A Global War on Terror Memorial Is Unnecessary
I am a veteran of the “Global War on Terror,” and believe that constructing a memorial to the war I fought in is unnecessary. The effort is well-intentioned and sincere, but risks creating a sense of false closure for the American people regarding a series of conflicts that remain far from over. Perhaps more importantly, veterans could have a positive impact on the lives of many Americans if we redirected the energy dedicated to constructing such a memorial towards other causes.
In a development that War on the Rocks contributor Chris Preble foresaw in 2004, and considered again last year alongside the Washington Post’s David Montgomery, a campaign to construct a Global War on Terror memorial in Washington, D.C., is underway. The proposed memorial is intended to “commemorate and honor the members of the Armed Forces who served in support of our nation’s longest war, especially those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.” Advocates for its construction fought to secure passage of the Global War on Terrorism War Memorial Act of 2017. The legislation waived the waiting period for constructing a national war memorial established by the Commemorative Works Act of 1986, which requires waiting a decade following the cessation of hostilities – making an exception for a memorial to the Global War on Terror. This waiver was necessary because the conflict remains active, with troops regularly engaged in combat in a number of locations. If the memorial inadvertently leads the general public to believe that the American response to 9/11 is complete — even while servicemembers remain deployed across the globe fighting in it — wouldn’t its purpose be defeated?
The sacrifices of Global War on Terror veterans should be honored and remembered by the nation they continue to serve. So should the sacrifices of those who secured America’s independence from a distant tyrant, traveled across an ocean to assert that their fledgling country wouldn’t accept ransom payments made to the Barbary Pirates, and secured victory at Baltimore and New Orleans in the War of 1812. Certainly, all those who served in the Civil War, the conflict that ended slavery and preserved the Union at a cost in life that far exceeds any other American war, deserve to be memorialized.
None of these veterans have memorials dedicated specifically to their memory on the National Mall.
Unlike veterans of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, those who fought in conflicts ended long ago don’t have a political constituency or well-resourced 501(c)3s to advocate for the construction of their memorials. In light of this disparity, perhaps alternative means of memorializing the sacrifices of all generations of American veterans exist: military cemeteries already found on five continents, and a commitment to building a society we’ll be proud to pass on to future generations.
I visited Tunis in 2013, when the memory of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation still echoed through the streets alongside the call to prayer. History permeates that place like few others. Its current begins at the Carthaginian ruins atop Byrsa Hill, which overlooked the city 2,200 years ago as an inferno set by the Roman army consumed it in the last days of a war of aggression subsequently described as the world’s first genocide. It runs down through neighborhoods rich with Roman, Islamic, and French influences, and with the unique culture of Tunisians themselves.
Perhaps selfishly, the layer of history I remember most is an American one. It’s the North Africa American Cemetery, dedicated in 1960 by the American Battle Monuments Commission, which serves as the final resting place for 2,841 Americans who gave their last full measure of devotion in the effort to recapture North Africa from Nazi Germany and its Vichy French vassal during World War II. The grounds there are immaculately maintained by the U.S. Department of the Interior National Cemetery Administration, and the grave markers are of the same design as those found at American military cemeteries in Normandy, Busan, the Solomon Islands, Arlington, and dozens of other locations around the world. One feature of the site in Tunis, however, was unique: Mosaics including Arabic text memorialized the fallen throughout the cemetery. As the Adhan sounded in the distance, I thought of friends and colleagues who gave their lives in another distant Arabic-speaking country seven decades later, and I pondered the universality of cemeteries as a means to honor the fallen rather than to remember the conflicts in which they served.
To quote the lone dissenting opinion University of Virginia professor Elizabeth Meyer offered to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts in her opposition to the Desert Shield and Desert Storm Memorial, “We’re more than wars.” Meyer’s professionally courageous objection forced me to consider something: Would the ghosts of Revolutionary War veterans take umbrage at the absence of a memorial to their war on the National Mall, or would they instead view the existence of the Mall itself as a memorial to their sacrifice? Would those who fought in the War of 1812 see America’s continued independence from rule by foreign monarchs more than two centuries later as justifying their struggle? I think they would. If veterans of the Civil War could walk with us again for a day, would they bemoan the fact that while Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln have received memorials on the National Mall, a monument dedicated specifically to their honor has yet to be constructed? Would they instead contemplate the survival of a Union that went on to help save the world from the tyrannies of fascism and communism in the following century? Or visit Selma or Birmingham in an attempt to understand the long, often discouraging struggle for equality that remains ongoing 150 years after passage of the 13th Amendment and rebel surrender at Appomattox? They would likely honor the bravery of their units and comrades at thousands of cemeteries and battlefields preserved across the country. Or pay their respects at Arlington National Cemetery, built atop Robert E. Lee’s former plantation, lying squarely within Grant’s gaze eastward from the same Capitol steps that saw Lincoln offer his reflection that “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword” on the fields upon which soldiers fought.
In his 2018 War on the Rocks article, Preble asks two important questions. The first is, “Might our war memorials do more than memorialize war?” Perhaps Global War on Terror veterans should allow our contributions to be judged by future generations rather than our own, and focus in the meantime on making substantive, positive improvements in other areas. If it’s possible to pass legislation that waives the waiting period for construction of a war memorial, the same should be done for legislation that honors the sacrifices made by interpreters who risked their lives to support American troops deployed to their home countries, or renews the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, or expands mental health resources available to veterans, or protects access to clean drinking water in places like Flint or Standing Rock. Or perhaps veterans of these ongoing conflicts could help pressure elected officials into providing clearly defined and realistically achievable strategic objectives that could conclude America’s longest war, or focus on the herculean tasks of rebuilding the lives, and entire nations, ravaged by these wars. Or demand accountability, transparency, and sanity be applied to military actions to be considered in an uncertain future. This last, grave burden of citizenship speaks directly to Preble’s second question about memorials to war: “Might they also help us to avoid future ones?”
Perhaps devoting energy towards causes like those is the best way for Global War on Terror veterans to honor the Americans who lie in military cemeteries across the globe — those from our generation, and those from generations that passed long before our lives began. Monuments can help ensure that sacrifices are remembered, but they aren’t what people fight and die for. American society itself is. To help us remember that, we can draw upon the memory of those interred beneath the countless white marble tombstones found in every corner of the planet.
Chris Yeazel is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Since leaving the Army, he has worked to make buildings, neighborhoods, and transportation systems more sustainable.
Image: U.S. Marine Corps