I was recently watching the film Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision. It is a 1994 documentary about the architectural work of Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial on the Mall in Washington D.C. One of the key figures interviewed in the film was an honest-faced, frank man named Jan Scruggs.
Scruggs had been the driving force behind the memorial project. And the more I found out about him, the more I could somehow relate to him. I’m not entirely sure why. Some people just speak to you. They just resonate with you. There was just something about this man’s story that really moved me. I decided to look into his story a bit more.
He was born in Maryland in 1950 to solid working-class stock. After graduating from high school at the age of 19, he found himself with few options. His parents could not afford higher education. He joined the Army in 1968, perhaps to escape the twin prisons of background and economic necessity.
He was immediately sent to Vietnam, and saw extensive combat there during his two years in-country. When he left the Army in 1970, he likely nursed the same sentiments as did many who fought in that unfortunate conflict: a sense of alienation, repressed rage, and abandonment.
He tried to return to a quiet civilian life in Maryland, but it just wouldn’t take. Things were totally different, because he was different. People didn’t want to hear about his experiences in Vietnam, and no one could understand even when he tried. Nothing in the civilian world held much satisfaction for him. He quit his job and took a year off, roaming the back roads of America with a friend.
He eventually went back to Maryland, enrolled in a college program, and completed it. Then he enrolled in a graduate program, completing one in psychology. He specialized in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It isn’t hard to figure out why. He must have had a deep need to find out what had happened to him, and why he felt the way he did.
But everything changed in March 1979. He had gone to see the film The Deer Hunter (one of the first, if not the first, films to deal with the Vietnam War issue). And the film made a profound impression on him. Seeing it all up on screen made it all the more powerful. It was then that he realized that he had a new mission in life: to build a memorial to the men who had fought and died in the conflict.
This was not a popular idea in 1979, to say the least. No one wanted to hear about Vietnam. No one wanted to talk about it, except when it was worth using for the purpose of scoring political points. The war had barely ended four years earlier, leaving the American public with a sense of exhaustion and, perhaps, relief. But Scruggs could not get the idea out of his mind. He was determined to honor the men he had served with.
When you want to do something, you do it. You don’t worry about obstacles. When Ernst Junger first published his combat memoir of the First World War (Storm of Steel), which remains the greatest book to come out of that war, he had to self-publish it. No one would touch it, but he didn’t care. It mattered to him, and that was all that mattered. He actually listed his family’s gardener as the “publisher” in announcements.
Scruggs floated the idea to a veterans’ organization, and received a positive response. But it soon became clear that a full-fledged effort would be needed to see this project through to completion. He formed a non-profit corporation to handle the work. He contributed $2800 of his own savings, which to him was a lot. He initially envisioned an obelisk-type monument, that would have the names of the dead inscribed on it. But that would soon prove to be impractical. What was needed was an actual Congressional authorization, setting aside a portion of space on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. for the specific purpose of putting a monument there.
Support did not come from every quarter, though. Some people thought he was delusional. CBS reporter Roger Mudd ran a TV segment criticizing the effort. Some veterans felt that efforts would be better allocated in other ways. But Scruggs was determined. He was haunted by his Vietnam experience, and it had turned him into a man with a mission.
He was lucky to secure the support of a few well-placed government figures who were also veterans (e.g., Chuck Hagel), and this helped steer donors his way. After about two years of effort, he had raised close to $8 million for the project. Nearly all of this came from private, small contributions. And Scruggs had once again put himself on the line. He quit his government job to work full-time on the project, leaving his wife as his family’s temporary sole provider.
They got the authorization. But then the issue of the design came up. There were many different ideas on how the monument should be designed. Originally, the idea was that the veterans should design the memorial. But it soon became apparent that it would be better to have a design competition. Entrants into the design contest could submit their ideas, along with an explanation of what those designs meant.
The winner of the design contest was a 21-year-old Asian-American architecture student from Yale University. Her design was chosen over all the uninspired, dull ideas submitted by the professionals. That alone would be incredible enough. But what was even more incredible–to me at least–was the radical, somber, and arresting beauty of Maya Lin’s design. It was unlike any funerary architecture that had ever been created. It was a series of polished black granite panels, buried in the earth, making a “V” shape. On these panels were etched the names of every man who had been killed in the conflict.
It is difficult to appreciate now, decades after the event, just how controversial this “wall” memorial idea was. Many veterans were outraged, as were some short-sighted politicians. Some of the criticism got very, very nasty. The fact that the winning designer had been an Asian woman was not lost on some of the more mean-spirited critics. Some opportunistic politicians and political figures tried to score points by mocking the design.
The fury that had been unleashed often threw Scruggs into a depression, but he fought his way out of it by recalling the names and faces of the fallen. For their sake, he would press on, no matter what.
But Scruggs was deeply moved by the design, and supported Lin. He recognized–when few others did–that it was a work of sublime genius, far beyond the power of lesser minds to comprehend. Some people wanted to “modify” the design, adding various things or taking out others. The controversy eventually made its way all the way up to President Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt.
Watt weighed the merits of the projects proponents and detractors, and told Scruggs that unless a few minor changes were made to the layout of the memorial, it would not get built. The changes were comparatively minor: a bronze statue had to be set up off to the side of the memorial wall, as well as a few other token additions.
Nothing detracted from, or destroyed the integrity of, the memorial wall, which remained the focus of the shrine. It was unveiled to the public in November 1982. And once that happened, all of the early criticisms faded into irrelevance.
No one today carps about the wall being a “black gash of shame.” All one has to do is set foot in the place, and one is overcome by a feeling of reverential awe. For the wall may be the most powerful funerary monument ever created. No one who stands before these polished black granite surfaces, inscribed with name after name, can fail to be moved by the human cost of conflict.
I remember the first time I visited the monument in the early 1980s. I was just a boy, and was with my parents. I was with them at the Washington Monument, and wanted to walk to the Wall from there. Of course, I underestimated the distance and got first separated from my parents, and then completely lost.
My worried father eventually found me at the Wall at dusk, alone, awash in a sea of granite names.
Read More: Sir Stephen Spender’s “I Think Continually Of Those Who Were Truly Great”
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