Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A “Black Gash of Shame” Dedicated to America’s Vietnam War Dead

On November 13, 1982 the Vietnam War Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C.  The memorial opened with controversy and recriminations still swirling around it. 
The idea for a memorial sprang from Jan Scruggs, who had served as a corporal in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade and was attending college in Washington studying counseling and hoping to help the notoriously troubled veterans of an unpopular war.  He felt that a national memorial honor the Vietnam War dead would help with the healing.  Scruggs conceived of the project as one that would inscribe the names of all of the dead in conflicts in Southeast Asia. 
Congress refused to fund the project because it would “clutter up the National Mall,” and because there were no similar monuments to World War II or Korean veterans.  Some anti-war Democrats opposed “glorifying” the conflict, while some conservatives were loath to honor “the first American soldiers to lose a war.”
Undeterred, with $2,800 of his own money Scruggs began raising funds for the project. His effort touched a national nerve and with astonishing speed more than $8,000,000 was raised, almost all of it from private donors, many from veterans themselves.  He overcame objections and received permission from Congress to build a memorial in Constitution Gardens, just off the National Mall near the Lincoln Memorial.
As the money began to pour in a competition was held for the design of the Monument.  The conditions were that it have room for the names of all of the war dead and that it have a low “unobtrusive” profile—a nod to a group of voracious opponents of the project—preservationists who loudly complained that it would destroy the esthetics of the Mall.  Many of the most distinguished sculptors, architects and artists in the country submitted drawings.
To almost everyone’s surprise the winner of the competition was Maya Lin, then a 21 year old undergraduate at Yale.  Her conception was stunning in its simplicity—and in its dramatic rejection of the conventional forms of a monument or memorial.  She envisioned a “gash in the earth” to represent the wound of the loss of all of those soldiers.  The entire monument was be below ground level—an elongated shallow v made up of two black granite walls tapering from 10.1 feet high where they meet eight inches at their ends.  One end would represent the beginning of the conflict and first deaths—1959 and the other end the last of the combat deaths in Southeast Asia—the Marines who died in the rescue of the SS Mayaguez from the Khmer Rouge in 1975.  The two walls would meet at the deepest point of the war, which turned out to be May of 1968 when casualties were at their peak.  Names without rank, service, home town or any other identifier would be inscribed in chronological order along the two walls.
Although praised by art and architecture critics, the design created a firestorm of bitter opposition.  Veterans’ groups were incensed calling it ablack gash of shame.”  H. Ross Perot, the Texas millionaire and the future Virginia Senator Jim Webb, then a highly regarded Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan Administration, both early public supporters of the project, now denounced it and tried to prevent the construction as envisioned by Lin.  Perot openly voiced contempt for Lin because she was Asian and many veterans did not want anything to do with, “that Gook.  Congress held hearings where Lin had to defend herself under very hostile questioning.  Secretary of the Interior James Watt tried to derail the project by withholding the necessary construction permits.
Organizers of the project, however, stood by Lin and her vision.  As a compromise they did agree to add a representational statue and a flag pole to one side of the monument.  The bronze Three Soldier by sculptor Frederick Hart was installed in 1985, three years after Lin’s memorial opened.  In 1993 another representational statue of three female figures tending the wounded by sculptor Glenna Goodacre was added nearby as the Vietnam Women’s Memorial—the first war memorial for women from any war. 
When The Wall, as the Monument came to be known, opened it had 58,175 entries.  Since then more than 200 more names have been added.  About thirty names turned out to belong to still living soldiers, a mistake attributed to clerical error at the Department of Defense, which provided the names of the war dead.
Thousands of veterans marched to the site of the Memorial on the day of its dedication.  After the ceremonies, they were as awed and moved as almost everyone else who has ever seen it.  The controversy over the design was soon washed away with the tears of veterans and their loved ones, who found an emotional connection that almost no one anticipated. 
Spontaneously, people began to make rubbing of the names of their loved ones and to leave gifts for the dead.  These items ranged from photographs, to packs of cigarette and bottle of beer, each representing something.  At first the National Park Service was unsure of how to deal with these offerings.  Eventually they were gathered daily and stored in an enormous warehouse. The items are now preserved and cataloged by date.  Exhibitions display samples from the collection.
More than two million visitors view the Wall annually, making it one of the most popular attractions in Washington.  In 2007 it was ranked tenth on the List of America's Favorite Architecture by the American Institute of Architects.
Several quarter-size cardboard models of the Wall tour the country continuously bringing something of the experience to those who cannot get to the Capital. 
Lyn has gone on to become a famous architect and designer.  Among her projects is the United States Civil Rights Museum in Montgomery, Alabama.

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