Michael Winship: The wall and the mosque: Divide and unite

Michael Winship

The current fight over the building of an Islamic study center near Ground Zero in Manhattan is reminiscent of another battle nearly 30 years ago. Then, too, ignorance, rage and prejudice threatened to destroy the creation of something intended to help mend a grievous wound and foster understanding and reconciliation.

In May 1981, a jury of architects and sculptors announced the results of a nationwide competition to design a Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. More than 1,400 design submissions came in. Each entry was numbered so that the identities of those submitting remained anonymous.

The winner, by unanimous vote of the jury, was Number 1026 — a massive, horizontal V made from polished black granite: two walls, each 246 feet, nine inches across, inscribed with the names of more than 58,000 Americans killed during the Vietnam War. In the words of Jan Scruggs, the ex-infantryman who came up with the idea of building a monument, “As you looked at the other designs, they were miniature Lincoln Memorials. There was the helicopter on the pole, there was the army helmet with dog tags inside. They seemed so banal and average and typical compared to this.”

But many screamed in protest, including two who had been supporters of the idea of a Vietnam memorial and prominent fundraisers for its construction: billionaire H. Ross Perot and now Democratic senator from Virginia Jim Webb, who wrote to Scruggs, “I never in my wildest dreams imagined such a nihilistic slab of stone.”

Some veterans described it as a “black gash of shame” and said it was an insult, both to those who had given their lives and those who had fought and survived. Others were further outraged by the identity of the memorial’s designer, a 21-year-old Yale undergraduate, Chinese-American Maya Ying Lin. Irrationally ignoring even the simple truth that the judges had no idea of her identity beforehand, the notion that a young Asian woman should be chosen to design a monument to a conflict in which the other side was Asian was attacked as a slap in the face by the bigoted and ill-informed.

Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior James Watt, the same man who wanted to ban the Beach Boys from Washington’s National Mall because he thought they attracted “the wrong element,” tried to block the building permit. But eventually a compromise was made. Over Maya Lin’s vehement, aesthetic objections, a statue of three servicemen and an American flag were added to the site.

Today, of course, the protests have faded to meaninglessness and Maya Lin’s Vietnam wall is recognized for what it is and always was, a simple yet dramatic and eloquent expression of both service and the horrible finality of war. Now a venerated part of Washington’s landscape of monuments and tributes, more than three million come to the wall every year, triple the combined number of sightseers who go to the White House and the Washington Monument. Many stop to make a pencil rubbing of one of the names engraved in the granite; some leave flowers and other mementos, or stop to stare into the polished black surface that reflects back the visitor’s own face.

Millions will not visit the planned Islamic study center near Ground Zero (although surely they will flock to New York’s someday-soon-to-be-completed 9/11 memorial). But with patience, tolerance and common sense, perhaps in the years to come, when the angry shouts have ended, it, too, will become a place where visitors — Muslims, Jews, Christians and those of all other faiths — can peacefully reflect not only upon a great national tragedy but on the centuries of good and evil perpetrated throughout this planet’s history in the name of God, ideology and country.

Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.