WASHINGTON — Like the Vietnam War itself, the memorial that honors its dead has been swathed in endless controversy.
Now there is a new battle there, being fought by women veterans who want to add a statue honoring the 10,000 women who served in Vietnam. The Commission of Fine Arts has refused to approve it, and the women have vowed to fight.
While many veterans have been moved to healing tears at the V-shaped granite wall bearing the names of the more than 58,000 men and eight women who died in Vietnam, others found the Vietnam memorial shameful and grave-like, and demanded that a more traditional statue of three soldiers be placed near it.
After emotional public debate--and over the objections of the memorial's designer, Maya Lin--a statue of three Army infantrymen was placed near the wall in 1984.
It is that gesture of accommodation, however, which has sparked the current debate. A group of women Vietnam veterans, mostly nurses, who felt they had been slighted by the all-male statue, formed the Vietnam Women's Memorial Project--with the goal of adding to the memorial a statue of a military nurse holding her helmet like an infant, signifying the nurturing they offered to the dead and dying in Vietnam.
The project came to a screeching halt last month when the Commission of Fine Arts voted 4 to 1 against the statue, saying that all veterans already were represented at the memorial, and that the aesthetics of the memorial would be damaged if there were continuous additions of statues to recognize every group who served there.
"We shall never be able to satisfy everyone's special interest," said J. Carter Brown, chairman of the commission and director of the National Gallery of Art. Brown pointed out that the Air Force, Navy, Marines and Native Americans were not specifically depicted in the three-man statue either, and that, in fact, the figure proposed by the project is white, which would leave out black women.
"It will never end," said Brown, who said he was against the first statue being built. Designer Lin opposed the men's statue and is against this one as well. Frederick Hart, sculptor of the men's statue, also opposes the women's statue. He is on the commission but abstained from voting.
The project, on the other hand, says it has received support from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, and has obtained significant funds from a pharmaceutical company.
"People can't be so completely literal with sculpture," said Brown. "There are great numbers of humans who are not literally represented by the statue, those pilots floating around in the China Sea, the Marines. The Park Service has already heard from Native Americans and Asians who feel excluded and it's ridiculous for anyone to feel excluded. No one sculpture can bring it all in," said Brown, who added that he would rather see the group's energy devoted to a memorial at Arlington Cemetery that would honor American women who served in all foreign wars.
"That memorial could be done from scratch, done right and call attention to all women who have served much more effectively than just an appendage added to an existing memorial," he said.
The rhetoric has not deterred leaders of the Vietnam Women's Memorial Project, who are mounting a campaign to either convince or sidestep the commission. They are not interested, they say, in any other site.
Letters, Phone Calls
After the statue of infantrymen went up, "we started receiving letters and phone calls from all over the country insisting that the only proper place in this entire nation for the (women's) statue was at the Vietnam memorial," said project chairperson Donna-Marie Boulay, a lawyer and former Army nurse who served a year in Vietnam.
To exert pressure on the commission to reconsider, the project asked Sen. Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.) to introduce a resolution that would take away the commission's veto power on the project and give approval of the plans exclusively to Interior Secretary Donald Hodel, who already has expressed support for it. (Currently, the statue must be approved by Hodel, the commission, and the National Capitol Planning Commission.)
A congressional source involved with the resolution, which Durenberger introduced Tuesday in the Senate, described it as a trial balloon "to see how much support there is in the Senate and across the country. No one is certain at this point whether this will be offered as an amendment (and voted upon). Our purpose is to gather support and induce the Commission on Fine Arts into reconsidering."
Brown doubts that will occur, but said he was uncertain about whether the legislation would prompt the public to rally around the project and exert pressure on the commission.