuse of congressional license, since the memorial would clearly "honor and recognize" all Vietnam veterans.

There would be no question of free and easy access for the handicapped -- those Vietnam veterans, for instance, who are condemned to spend the rest of their days in a wheelchair. There would be no constant danger of someone falling in. There would be no need for pumps continually operating to drain the lower half of the memorial fan, which as now proposed would be well below the water table in the location.

At present, the memorial fund is preparing to purchase black granite in Sweden or India, since it is not found in this country. But white marble is. Since we fought a war for America, shouldn't the materials used to build a memorial in our honor be exclusively American?

The central presence of the flag is just that final touch asked for by all veterans. We are that same cohort of young Americans out of every generation who have always been willing, when called upon, to literally offer our lives for America; we would be so remembered.