Yesterday Mike Ruane of the Washington Post published an excellent profile of Jan Scruggs, founder and director of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, and of his quixotic crusade for an $85 million underground visitors center near Maya Lin’s famous wall. I was quoted briefly in the article, questioning why monuments should need visitors centers and objecting that the new center could not be entirely “unobtrusive.”
Now that I’m in Scruggs’ doghouse, I might as well come clean and say what I really think about this project. The two points I’m quoted for in the article are the least of it. Just to be crystal clear, though: I’ve never met Scruggs, and I have nothing against him personally. I admire the man and his will power. Without it, and without Maya Lin’s equally strong and often opposing will power, we wouldn’t have this amazing memorial.
First, a little bit of history. The VVM was funded not by the federal government but by private donations. Scruggs initiated the project, created the organization, and then became its chief spokesman, fundraiser, and lobbyist. Most public monuments in the U.S. have been created by organizations like this. Here’s the big difference though. Almost always, the monument organization would disband once it achieved its goal and built the monument; the monument would be ceremonially transferred from the private organization to the public at the dedication ceremony. As far as I know, the VVMF is the first such organization to stay in business after successfully completing the monument, and to keep a hand in its ongoing management even though the monument now belongs to the public. (Email me if you know of any precedents!)
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Back in 1980 the VVMF declared in its design competition program that the fund would be “dissolved” once the monument was completed. In fact, the VVMF has gone on to become a powerful player in Washington, winning among other things a special exemption for its “education center” in the 2003 legislation banning new memorials on the Mall.
Another bit of history: the combination of outdoor monument and indoor museum (or center) is a recent phenomenon but it is rapidly becoming commonplace. As far as I know, the Oklahoma City National Memorial (authorized 1997, completed 2000) was the pioneer, with an outdoor monument listing names of the dead on bronze chairs and an indoor museum telling their stories. The September 11 memorial and museum project in New York has followed this precedent. In Berlin the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (final design authorized 1999, completed 2005) also fits the pattern. Even more striking, though, preexisting monuments are now adding museums (or centers) at an increasing pace. Here is a suggestive list:
• Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, AL (another Maya Lin design), dedicated 1989, visitors center added 2005
• Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, ded. 1921, reopened 2006 as the National WWI Museum
• Virginia War Memorial, ded. 1956, $10 million education center added 2010
• National Law Enforcement Memorial in D.C., ded. 1984, ground broken in 2010 for underground visitors center.
It is no wonder that opponents of Scruggs’ “education center” are worried that sooner or later every other major monument in D.C. is going to clamor for a visitors center.
Truth be told, though, I’m not really against visitors centers at public monuments. Monuments aren’t sacred. They should be allowed to change, and visitors centers are one way to make them speak anew.
Maya Lin’s beautiful, spare wall gives us the names of the American war dead but tells us nothing about the Vietnamese dead (whether allies or enemies, combatants or not), nothing about Vietnam as a country with its own unique history, nothing about the human and environmental destruction experienced by the Vietnamese, nothing about the antiwar movement in this country and the tremendous upheavals that took place on the homefront, some of them within a stone’s throw of her wall’s site. In theory an “education center” might open up some of these difficult, largely buried issues.
Instead the proposed “education center” moves in the opposite direction, indeed in the opposite direction of the original memorial concept.
The original rationale for the memorial was that the war in Vietnam was different from past American wars. It was uniquely traumatic for its soldiers, both on the ground in Vietnam and later when the soldiers returned and faced scapegoating by both left and right. The memorial was meant to heal their trauma, not by defending the war or the part they played in the war, but simply by giving them public recognition for the sacrifices they made. After all, it wasn’t their idea to intervene in Vietnam. The nation’s leaders asked them to, or forced them to, and they went, many reluctantly.
Ever since the memorial was originally conceived, there has been some mission creep. Critics of Maya Lin’s design wanted a defense of America’s military intervention, and they got a flagpole added in 1984 with an inscription saying that “the flag affirms the principles of freedom for which they fought.” (Freedom is in the eye of the beholder; the Confederacy said it was fighting for freedom too.) Official speakers at the wall have used it as a platform to defend the war and the military more generally.
The “education center” is the culmination of this mission creep. One of the major aims of the center is to put the war in Vietnam in a narrative honoring the U.S. military from the Revolutionary War to Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of singling out the war as exceptional – a rupture in the American story – the center will make it representative of American ideals. “As currently planned,” a press release proclaims, “visits will begin with a walk through a history of Americaʼs conflicts, from Bunker Hill to Baghdad. The price of freedom will be honored in the Education Center and patriotism will be shown to be timeless.”
This sounds pretty political to me. Defending the inclusion of Iraq in the center, Scruggs himself says, “Much like the heroes who served in Vietnam, they [veterans of the war in Iraq] have done their best for their country, for each other and for the people of Iraq.” To put it mildly, all that’s debatable, as Scruggs knows better than I do. Many American soldiers in Vietnam didn’t think they were heroes. Many of them were disgusted by the war and became critics of it; many hated what they were doing to the people of Vietnam. Will they be honored by the new center? A lot of Americans, like Martin Luther King, Jr., believed that it was patriotic to oppose the war. Will their patriotism be honored there?
But there is another way in which the “education center” will run counter to the original memorial. One of the reasons Lin’s minimalist design worked so well is that it banished all imagery. Images were a major problem for the American war effort: images of women and children about to be killed at My Lai; the naked girl burned by napalm, running down the road and crying in pain; American soldiers setting fire to villagers’ homes; the Viet Cong prisoner being summarily executed on a street in Saigon. Human suffering was on display there, etched in the faces of a people we barely knew but could still understand on a primal level. Now the center intends to restore images, but a very different kind of image – specifically the faces of the men named on the wall. The center is meant to personalize the war, by telling the stories of the American soldiers who served and died. But which stories and which images will appear there? What if they aren’t heroic? What if they disturb the preconceived narrative of freedom and patriotism, “from Bunker Hill to Baghdad”?
In the end, it’s simple. The “education center” hopes to turn the war in Vietnam into a war like any other, and the VVM into a war memorial like any other. War memorials everywhere turn soldiers into martyrs sacrificing themselves for the noble cause of the nation. It doesn’t matter whether they are fighting for or against slavery, for or against fascism, for or against communism, or for or against poor countries halfway across the globe struggling for their national independence. In the end it’s only the willingness to wage war that matters. As the Union commander Dan Sickles said with commendable honesty, “There is no better way to prepare for the next war than to show your appreciation of your defenders in the last war.”
And so it goes. The “education center,” if it is ever built, will not only defend the war in Vietnam. It will defend the next war and the next after that, whatever they are, wherever they are.