Don't clutter memorial

Vietnam monument: Proposed educational center would detract from The Mall, muddy the message.

September 03, 2001

SINCE ITS DEDICATION in 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has brought millions of visitors to The Mall in Washington to look for names, remember loved ones and reach a peaceful understanding of a traumatic chapter in national life.

Controversially simple and unassuming when unveiled, the two polished black granite walls, bearing 58,226 names of U.S. service men and women who gave their lives in the Vietnam War, is one of the most solemn and successful memorials ever designed.

The monument, not to the war but to those called upon by their nation to fight it, has helped to heal the wounds and scars from that war. It was a triumph for Jan C. Scruggs, the Vietnam War veteran who crusaded to have it built. And for Maya Lin, the architecture student whose design won the national competition for it.

This memorial needs additions like the Washington Monument needs a neon-lit outside elevator. Nonetheless, some of its admirers could never leave well enough alone. First came a statue of three soldiers, off to the side, as though visitors could not visualize the veterans' humanity otherwise. Unnecessary but not fatal.

Now comes a proposal to build an educational center seven times larger than the kiosk the National Park Service maintains there. It would explain the memorial's origin, comment on the war and display a few of the many thousands of mementos people leave.

A memorial to a memorial? It is superfluous and could only detract from the original, without providing the education its backers say is needed. The Mall should not be cluttered with little structures. That is why the National Park Service and the National Capital Planning Commission oppose it.

Support for the educational center is well-intended. The foremost backer is Mr. Scruggs, who remains president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. He has won sponsorship of an authorizing bill in Congress from members who served in that war.

But the Vietnam Veterans Memorial speaks for itself, better than any educational center could speak for it. Its champions should feel satisfaction and a nation's gratitude, declare victory and let go. The memorial cannot be improved, only diminished by such embellishment.

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