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What would a GWOT memorial on the National Mall look like?

It may be too soon to erect a monument to a 20-year conflict that is ongoing and that many Americans still don’t understand.

Analysis | Global Crises

In 2004, Christopher Preble, Co-Director of the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council, imagined what an Iraq War memorial might look like, remarking that, “all wars, whether they end in defeat or victory, share common dichotomies: life and death; barbarism and selflessness; triumph and tragedy.” It’s hard to even fathom how America will wrestle with those fundamentals when it comes to building a memorial for the Global War on Terrorism. 

But, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), a veteran of the war herself, is pretty insistent that we need a Global War on Terrorism Memorial on the National Mall sooner rather than later. Her sponsored legislation, S.535, says, “given the significance of the Global War on Terrorism as the longest-running conflict in United States history and the magnitude of the sacrifice involved in operations in that conflict, it is appropriate to locate the National Global War on Terrorism Memorial within the Reserve alongside existing memorials to the major armed conflicts of the United States.” 

In 2017, through bipartisan legislation, former President Donald Trump authorized the first step in a lengthy memorial approval process that allowed the privately-funded Global War on Terrorism Memorial Foundation to design and construct a Global War on Terror Memorial. Just last week, another obstacle was overcome when the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed S.535 to approve the construction on the National Mall at no expense to the American taxpayer, which means the proposal can now hit the Senate floor. 

Setting aside where the memorial should be located, does erecting a memorial so soon allow us to be honest about the last two decades of conflict?

Memorials of war, whether a mirrored wall that lists those we lost in Vietnam or soldiers frozen in time to commemorate the 5.8 million Americans who served in Korea, speak to how America chooses to remember conflict. America hasn’t even fully swallowed what the last 20 years have cost us let alone come to a conclusion about how the Global War on Terrorism should be both criticized and memorialized. 

According to the Pew Research Center, 93 percent of Americans over the age of 30 said they can “remember exactly where they were or what they were doing when they heard about the attacks on September 11th.” A terrorist attack so devastating and enduring that time seemed to standstill. But, what’s perplexing is that today the general public can’t even naildown how long America has been fighting these seemingly endless conflicts that spawned from 9/11. 

An Ipsos survey commissioned by the Global War on Terrorism Memorial Foundation, found that only 35 percent of individuals surveyed could correctly point to Sept. 11, 2001 as the start of America’s ongoing fight against terrorism. Furthermore, 39 percent of those individuals didn’t know the duration of the Global War on Terror and 25 percent thought we had been fighting those conflicts for over 30 years. So a majority of the respondents had no clue that we recently entered the 20th year of endless wars. We can all but guarantee Americans could not even guess in the ballpark of 7,063, for the number of lives we sacrificed fighting these conflicts. But, we don’t build memorials just for the layman. 

There is significant veteran support for building a memorial that speaks to the ambiguity and devastation of the War on Terrorism. Michael Rodriguez, former Army Green Beret Special Forces in Afghanistan and President of the Global War on Terrorism Memorial Foundation, argues that, “the memorial will spark something in people and help them to remember that we still have people serving, fighting and dying in these wars.” Rodriguez is not wrong. These conflicts, for a whole host of reasons and pitfalls, are still ongoing. However, a memorial is not going to suddenly spark great concern from the American public. 

Retired Major Danny Sjursen, who served tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, is in favor of erecting a memorial “only if it does not take a jingoistic tone.” That may be the best approach. It’s premature to build a memorial for a war that we are continuing to mentally grapple with, but if we push ahead, any memorial should accurately represent the ambiguity of the combat. 

Seven in 10 Americans believe that we failed to achieve our goals in Afghanistan and a smaller, but still significant number of Americans feel the same about our time in Iraq. And that’s just two theaters of the Global War on Terrorism. According to the Brookings Institute, only 30 percent of Americans believe we are now safer than we were before 9/11. In fact, 44 percent think we are less safe, implying that the Global War on Terrorism did more harm than good. If a memorial can accurately depict that sentiment, then full speed ahead. But it’s hard not to question whether or not that is even possible. 

Even a majority of veterans, who this memorial would be honoring and remembering, look back now and remark that both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not worth fighting. After all, hindsight is 20/20. No one would argue that we should not build a memorial to honor the great sacrifices that our soldiers have made, but that as a country we need time to process what went wrong over the last twenty years before building an honorable and authentic dedication. 

Corporal Timothy Antolini, left, anti-tank missileman, Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, and Lance Cpl. Joseph Tyler, center, anti-tank missileman, provide security as a CH-53E Super Sea Stallion helicopter lands during a mission in Helmand province, Afghanistan, April 28, 2014. The company's mission was to disrupt Taliban forces in Larr Village and establish a presence in the area. Five days prior to the helicopter-borne mission, the company confiscated two rocket-propelled grenades in the vicinity of the village.
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