WHEN JAN C. SCRUGGS left Vietnam in 1969, the once wounded infantryman figured he’d left the war and Vietnam behind. Ironically, he credits his wounds with his ability to attend college and ultimately get a master’s degree. In the decade that followed, Scruggs had a dream, and from day one of the unveiling of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a nation long tormented by an unpopular war began a miraculous process of remembrance, healing and honoring those who served and died. Led by Scruggs, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund continues as The Wall’s caretaker, but also runs a life-saving humanitarian program in Vietnam’s Quang Tri province. Next up is an ambitious effort to build an underground education center next to The Wall, which will also exhibit some of the more than 100,000 items that have been left at the memorial. Vietnam editors recently interviewed Scruggs at the Memorial Fund’s offices in Washington.
Architecture that moves your emotions
Vietnam magazine: Thirty years ago, struggling to make your dream a reality, did you ever have doubts?
Scruggs: I thought there might be some delays, a year or two. But that was just the beginning of getting the team together that we needed. We had four or five graduates of Harvard Business School and with the support of John Warner, Max Cleland and others. The next thing you know, we get this bill through the House and the Senate, and then we have the largest architectural design competition in history. The surprise was not that we got it built. The big surprise was that it did not become a fraternal monument, like many military monuments where the only people interested in them are the actual participants. This has transcended just participants in the Vietnam War. You see them there, but by and large, most visitors are not Vietnam veterans.
Why is that, and why do people come back time and again?
You could ask the question, why is it that when people go to Paris, they go see the Eiffel Tower and then, once they have seen it, they want to back? What about the pyramids in Egypt? Once you see them, why would you want to go back? The Wall is a great piece of architecture. Its legacy is different from the Eiffel Tower or the pyramids, but they are similar in that they move your emotions or give your mind a feeling of serenity and a sense of history. It’s just a beautiful piece of architecture that captures the spirits of those Americans who gave their lives — a place where you can feel their presence.
Could you have imagined that a Vietnam War memorial would become Washington’s most visited memorial?
Initially, the thinking was that visitation would be high and then drop off. Today, half of those who visit are younger than the memorial itself — forget the war! From that, flowed the educational programs that we started, and now the Education Center that will be aimed at that group and younger kids, to teach them about the war.
What was the story behind your notion for the memorial?
All of this came from the work I did in graduate school in which I became an authority on post traumatic stress disorder. I published a number of articles and even testified before the Senate. So the theory behind this memorial was that the individuals — veterans, their families, people who had difficulties stemming from the war, which is everyone in their own way — would have a place to go to make peace with a tragic event from the past.
The other part is rooted in Jungian thought. Carl Jung was a student of Sigmund Freud, and he talked about collective psychological states — how collectivities, entire cities or nations or are affected by traumatic events. When things go wrong for the country or something awful happens, such as Vietnam or 9/11, everyone is touched. With the display of all the names on the Wall, individuals receive individual healing, but this also contributes to a collective healing for the nation.
“Vietnam vets can visit the memorial and feel their friends will be there together—forever young“
As you walk along the Wall, you do feel the enormity of the individual and collective loss.
In terms quantifying casualties, the Wall is an interesting piece. Suppose there were a Civil War memorial that had all the names of the Americans killed in that war? Instead of 500 feet, it would be 5,000 feet — about a mile long. A part of the mission for the Education Center will be to put Vietnam in context with other wars — and so the casualties of other wars are part of the story. If you ask 20 people on the street what war saw the greatest American casualties, most will say World War II, but in fact the Civil War remains cumulatively larger than all our other wars combined.
Some decried Maya Lin’s design. Did you have any qualms about it?
No, I did not. If you actually saw what she turned in at first, you’d have a better understanding that this was obviously going to be a public information challenge. The only ones who could picture it were those who had spent their lives studying architecture. We had a jury of people with impeccable credentials and I had confidence in them. Designers could see the brilliance of it, whereas regular people would just pass it by. They said you can’t tell it from the drawings, but picture this: You’re going to see your reflection in the granite, polished like a mirror, all the names will stand out and they are not going to have to paint them. It will be balanced with the Lincoln and Washington monuments, so historically it will be in the right place and this design just works.
But isn’t it just a wall with names inscribed on it?
What was extraordinary was that out of the 1,400 designs, this was absolutely the simplest; all the others were architecturally complex. Most of the entries were sort of average. You know, mini-Lincolns, that sort of thing. But others were complicated and difficult to build. One was a giant flag where you would walk down the strips and all names would be on big lily pads, and they would be continually read over a loud speaker system. There was the 400-foot-tall army helmet with a bullet hole in center and all the names on dog tags. One had a helicopter on a pole, crashing down, with all the names around it. Maya Lin’s was so simple.
How does the Wall help heal?
Maya Lin devised the chronological listing. For the Vietnam veterans, she really set the stage, because a veteran who was in a battle and had say seven buddies killed in action can go to the memorial and there they are, close to one another. They are alphabetized by day, but basically they remain together. She felt that would take the veterans back to that time and help them come to grips with that past. Some who have real problems with PTSD use the memorial as part of their healing. For people not debilitated by it but affected, they can visit the memorial and feel their friends will be here together, forever — forever young and forever on the Mall.
And how has it helped reconcile?
This is a place for people regardless of ideology, where they can come together and be friendly. I think the power of all the names robs the animosity of our differences. In getting the bill, the people who helped us included George McGovern and some others heavily identified with opposition to the war. For them, the whole idea of separating the war from the warrior made a lot of sense, McGovern was a World War II bomber pilot. He hated the war but connected to fellow veterans.
“This is the only memorial in the world that has actually saved people’s lives“
For many, getting the memorial built in 1982 would have been the end.
That’s what we were thinking — were done! By February 1985, we closed the office. Then we found that the memorial, instead of becoming less significant, was becoming more significant. When all these different groups began sprouting up, it seemed the memorial needed a caretaker to make sure it was well cared for and make sure it was not co-opted by any other groups. So in 1992 we formed again, and I ran the Vietnam Memorial effort for the 10th anniversary. It was then we branched into education, teaching about the war in a balanced way and creating a curriculum guide for teachers. From that grew requests for an education center. It was pretty obvious that without it, people visiting the memorial, especially younger people, had no historical context for the war. We’ve been working on this now for nearly 10 years.
So this is way more than a memorial?
This is the only memorial in the whole world that has actually saved peoples lives. Through the memorial, we formed project Renew, which has saved a lot of lives and helped many injured people. We do not use the old formula: “Here we are, the Caucasian Americans to solve your problems.” We say: “You, the Vietnamese people, will solve your own problems. We will give you the resources, here’s your mine detectors, here’s an ambulance, for your crew if one of your guys gets blown up, here is a way for you to educate by taking victims of unexploded ordnance to the schools and show kids their little stubby arms.”
How else does it influence?
Many people, such as former Senator John Warner, have said, before we commit troops anywhere for combat, everyone in the State Department, the White House and Congress should go to the Vietnam Wall and give it some thought and ask themselves this: “We think we need to do this but are we are willing to pay the cost?”
As President Obama decides what course to take in Afghanistan, should he walk the Wall?
That would be absolutely brilliant. Might just see if we can arrange that….
When you left Vietnam in 1969, could you have imagined partnering with the Quang Tri Peoples Committee on humanitarian efforts as your Project Renew is now?
Well I never had any desire to ever go back to Vietnam. I felt it was a very unpleasant place with nothing but bad memories. But once I got back there, I became very energized. The people there are nice, very civilized. It is very interesting to spend a week in a country in which you never see a firearm. The police carry batons — red and white ones for directing traffic. It is a nonviolent country. I’ve been back 11 times, and have a trip in January, I take some people there once a year. I’ll go more often if I have to.
“Vietnam has a modest destiny in the family of nations“
What’s it like for a wounded vet visting Vietnam?
I’ve seen people bury their ghosts, by their second day in Vietnam. Everyone there wants to meet an American. And what do they want to talk about? Brittany Spears, pop culture, movies. The Vietnam War? Well, there is always some old crusty guy with a leg in a brace or something, who says: “I was fighting with you guys (or against you guys). Welcome back! Now, can you get my son a job with Coca Cola?”
Get any flack from vets about your work in Vietnam?
Yeah, I got an occasional letter from people who take the perspective that the Vietnamese are a bunch of Communists, and we shouldn’t do anything to help them. So, it’s a free country.
Should we help the Communist Vietnamese?
Compare the Vietnamese to North Koreans. Look at all the problems the North Koreans are creating. The Vietnamese aren’t creating problems for anybody. What are they doing? They are making cheap shirts for us, electronics, cameras, that’s what they’re doing. If you look at the countries creating problems, Vietnam is not among them. This is the first time in 100 years that they have been completely at peace, no one is attacking them, they’re not attacking anybody. They are enjoying the fruits of peace — their per-capita income has shot right up to $500 a year. They have a modest destiny in the family of nations; they will never be a major economic, political or military power and they will not be creating any problems. Twenty-five years ago there was starvation and malnutrition, but now, even though they are earning about a buck a day walking behind a water buffalo, they have food and nobody is dropping bombs on them.
But will they remain nonaggressive?
They’ve had a pretty good stretch of peace, and they want it to last — they are so done with war. They have no offensive capability, but they are very good defensively. If attacked, their strategy is to grab their AKs and go underground.
Were you an early advocate for normalizing relations?
It was never a major focus, but it always made sense to me. When John McCain and John Kerry — who don’t have a lot in common — felt the time had come to normalize relations, I was happy to give them whatever support I could. I’m a great believer that whenever nations are not creating problems for the rest of the world, they should be rewarded. The problem is we reward nations that are creating problems. You know, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but to little countries such as Vietnam, we say, “Sorry, can’t help you.”
“You need a place for the past and you need a place for the future“
Like the war, the memorial has had its share of controversy and you are often a target. How do you cope?
We had people who opposed it, but over the years I’ve gone out of my way to make friends with them, because I don’t have time to fight rear-action battles with people. The more time you spend in the past, the more time you think about decisions made 40 years ago, the more you’ll be eaten away by it. You need a place for the past and you need a place for the future. I’m done with all the people who fought against the memorial; that was so long ago. Except for a small number of people, it’s just a footnote to history.
Any concerns the Education Center will rekindle political battles of past?
What we are not doing is telling the story of the Vietnam War based upon political perspectives of, you know, CNN, Fox News, NBC, picking one of the three and saying this is the perspective we are going to adopt. Our focus is all about the people who served, preserving their memory, putting into context the values they showed in their service, the same values exhibited in 1775 and that continue today in Afghanistan and Iraq. The biggest complaints have come from architectural critics. They say that the education center is not needed because all it does is explain the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, which needs no explanation. In fact, this is an ancillary experience, you don’t have to come to the Education Center, you can just visit the memorial. Some critics say no one will come to the memorial, just the education center. But I predict visitation to the memorial will probably climb 25-30 percent and stay there. The biggest problem will be the ticketing for this. We are working with the exhibit designers to keep people moving, in and out in about 35 or 45 minutes. We can get probably 3 million people in a year. I was just at the Normandy cemetery in France and they have a visitors center there too and what they found is when it gets crowded people say, “Oh well, let’s go look at the graves,” and they then look at the battlefield area at the beach and then they come back and get in line to go through the visitors center. They faced the same arguments there, “Once you build the visitor center no one will want to visit the graves of the soldiers.”
Isn’t this similar to Maya Lin’s reaction to the addition of the three-man statue near the Wall?
For her there was more of a pride of ownership. She felt the statue — and she was right — altered the experience, it was no longer the Wall by itself. But the two of them are working together in synergy, they work together just fine. When people are at the Education Center, which is not under the memorial but across the street on the Lincoln grounds, they won’t see the memorial at all. What they will see is the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. They will know the Vietnam Memorial is there, so there is some synergy. And, when visitors go see the other monuments on the Mall, like the Korean War and World War II, this Education Center will tie them all together.
How will it deal with the Vietnam War’s most controversial events, such as the Gulf of Tonkin?
We will have a chronology of events that occurred in Vietnam. When we start is still in question. We’re not going to start when Jefferson authorized ships to sail to Vietnam to bring rice back to plant in Louisiana. Do we go back to 1943 when the OSS was hanging around with Ho, or do we start with the Korean War because that was so pivotal to the history of the Vietnam War? Truman said we were going to stop and contain communism, which we did, in Korea. The thinking was it would be no different in Vietnam, cut the country in half, it’ll work just fine. How do you deal with the controversial decisions made, like the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution? Well we’re not going to have pictures of LBJ struggling over tough decisions or other political leaders. It will remain consistent with the rest of the center and focus on the individual soldiers. We’re not going to be using a lot of adjectives. The bookstore will be right next to the exit.
After the Education Center, what’s next for Jan Scruggs?
I don’t know, getting old. I’m 60.
How does it feel to know you have been so instrumental in the Wall’s creation?
I wish I had kids, but I guess the Wall was my baby, and my kids are those in Quang Tri who we keep from getting blown up thanks to Project Renew. It is a nice feeling but I don’t get overwhelmed by it all. I have a Christian faith, which came from my parents who were dirt poor economic refugees from Alabama during WWII. For me, the best thing that happened was going to Vietnam and getting wounded, because I ended up getting a free education and a master’s degree, which ultimately led to the idea for the memorial. If I had not been wounded, I probably would have gotten a job at the post office. Of course, then I’d be retired now, playing golf, going deer hunting, just laying around and having a good time….