Of course this nation should be grateful to the women who gallantly served in the Vietnam War. That is why Congress has enacted a bill authorizing the establishment of a memorial on federal land for just this purpose, to honor these and all women who have served in the Armed Forces. Its scope would transcend the existing Vietnam memorial, "to commemorate devoted service to country and humanity by Army, Navy and Air Force Nurses," not far away in Arlington Cemetery.
The recent proposal to add on to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Constitution Gardens carried with it all the earmarks of an afterthought. By its remote placement on a path leading away from the memorial, it would have ended up slighting the very constituency it was attempting to please.
When the existing sculpture of the three soldiers was conceived, the thought was that the infantrymen, who bore the brunt of the battle, would stand for all those who served. A great deal of thought and study went into its placement, and to the resulting delicate balance it sets up with Maya Lin's brilliantly conceived wall. We cannot fail to recognize that there are many other categories of veterans, all of whom performed valiant service, too many to be literally depicted. Once the principle of the part standing for the whole is abandoned, how can one ever justify denying any of these worthy groups their own effigies in bronze on that site?
The existing memorial does not picture any member of the Air Force, for example, or the Navy, or the Marines, not to mention other categories of people who have already protested, such as Native Americans. Are we to understand that all these gallant people are therefore excluded? If a lone statue of a white Army nurse, then why no others recognizing Navy nurses, or all the women who served who were not nurses? How about black women?
The existing memorial is, in fact, unusually inclusive. It lists names of every one of the fallen. Of the 58,156, the names of the eight women who died are duly inscribed. In addition, on the memorial are the words for all to see: "In honor of the men and women of the Armed Forces of the United States who served in the Vietnam War."
The memorial is extraordinarily successful as it stands -- one of the most moving and artistically powerful memorials ever built. Let's preserve it. Let's not start tinkering; we shall never be able to satisfy everyone's special interest. Art is not legislation, subject to endless amendments by others after the fact.
We have our chance now, from the start, to build a memorial to the women who have served this country in war. All of us who care deeply about the sacrifices women have made for our country should put our effort toward this. A thing worth doing is worth doing right.
J. Carter Brown is chairman of the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts and director of the National Gallery of Art.