The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

Special Commemorative Issue, November 2002
 
   
 

Judging The Wall

By Bill Trilett


It may have been more than 15 years ago, but Grady Clay remembers it well- answering the call to chair the jury that would pick a Vietnam War memorial; searching through the myriad entries; fretting over the veteran community's possible reactions to the jury's ultimate choice; even facing down the brief but ugly confrontation at The Wall on the eve of its dedication. Clay had been on other juries during his long career as an urban affairs expert and an editor of Landscape Architecture magazine. But nothing as emotionally charged as this. Like a new guy arriving in country, he had no idea what he was in for.

As almost everyone knows by now, the idea of a memorial originated with Jan Scruggs, the combat-wounded vet who returned from Vietnam determined to see his fallen comrades formally honored by the government that had sent them into the battle. He founded the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF), which in 1980 succeeded in getting Congress to donate federal land for the building of a memorial. The money for the memorial, it was agreed, would come from private sources. The VVMF then recruited Paul Spreiregen, a respected Washington architect with experience in design competitions, to put together a blue-ribbon jury for judging the designs VVMF was about to solicit. Spreiregen and Grady Clay had by then already met on several occasions during the latter's tenure as urban affairs editors of the Louisville Courier-Journal. Spreirgen asked Clay if he would chair a seven-member jury composed of internationally renowned architects and sculptors.

"I had no compunction whatever about being on the jury," recalls Clay. "I knew that It had been thoughtfully put together, and it turned out to be an unusually able mix of people." All had judged other competitions-experiences which Clay thought essential. "Like any other specialized activity, it helps to have done it before." A prophetic requirement indeed, as he would soon see.

Grady himself had opposed the Vietnam War. "I just did not see a national interest in that particular part of the world," he says. But his own experience as a veteran of World War (wounded at Anzio) had taught him that one's personal politics or beliefs and one's military service were not necessarily related. "I thought that whoever had served their country deserved the best their country could provide for them" regardless of their reasons for serving, he says.

Moreover, he was encouraged to read the following in VVMF's "statement of purpose": "The memorial will make no political statement regarding the war or its conduct. It will transcend those issues. The hope is that the creation of the memorial will begin a healing process, a reconciliation of the grievous divisions wrought by the war. Through the memorial, both supporters and opponents of the war may find a common ground for recognizing the sacrifice, heroism, and loyalty, which were also a part of the Vietnam experience.

To Clay, it was clear that "the purpose was to recognize and honor those who served and died. Why they served was not relevant. The fact was they had served and had died. What they did was therefore no less honorable than what other Americans had done in other wars."

VVMF specifically chose not to include a Vietnam veteran on the design jury for fear that the other members might inappropriately defer to the vet's choices. Similarly, all entries had to be displayed anonymously so that a designer's identity would not influence any member of the jury. VVMF's overall desire to select a design based purely on its merits as a memorial to the dead "appealed to me deeply," Clay says.

While VVMF had issued no preferences for, say, abstract or realistic designs, there were nonetheless certain criteria that each entrant had to meet. First, there was submission format: Only drawings could be sent (versus videotape or scale model), and they had to be mounted on 30" by 40" boards. Second, and most important, each design, as Clay later wrote in an article for Harvard Magazine, "had to exhibit the names of all the 58,000 soldiers killed in Vietnam in a manner easily read by visitors, the whole accessible to the handicapped." In the end over 1,400 entries were received, with more than 10 percent of them sneaking in just hours before the deadline of midnight on March 31, 1981. The winner would receive $20,000; second place would take $10,000; and third place $5,000. Fifteen honorable mentions would each receive $1,000.

Some designs-"the crazies," as Clay remembers them-were quickly eliminated: The three-story-tall rocking chair; the 40-foot-tall pair of combat boots; and the massive flight of doves, symbolizing peace (the National Park Service said it would be far too difficult, if not impossible, to maintain). The rest were hung on clotheslines that had been strung on a grid inside an aircraft hangar at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. From start to finish, the grid was 1.3 miles long. Fortunately the jury had five days in which to decide.

During their first review of the entries, the judges came upon one depicting a wall that was wedge-shaped, made of black granite, and set into the earth against high ground. On the low ground, visitors could walk along and see all the names of the dead etched into the granite. This of course was the submission of Maya Lin, the student architect who would end up winning. But the judges were decidedly underwhelmed at first because the drawing itself was barely even rudimentary. "It was very clear that whoever the designer was, he or she did not have much experience in drafting," Clay recalls. "The crudity of the presentation turned some of us off right at first." He was one. Only three judges noted it as worthy of further consideration.

Over the next three days the jury slowly and uneventfully whittled down the number of entries. (One bit of excitement: In another part of the hangar a pilot ignited a jet engine and inadvertently applied enough power for the wash to blow down all the designs.) By the fourth day, the field had been narrowed to the most impressive 20, but Clay had his doubts whether the jury would ever be able to come to an agreement on a winner. The field then instantly dropped to 19 when, during a close inspection, a judge noticed that one entry subtly but unmistakably bore the initials of its designer, violating the competition requirement of total anonymity. But the remainder all seemed to have equal merit.

There was a design for a small, round, serene-looking pool to be surrounded by broken concentric circles of trees and stone blocks on which, like tablets, the names of the dead would be inscribed. There was also one for an expressionistic sculpture garden composed entirely of white marble, as well as one for a white wall shaped like a long, meandering S-curve that, like Maya Lin's, would be cut into a hillside.

One design that caught Clay's attention in particular was that of an oversized copper bowl, as it were, that would be set into the ground. Within the bowl, on its sides, the names of the dead would be etched. "It was to be about 30 or 40 feet across," Clay says. "The lip of the bowl was at ground surface, and then you walked down on this gentle [copper] slope into the inside." His one reservation, shared by his colleagues, was that the American public would not want a memorial in which one literally could walk on the names of the dead. The field dropped to 18.

All the while, the Lin design continued to exert a subtle pull on the jury's consciousness. "It had not been on my first list," Clay recalls, "but the more we looked at it, the more inevitable it became." Everyone gradually began to sense the design's center of gravity: "The fact that it began with one or two names at each end and then swelled to the crescendo in the middle gave it a force that was very powerful," Clay says. As he wrote in Harvard Magazine, the design's "strength and deceptive simplicity grew on us. Eventually, it stood apart from all the rest in its contemplative eloquence." The jury's vote for a winner was unanimous.

The jury was not sure, however, how unanimous VVMF or any of the veterans service organizations might be about the design, particularly since its rudimentary drawings might well fail to communicate its merits to the untrained eye. "It was clear to me architects and sculptors on the jury that this [design] would make a formidable presence," Clay says. "But we were convinced the public would not understand what this was all about unless it were presented in three-dimensional form. So we arranged with the American Institute of Architects to work out a deal whereby over the next two days, they would help us get a scale model made and then professionally photographed. By the time we went public, there were these very vivid and clear photographs of the model available," as well as the model itself.

Tensions were nonetheless high when the time came to announce the winner. According to a newspaper report, Clay stood before the crowd of assembled veterans and said of the Lin design, "This most clearly meets the spirit and formal requirements of the program. It is contemplative and reflective. It is superbly harmonious with its site and yet frees the visitors from the noise and traffic of the surrounding city." Silence ensued ... until a senior VVMF official spoke up, saying he thought the design was ingenious. Then came applause. "That was a moment of great relief," Clay says, "because we certainly did not know how it would fly. When that VVMF member broke the ice, I think all of us on the jury breathed a sigh of relief."

The relief would not last long. Intentionally or not, any such choice or decision is implicitly political because, if for no other reason, it presents only one way of viewing its subject (i.e., the war dead). The jury clearly wanted as neutral a view as possible-bearing in mind the VVMF's original injunction against any memorial making a political statement; VVMF and other veterans clearly regarded the Lin design as having fulfilled that injunction to a satisfying degree. But other veterans were not convinced, which came perhaps as little surprise: Why should there have been unanimous agreement about anything concerning a war that so sharply fragmented a nation? A group of veterans led most noticeably by Tom Carhart and James Webb and financed heavily by billionaire H. Ross Perot (who had donated $150,000 to VVMF before the competition only to disparage the winning design when he saw it) attacked Lin's conceit essentially as a liberal "black gash of shame" that could only serve the interests of antiwar factions of the past, present, and future. They successfully blocked construction until VVMF accepted their demands for the site to include a flagpole flying the Stars and Stripes along with a more traditional sculpture of soldiers-standing above ground, so that visitors could look up.

Clay recalls that Lin, then barely 20 years old, took the criticism and forced compromise hard but in the end "accepted it in good grace." After construction was completed, though, neither Clay nor Lin was fully prepared for the power of what they had wrought. At a reception the night before the dedication ceremony (Veterans Day, 1982), a woman approached Clay with something in her hand. She had been to the memorial that afternoon, and the visit had made her want to meet the chairman of the jury. "But as she started to speak to me she broke down in tears," says Clay, who still remembers the incident in detail. She simply handed him what she was holding onto. "It was a Polaroid taken that afternoon of her face reflected in The Wall, and her hand was touching her dead brother's name. That was my first encounter with the tremendous power of The Wall to evoke memories and emotions. That was my first glimpse into what has become a national ritual."

Lin herself was overwhelmed the next day at the ceremony. At the beginning, a newspaper photographer asked Clay and Lin to pose for some shots standing on the grass atop the memorial. Afterward, they walked down to the eastern end, where numerous veterans were standing. "I could tell they were in the middle of some really emotional reunions," says Clay. "There was a lot of hugging and weeping going on. Some of them spotted Maya and began to gather around and praise her and hug her. It was all very moving. We then walked on, and suddenly she was confronted by this big, tall veteran with one leg."

Clay says the vet started screaming at the top of his lungs at Lin: "This is not a memorial to us, it's a memorial to you!" A crowd began to gather; Clay tried to intercede as best he could, fearing the confrontation might turn physical. Apparently others feared the same, for, as Clay says, "two very big men then came up beside him. They had on green berets, and they were obviously part of some security force. They told him to cool it, and he did-he backed off. Maya held her reserve through all this. But back at the hotel where her family was, she broke down and cried from the emotional overload."

Though there will always be those who disagree with whatever "statement" they believe the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial makes, the majority of veterans who have visited it (repeatedly, for many of them) have found it to be precisely what VVMF said it wanted from the start- "a healing ... a reconciliation." And Clay has no doubt whatsoever about how the memorial will endure: "Long after the last veteran is dead, long after the last member of the family who remembers the trauma of the Vietnam War has passed away, and long after all the present generations are gone, the power of this place-the descent from the hurly-burly down into the quietude of the depression, the presence of the names-these will remain a credible and lasting and powerful memory of this war and of those who died."

   

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