[Revised] The Making of an All-American Memorial

By Ambar Pardilla

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James Reston Jr. addresses an audience member who asked him a question at Politics and Prose. (Photo by Ambar Pardilla)

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial’s black granite wall, which lists the lives that were lost or missing during the Vietnam War from 1955 to 1975, contrasts with the white marble obelisk—the Washington Monument—that overlooks it. The wall and the other two bronze statues that are a part of the memorial, the Three Servicemen Memorial and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, have become recognizable pieces of Washington, D.C.

But the making of the three parts of the memorial was filled with difficulties and disagreements about how to honor an unpopular war, as James Reston Jr. explained on Saturday at a Politics and Prose event promoting his new book, “A Rift in the Earth: Art, Memory, and the Fight for a Vietnam War Memorial.”

“This universalized memorial embraces the entire generational experience with Vietnam and has become a place of contemplation and, in my view, a contemplation on the subject that we must never again force a generation of Americans into the situation of that particular generation,” Reston said. “It is a place that focuses on what the ultimate cost of war is in terms of lost life.”

Reston explained that his book chronicles what he called “an art war” about whether or not the war should be memorialized at all and how to commemorate those who served “despite a flawed rationale.”

The connections between the war in Vietnam and the continuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq weren’t lost on Reston. He described the parallels between public reaction to the war then and the detachment between civilians and soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq now.

The book also comes before Ken Burns’ 10 part documentary series, “The Vietnam War,” which premieres Sunday on PBS, which Reston said he knew was in the works two years ago. Still, Reston separated himself from Burns and called his book “an angled attack against Vietnam memory.”

“It’s [his book] not just a reflection of what Ken Burns is doing,” Reston said.

Reston, who served as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army from 1965 to 1968, said that there were two emotional ties that connected him to the book: one of his friends, who “was killed without firing a shot,” is listed on the wall and his relationship to Frederick Hart, the sculptor who created the Three Servicemen Memorial. Reston said he lived on the same street as Hart in Virginia in the ’90s.

Although Reston said he had never written anything about art before, he was drawn to understanding the selection process for the design and eventual construction of the memorial’s wall.

“I wanted to recapture the intensity of that five-year period and the magic of what finally we have now 30, 35 years later is that the Vietnam Memorial has become universalized,” Reston said.

According to Reston, the competition received more than a thousand handwritten submissions, including from well-known artists and architectural firms, as printed ones weren’t allowed to make the process more personalized. The submissions varied “from the very brilliant to the kitschy,” Reston said.

Maya Lin, who was then a 21-year-old student at Yale University, won the competition in 1981 with her, as Reston called it, “almost high schoolish” drawing for the design of the memorial.

But Reston said “what won her over was her description.” Lin described that the memorial would be “a rift in the earth,” which Reston took for the title of his book.

Despite Lin’s win, Reston said, the decision sparked “a vicious backlash.”  According to Reston, arguments against Lin’s design included criticism of the choice of color, as black was seen as shameful and the belief that the memorial was depressing as it only honored the dead.

Resistance to the plans for the memorial reached Congress and the White House from former Sen. Jim Webb from Virginia (who was not a senator at the time) and other opponents, Reston explained.

According to Reston, the group of detractors wanted an addition to the memorial “that would satisfy the need for an expression of some soldiery heroism.”

“He and some other very well placed and powerful veterans set out to scuttle and undermine the monument design and very nearly succeeded,” Reston said.

Reston, who read from his handwritten notes, then remembered how his friend became involved with the project, as Hart was chosen to create a second part to Lin’s contribution.

Hart’s proposed addition, the Three Servicemen Memorial, caused controversy.

“The idea that you could impose upon a work of art, a secondary work of art, horrified the artistic community who felt very strongly about the notion of the integrity and the sanctity of a single work of art,” Reston said.

Reston quoted what Lin had said about the prospect of Hart’s sculpture: “This is like painting a mustache on the ‘Mona Lisa.’”

For Reston, Hart remained respectful of Lin’s winning design and “resisted the push for a glorified statue of a heroic soldier.”

“Instead he said what he wanted to focus upon was the mystification of the soldier, the youth, the awe, the sense of being overwhelmed. As a result, when you go to the memorial and look at those three soldiers, their visages are inscrutable but there is a kind of awe about their faces,” Reston said.

“In a way, it could be said that Frederick Hart saved the Vietnam Memorial because if there was not going to be a compromise, in which his statues were added then, there might not be a Vietnam Memorial at all,” he added.

The third and final part of the memorial, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, was designed by Glenna Goodacre. It was dedicated in 1993.

But beyond the district and in spite of all the stress that went into the memorial, it has become a model for how memorializing should be done, according to Reston. The inclusion of individual names has served as an example for other memorials.

“When you go to it, you’ll often see families with small children, which underscores and highlights the fact this is not something that one generation or one war owns,” Reston said. “This concept of names who are lost in war has been repeated all over the world, including in Vietnam.”

The memorial remains a reminder of what the generation of the era faced and was forced to do, Reston said, but it’s more than just a memory for veterans.

“It’s no longer about one war. It started as a veterans memorial but it’s not about just veterans, it’s about the entire Vietnam generation,” Reston said. “It’s not only about one war, it’s about all wars. It’s not a place just for warriors anymore but it’s equally a place for pacifists, for deserters, for draft dodgers.”

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