When 19 members of al-Qaeda seized control of four civilian aircraft and crashed them into New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, killing 3,000 citizens, it guaranteed that the United States would engage in full-scale military operations to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and destroy his terror organization. Few could have predicted that those operations would continue for nearly two decades (including more than seven years after bin Laden’s death) and involve deployments around the globe. However, the enemy America faced was a new type of threat—a terror network with an almost unlimited reach, attempting to ignite a worldwide insurgency against the existing global order as a necessary step toward building an all-encompassing Muslim caliphate. When President George W. Bush dubbed the conflict the “Global War on Terror” in 2001, he chose a label that proved frightfully accurate. In the ensuing years, this war has cost the lives of more than 6,500 military personnel, and at least $5 trillion in current and future expenditures. It began with a specific purpose of avenging the September 11 attacks, but grew into an effort to combat violent extremism and the use of terrorism on a worldwide scale. As it expanded, it became more controversial, thanks in large part to the tactics, operational decisions, and strategy pursued by the United States and its partner nations.
Controversial wars are not a novel concept for America. For every clear-cut struggle between good and evil, of which World War II typically stands as the obvious example, there is a far more confusing conflict, such as the Vietnam War. As the fresh experience of each conflict begins to fade, succeeding generations are left to interpret past events and to gradually form a national consensus about what transpired, and why, and how it should be remembered. This process provides a certain degree of healing for the nation and also causes the citizenry to consider the utility of military force—and when and how it should be applied. One of the most prominent forms of this memorialization is the creation of national monuments to the fallen from a conflict. These monuments serve myriad functions in American society, ranging from providing a common ground for grieving, to interpreting the meaning of events, to remembering the sacrifices of military personnel. They are a vital aspect moving past a national conflict and helping current and future citizens consider the meaning of events.
War monuments take many forms. At the local level, they tend to be of a relatively small scale, often celebrating the heroism and sacrifice of a single individual. This might be through a statue commissioned to represent one person, often a leader or an individual dedicated for heroism, or a more generalized presentation. Larger communities might offer up a memorial to the members of the community killed in a war, either collectively or with some form of inscription listing each name. The larger a community, the larger and more costly a monument is likely to become, particularly if it memorializes a major conflict in American history. The very largest memorials, which are typically but not exclusively in the national capital, often tend toward the abstract—geometric shapes constructed on a titanic scale, offering a wide variety of surfaces for expressions related to the conflict.
There are a number of unique factors that should be considered when designing a monument to the Global War on Terror. For example, the fact that the war was conducted with an all-volunteer force is certainly worthy of explanation. This is only the second major American conflict fought with an all-volunteer force, and the duration of it has ensured that most current personnel joined the military in a time of war, making the Global War on Terror a testament to the American fighting spirit and willingness to sacrifice by those who don military uniforms. Another important aspect of the conflict to examine is the demographics of the military, which have undergone substantial changes even during the conflict. The U.S. military more closely reflects society as a whole than at any point in living memory in terms of racial demographics, the expanding inclusion of women in combat roles, and the incorporation of homosexual and transgendered individuals. Any memorial is likely to address those factors in an all-encompassing fashion, either by demonstrating the great diversity of the U.S. military, or by presenting the military as a single, almost monolithic unit.
The manner in which this war has been fought also supplies important topics. For example, the Global War on Terror has relied much more heavily upon elite troops from the Special Operations Command than any previous conflict. By deploying such an enormous number of these uniquely trained warriors, the Global War on Terror has forced an expansion of the number of service personnel within the special operations units, requiring a huge expenditure of resources for their training and equipment. It has also witnessed the development and deployment of a host of new technological means of fighting, from remotely piloted vehicles to the inclusion of assets in the space and cyber domains. The War on Terror has required U.S. military forces to engage in counter-insurgency operations, nation building, and coalition warfare with dozens of partner nations. Each of these aspects of the war presented a special challenge, both to the conduct of the conflict and the need to explain those activities to the public.
The final product of any war monument should reflect the fundamental needs associated with the conflict it memorializes. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a very subtle, even humble, means of remembering the lost men and women from that conflict. It does not soar to the heavens with heroic imagery of brave warriors—instead, it stands as a muted, resolute reminder of everything the nation lost in that conflict, and its physical appearance suggests a wound that is gradually closing. In the 36 years since it was opened to the public, the memorial wall has become a site of prayer, reflection, protests, and meetings. The National Park Service estimates 3 million visitors come to the Vietnam Memorial in each year, although it is impossible to definitively state the numbers due to the site’s open access. By comparison, the World War II Memorial is a much more grandiose, and some would argue traditional, example of how to remember and celebrate an American conflict. Interestingly, despite the intent to commemorate an uncontroversial war, the World War II Memorial was not opened until 2004, nearly 60 years after the conflict, while its Vietnam counterpart was unveiled less than a decade after the withdrawal of American troops. Neither of these examples presents the model that a Global War on Terror Memorial should take, as there are undoubtedly many effective ways of coming to grips with what the war means to the nation, and to the participants. However, there is no question that the time has come to commence a national discussion upon the form of such a memorial, and to commence efforts to design and build it, while the veterans of the War on Terror are still present to offer their insights, their influence, and their inspiration.
The Global War on Terror, with its fight against a form of violence rather than a specific, designated group; its lack of an obvious endpoint; and its almost unlimited geographic reach, may never have a true end, as it might be impossible to determine that the scourge of terrorism has been eradicated. Yet, as noted sociologist Fred Iklé pointed out, every war must end, in some fashion or another—wars cannot continue in perpetuity. The U.S. public has clearly tired of the need to deploy military forces overseas to combat a violent ideology and has increasingly questioned the wisdom of continuing to do so. Former President Barack Obama attempted to effectively end the ongoing conflicts, both by withdrawing American forces from conflict zones and by dropping the moniker “Global War on Terror” in favor of “Ongoing Contingency Operations.” However, regardless of nomenclature or redeployment of forces, the Global War on Terror is still an ongoing conflict, with no definitive endpoint in sight. The design and construction of a national memorial dedicated to the Global War on Terror thus offers the United States a final service: the ability to declare an end to the conflict, and begin the process of understanding what it meant, and how it has changed the nation. In short, the time has come to construct such a memorial, and to transition the nation into a postwar period.