The nation’s capital is home to a plethora of iconic statues, memorials, and walls remembering our veterans, our fallen, and our wars. Gavriel Rosenfeld, associate professor of History at Fairfield University, calls it the “nerve center of memorials.”
Traditionally, there must be a 10-year waiting period after the end of a war until work can begin on a national memorial. That’s why Michael “Rod” Rodriguez, president of the Global War on Terror Memorial Foundation and former Army Green Beret Special Forces who served in Afghanistan, wants to start the process now.
“We have been at war for almost 18 years now, and there’s no end in sight,” he said in an interview with The American Conservative. “If we don’t honor those who served now, when are we going to do it?”
A strong proponent of the memorial, Rodriguez argues that the traditional waiting period prevents veterans from the earliest days of this decades-long conflict from seeing the memorial. Rodriguez’s wife and son both deployed in recent years, and he told the Military Times that his first grandson may well “be fighting in this war” when he grows up.
Congress swiftly passed the Global War on Terrorism Memorial Act, introduced by congressmen and Iraq War veterans Seth Moulton and Mike Gallagher in February 2017. A mere six months after its introduction, the Senate unanimously passed the legislation, which was signed by President Donald Trump. The foundation then received authorization to begin the design, fundraising, and construction of the monument on the National Mall, and they hope to break ground on the project by 2022. The project has set a fundraising goal of $50 million, which is a quarter of the cost of the World War II Memorial.
“I served in Iraq with some of the best Americans I know, and we owe this to all of them, to their families, and to the young men and women who continue put their lives on the line for us today,” said Moulton, who as a Marine led one of the first infantry platoons into Iraq in 2003. He ended up serving two tours through 2008.
The most recent casualties in the GWOT took place as recently as three weeks ago in Afghanistan, and included a contractor.
“That speaks to the complexities of this war and the fact that we are still losing American lives, in and out of uniform,” said Rodriguez. He added that that factor makes this one “different from other memorials: we’re honoring everyone that serves. We have people fighting terrorism in a multitude of ways, and we want to honor all of them.”
Rodriguez believes the monument should be on the National Mall because, while this war is “not forgotten,” it is largely out of the picture, and “we need that national reminder.”
But is this what a war monument is supposed to be for?
Veterans and regular contributors to The American Conservative questioned the wisdom of memorializing what they termed a “tragic” decision by the United States to engage in ongoing, decades-long wars.
“The series of wars that have been fought since 9/11 have been mostly disastrous for our country,” said Daniel L. Davis, a veteran of the global war on terror. He told TAC that none of the “wars of choice” since March 2003 in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Niger, and other countries were tied to the tragedy of September 11, 2001.
In a Pew poll released this week, 64 percent of veterans polled said the Iraq war was “not worth fighting,” and 58 percent said the same about Afghanistan.
“We should not memorialize such tragic, foolish decisions by our national leaders,” Davis said, adding that he is “adamantly opposed” to the erection of a GWOT memorial on the National Mall.
“There should be no expectation that we must build some special structure to each and every military conflict that the U.S. engages in,” said Davis. “The level to which the nation and Armed Forces were committed for the First World War, Second World War, Korean War, and Vietnam Wars were considerable and, in most cases, very traumatic. At no point did [the Global War on Terror] ever reach to the levels of these conflicts which have memorials, and almost for that reason alone it should not be placed as equivalent to them.”
“As one who deployed three times in the GWOT era, I don’t believe we deserve a permanent place on the Mall just because we did our tactical jobs well,” said Davis. “The standards for such commendation should require the participation and sacrifice of the entire population. In such cases, national recognition is appropriate.”
But Rodriguez counters that the fact that the men and women serving in the military make up less than 1 percent of the U.S. population at any given time speaks to their heroism and sacrifice, making their contributions even more worthy of commendation.
Gil Barndollar, a U.S. Marine Corps officer who deployed twice to Afghanistan, told TAC he thinks the memorial is “a bad idea; I’m against it.”
“It’s not so much because it’s a war we lost or are losing—it’s that it’s a war that has not ended,” he said. “We have troops still scattered throughout the Middle East…. To build a monument to the Global War on Terror seems incredibly premature.”
Like Barndollar, Marine Corps captain and Iraq and Afghanistan veteran Dan Grazier also questioned the timing.
“A better monument to the men and women who’ve died in these wars would be to come to a resolution for the conflict, and to take care of the needs of the men and women who have served,” he said. “Then we can start talking about a monument.”
Rodriguez argued that the monument will “help people have these conversations. We’re not trying to mold policy.”
Still, Barndollar questioned whether the country can create a memorial that “would speak to the ambiguity, to the unfinished nature, or to the errors of these wars.”
“Regardless of the administration, I don’t think this is going to be a moment for reflection, for consideration, or for reevaluation of U.S. foreign policy or defense policy. It’s more likely to be a pat on the back, a self-aggrandizing, ‘thank you for your service’ moment writ-large,” said Barndollar.
War memorials have historically stirred up their fair share of controversy. In fact, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, completed in 1982, was so bitterly opposed by some, including veterans, that the site of the black wall of names was dubbed “a monument to defeat,” an “open grave,” the “degrading ditch,” a “wailing wall,” and a “black gash of shame.” Ultimately, the Commission of Fine Arts decided to add to the site a statue and a flag, but that did little to assuage critics, who heaped upon the memorial all of America’s deeply divided feelings over the war. Today, the memorial is one of the most visited sites in Washington.
It remains to be seen whether the GWOT memorial will be able to thread that needle. The Commemorative Works Act involves a 24-step process, and the Global War on Terror Memorial project is currently at the site selection stage. They have not yet entered the design phase. In a survey of what the memorial should represent, the foundation received opinions from service members on active duty, veterans, Gold Star families, faith leaders, and people who never served “because that’s the majority of Americans and this is their memorial,” said Rodriguez.
War memorials in the U.S. have added significance due to geography. In Europe, there are “visible reminders of the destructiveness of battle” riddled throughout the landscape, Rosenfeld explained. But in the U.S., “you hardly ever see signs of ruins—or signs of failure and destruction. Without those visible reminders of the destructiveness of battle, it’s easy to forget about the history and the true horror of war.”
“For Americans, being at war has become normal, and it shouldn’t ever be,” said Rodriguez. The global war on terror is “a multi-generational conflict with no end in sight. My hope is the memorial will spark something in people and help them to remember that we still have people serving, fighting and dying in these wars.”
Barbara Boland is The American Conservative’s foreign policy and national security reporter. Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.