Name or Shame?

To the editor:

In Allan Greenberg’s fine piece on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial [“The Power of a Name,” Summer 2012], he mentions that I protested against the design selected for the memorial, saying that I had wanted to commemorate not only the dead but also the millions of Vietnam veterans who came home alive. Fair enough; I did say that. But Greenberg criticizes me for failing to recognize that war memorials traditionally honor only the dead. Whether or not that is true, he also said that the Fine Arts Commission should have told me that “honoring veterans who survived the war wasn’t part of the memorial committee’s competition requirements.” Actually, it was.

The license to build a memorial on the Mall granted by Congress to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) specified that it was to be “in honor and recognition of the men and women of the Armed Forces of the United States who served in the Vietnam War.” As Greenberg notes, these words are repeated in an inscription on the top of the first panel. This was done by the VVMF against Maya Lin’s wishes and apparently as evidence that this design is in accord with its license from Congress.

The congressional license says nothing about listing the names of the dead, which was Jan Scruggs’s idea. While I don’t object to that, my main concern is that the design omits the living who returned, thus violating the congressional license.

As I said to the Fine Arts Commission, I believe the final design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to be a black ditch of shame and sorrow.

Political controversy over the Vietnam War was never really resolved, but eventually evolved into a public fight over the VVMF design. This refocus of national attention thus allowed us to defuse and bypass the horrendous political decisions made in the White House and on Capitol Hill that cost us 58,000 American lives. By ignoring the political lessons that we should have learned from the Vietnam War, we have once again engaged in political wars of opportunity.

Tom Carhart
Florence, MA

Allan Greenberg responds:

Tom Carhart is correct in stressing the difference in intention between the “specific license” granted by Congress to build the memorial on the Mall and the strategy of the veterans led by Jan Scruggs who focused on recording the names of the dead. My text did not stress this sufficiently when reviewing the Fine Arts Commission’s hearings. This will be corrected when my book appears.

I agree with Mr. Carhart that we, as a nation, have ignored the political lesson that we should have drawn from the Vietnam War. But I don’t agree that the “public fight over the VVMF design” diverted public attention from this necessary task.

Like most visitors to the Mall, I disagree with Mr. Carhart’s assertion that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is “a black ditch of shame.” But such interpretations lie in the eye of the beholder. I do respect the depth of Mr. Carhart’s conviction and its roots in frontline duty in Vietnam, the award of two Purple Hearts, and the profound experiences shared by the veterans of this war—both in Vietnam and after returning home.


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