The ceremony in the cavernous old Pension Building was a fairly subdued one. The statue, a controversial addition to a controversial Vietnam Veterans Memorial, was covered with a tarpaulin. The speakers picked their words carefully, even ambiguously.
One of them called the statue a "compromise." Another talked about the "artistic tension" in the revised design. Everyone struggled to present the final composite of wall and statue as an integrated design. Only Maya Ying Lin was missing. The creator of the wall had described this statue as "a moustache" on her original design.
Finally, the small bronze model of the 8-foot statue was revealed. There they were: three young, handsome soldiers, two white and one black, in rumpled army fatigues, carrying M16s as carefully as civilians carry coffee cups. Their faces were unlined, shaven, but obviously touched with combat fatigue.
As the photographers circled around them, it was easy to remember how a whole generation, perhaps a whole country, is in some way or other still drained by Vietnam combat fatigue.
There has been something symbolic about the intense controversy around the national memorial. Three years ago, Vietnam veteran Jan Scruggs first conceived the idea of a national memorial in the hope that it would have "a kind of healing effect" on veterans, perhaps even the rest of us. Instead, it has provided a new battleground for the same old war.
When the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund won the rights to a national site near the Lincoln Memorial, it opened a design competition to any American over 18.
John Wheeler III, chairman of the fund, knew it wouldn't be easy to pick a winner. Wheeler, a West Point graduate who has been through business school, law school and studied theology, knew that the war was still "freighted with a lot of emotionally hard things to look at. The war and events in the United States during the war created or widened a lot of divisions in our society, and divisions are probably worst among people most malleable at the time the events took place . . . our generation."
Because it was to be a healing event, they insisted that the artist could "make no political statement regarding the war or its conduct."
The winner, out of 1,400 entrants in a blind competition, turned out to be a Yale senior, a young woman from Ohio whose parents had fled from China during the communist takeover. Lin's design itself was eloquent, spare -- and neutral. Long black granite walls spread across the Constitution Garden site like wings, inscribed with more than 57,000 names of the veterans who died in the war.
Lin called the walls, "a rift in the earth," saying that, "I wanted people to honestly accept that these people served and that some of them died. And I think I wanted to create a very serene, tranquil place after I brought them to this sharp awareness."
The reaction was anything but tranquil. If Lin saw the walls as a rift, others described them as a "black gash of shame and sorrow." As a leader of the opposition put it, "We're to feel honored by a black ditch? I'm not an artist, but you don't need any cultural education to understand the meaning of a black hole."
What happened next is what often happens in the creation of political art: the "compromise," the "addition," the "moustache," the "artistic tension" revealed Monday.
After the unveiling, I walked over to the site where bulldozers were landscaping around the walls, and tried to imagine a statue and a flag in place. I tried to imagine the trio of tired soldiers advancing on the subtle granite wall. What I saw was a classic example of art by political committee.
It's never easy to agree on a single picture, statue or memorial to an event that still simmers in our private memories and our national life. Vietnam still simmers -- with confusion, denial, grief, disagreement. The only shared feeling that exists among the aging hawks and doves and the uncertain among us is that the Vietnam soldiers and veterans somehow got short shrift in all this.
The memorial was set up to be a gift from the country to the Vietnam veterans. There is no point in giving a pre sent that is perceived as an insult. Nor is there any way to design a monument that "makes no political statement" about the war.
So, in the end, we have a political pastiche of heroism and loss, a trio of warriors larger than life, and a list of the dead. Instead of a resolution, we have an artistic collision of ideas, an uncomfortable collage of our Vietnam legacy. Maybe, just maybe, that's fitting