Sixteen years have passed since the vicious jihadist attacks of September 11, 2001. Sixteen years of constant war – the longest war in our nation’s history. Sixteen years of deployments in some of the most hostile parts of the world – Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. And sixteen years of untold bravery and selfless courage by our men and women in uniform. Enough time has passed since this generational conflict began: it’s time to honor the fallen heroes of the Global War on Terrorism with their own memorial on the National Mall in Washington DC. This is an effort being led by the Global War on Terror Memorial Foundation in conjunction with sponsors in Congress, but ultimately it’s up to us – We the People – Democrat, Republican, & everything in between – Left, Right, & Center – to help make it happen. Memorial Day might be behind us now, but honoring our fallen must not be relegated to just one single 24-hour period each year. It’s time to #BuildTheMemorial.
When you live in Washington D.C., it’s easy to become slightly jaded: the scandals, the intrigue, the partisanship, the here’s-my-business-card transactional relationships, the House-of-Cards fantasy mentality that some seem to have. But for me, those negative feelings melt away every time that I go for a run on the National Mall – a public green space stretching from the U.S. Capitol Building all the way to the great seated visage of our nation’s 16th President, lined on all sides by museums and galleries and Smithsonians that contain some of our greatest national treasures within their walls. So living in D.C. does have some benefits. Being able to gaze up at the Capitol Dome, a moving and enduring symbol of our Republic and being able to run up and touch the white stone of the Washington Monument. And there’s no better way to start a day than by finishing a work out on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at dawn as the sun slowly rises over the horizon and scatters its first light across the Reflecting Pool. But the National Mall contains something more powerful than any of that – it is home to some of our most searing and consequential war memorials.
The World War Two Memorial – with its stone pillars and archways, its bronze sculptures, and its jets of water – is an homage to the 16 million men and women who served in & the 417,000 who died during our victory over the twin threats of Nazi Fascism and Japanese Imperialism. The less-imposing but still-moving Korean War Memorial with its nineteen larger-than-life-sized soldier statutes representing each service branch and forming a squad out on a mission – built in honor of the 5.7 million service members who fought and the 54,000 who fell (36,000 of them in-theater) – seems to come alive especially at night. (My grandfather on my mom’s side fought in World War Two and my grandfather on my dad’s side fought in that war too as well as almost losing his life in Korea, so you can imagine why those memorials hold a special place in my heart.) And then of course there is the Vietnam Memorial Wall (sometimes just called “The Wall”) – two jet black walls that begin low & sunken into the ground only to rise and rise until they meet at a ten foot high apex that looms above you – where you can read the names of the 58,315 service members who died or are still unaccounted for etched into the stone as your own reflection peers dimly back at you through the dark polished wall. The memorials are monuments to the bravery, the honor, and the sacrifice of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who did their duty and who lost their lives in service to the nation. They are places of reflection for visitors to the nation’s capital and they are places of healing and remembrance for the friends and families of those who have served. But the men & women who have served and fought and died during the Global War on Terrorism – during what is our nation’s longest war – and who are currently still serving and fighting and even dying in this war – have no such memorial. It’s time for that to change.
Everyone remembers exactly where they were on September 11th, as planes hijacked by al-Qaeda terrorist operatives slammed into both buildings at the World Trade Center, with another ripping a gaping hole in the side of the Pentagon and yet another burying itself in a quiet field in Shanksville Pennsylvania after a brave passenger revolt. These attacks – which came in the wake of al-Qaeda bombings of the WTC and of African embassies in the 1990’s as well as the bombing of the USS Colein 2000 – were the clearest indication that were in a new kind of war, whether we liked it or not. I was only 14 years old at the time (I skipped one of my morning freshman classes that day and watched the second plane strike one of the towers on live TV) and I clearly remember that, when the Twin Towers came crashing down, the general expectation for days was that tens of thousands had likely died. The official figure ended up being a still-devastating 2,996 innocents killed, making it the deadliest terrorist attack in history – an attack even worse than the surprise strike against Pearl Harbor by Japan that awakened America from its slumber and led her into the Second World War. It was, in fact, the worst encounter by a foreign enemy on American soil since the War of 1812. In the wake of 9/11, there was a brief but important moment of national unity – members of both parties of Congress gathering on the steps of the Capitol to sing “God Bless America” being the most poignant. And even as that sense of unity, of bipartisanship, of we’re-all-in-this-togetherness all descended fairly quickly into the usual political rancor and into a national division that lasts to this very day, one group remained steadfast and firm – the United States military. The men & women of the 9/11 Generation – those who would step up and answer the call in the wake of these horrific attacks – would unfailing carry out their duty around the globe.
In front of a joint session of Congress, President George W. Bush would declare: “On September the 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country. Americans have known wars, but for the past 136 years they have been wars on foreign soil, except for one Sunday in 1941. Americans have known the casualties of war, but not at the center of a great city on a peaceful morning. Americans have known surprise attacks, but never before on thousands of civilians. All of this was brought upon us in a single day, and night fell on a different world, a world where freedom itself is under attack … Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes. Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes visible on TV and covert operations secret even in success. We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place until there is no refuge or no rest. And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.”
America’s response to these attacks would take our military all around the globe as we combated the various pernicious manifestations of terrorism and jihad. To the mountains of Tora Bora, where we routed al-Qaeda and the Taliban alongside our allies in the Northern Alliance. To the Korengal Valley, where our soldiers would push back against a renewed Taliban insurgency. To Fallujah, where our troops would carry out some of the most intense urban combat in decades as they went door-to-door against the brutal members of al-Qaeda in Iraq. To Mosul, where our special operations forces have helped deal blow after blow against the would-be Islamic caliphate. There are countless heroic battles that many people have likely already forgotten: the toppling of the Taliban; the removal of Saddam Hussein from power; the twin battle against an al-Qaeda insurgency and against Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq; and of course the ongoing struggle against the Islamic State and its various manifestations around the world. There are the villains that we’ve vanquished: Osama bin Laden, Saddam, Uday, & Qusay Hussein, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Anwar al-Awlaki, and countless terrorists worldwide. But there are still villains that remain at-large: Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mullah Omar, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. No matter what we asked our military to do – regime change, COIN, “Surges” of both the Iraqi and Afghani varieties – they’ve proved that they really are the finest fighting force in the history of the world. Whether fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq or Syria or Yemen or Somalia; whether battling Al-Qaeda or ISIS or Boko Haram; whether patrolling the dusty blazing hot streets of Baghdad or driving convoys across IED-strewn roads on the Afghan-Pakistan border or conducting perilous helicopter raids deep inside Taliban-infested territory; and whether being honored in death with posthumous accolades or falling in battles so secret that we still don’t know about them and maybe never will, the men & women who have fought in this global struggle against terrorism have proven their worth and their mettle.
As mentioned earlier, the organization leading the effort to establish this national memorial is called the Global War on Terror Memorial Foundation. Founded by Andrew Brennan – an Army Aviation Officer and Afghan War veteran – the organization states that it is “a non-profit whose mission is to provide the organizing, fundraising, and coordinating efforts to build a memorial on the National Mall in Washington D.C. to honor our fallen warriors, US services members, their families, and all those who supported our nation’s longest war.” The group aims to change existing federal law – specifically the 1986 Commemorative Works Act – to allow for the establishment of a GWOT Memorial. Under current law, a war must be over for a full ten years before a memorial can even be authorized. It is a well-intentioned law that unfortunately did not account for the sort of generational (or even multi-generational) conflict that we find ourselves in during the struggle against radical Islamic terrorism. This war has already been waged for nearly two decades and, given its nature, it could potentially last another couple decades or longer. Thus, in order to build a memorial, the law needs to be changed. This project has broad military support – its advisory board includes General David Petraeus. General George Casey, and General James Conway. Jan Scruggs, the Founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, is also on the board. And numerous fantastic veterans service organizations like Got Your Six, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), Gold Star Mothers, and the Wounded Warrior Project are all big supporters & partners in the endeavor as well. What is lacking at this moment, however, is what might prove to be the most important ingredient – broad public support, likely due to a simple lack of public awareness about the effort. If this memorial is to be successful, it will need the public to support the effort both legislatively and monetarily. That is why the word needs to be spread far & wide.
Importantly, the proposal for the memorial states that the memorial itself will emphasize & highlight the qualities and values of those fighting in the Global War on Terrorism itself: “Endurance. Sacrifice. All-Volunteer. Global. Multi-Cultural. Unfinished.” To me, the most guideline for the proposed memorial that stands out most is that it will be unfinished. Like the war itself, the proposed memorial will be unfinished – ongoing – a work in progress – an effort not yet completed – an endeavor not yet fully resolved. It will stand as a stark reminder that, even as we remember those who have fought and fallen, the war continues until our last soldier, sailor, Marine, or airman is safely home.
The Global War on Terror continues to rage both in the West and around the globe, with the recent events in Britain throwing this truth into sharp relief. This is actually the third major terrorist attack in the United Kingdom in just three months – the Westminster Attack, the Manchester Bombing, and now the London Bridge Attack. And of course we cannot forget the Malawi attack in the Philippines which occurred at almost the exact same time as the Manchester Bombing. Elsewhere, there was also the Pulse nightclub shooting, the San Bernardino massacre, the attacks in Nice, the Paris attacks, the Charlie Hebdo slaughter, the Brussels bombings, the Berlin attack, the Istanbul attack, the Stockholm truck attack, the bombings of Coptic Christian churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday, the Boston Marathon bombing, the Madrid train bombings, the London tube bombings, the Bali nightclub bombings, the attacks of September 11th, the USS Cole bombing, the Khobar Towers bombing, the African embassy bombings, the first World Trade Center attack, and on and on.
And of course our soldiers continue to fight jihadists all across the globe, with some our soldiers recently falling in battles against ISIS in Afghanistan, against al-Shabaab in Somalia, against al-Qaeda in Yemen, and in battles we may not have even heard of yet. All told to-date, many thousandsof Americans have fallen in the GWOT — some 4,411 Americans have died during Operation Iraqi Freedom, some 2,346 Americans have died during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and around 150 more (that we know of) have been killed in other operations around the globe. Each of these fallen men & women deserve to be memorialized and honored for their sacrifice.
“No greater love is there than this than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” So says the Gospel of John. That is the truth – and when soldiers lay down their lives, it usually is for the friend next to them. Don’t get me wrong: they serve for honorable & high-minded principles – for God, for flag, for country, for peace, for freedom, and so on – but in the heat of battle, when the enemy is closing, when split-second life-and-death decisions are being made, and when a soldier decides to jump on a grenade or step into the line of fire or stand their ground against a bomb-laden car barrelling down the road at them, they are almost invariably thinking about the friend, the fellow soldier, the brother-in-arms next to them. And when a soldier is killed, it is that brother-in-arms who is left behind. That is who this memorial is for – the families, the friends, & the brothers-in-arms who remain. General Patton once said: “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.” So, let us thank them – and let us thank them in a way that at attempts to be worthy of their actions, however meager our efforts might be in comparison to their sacrifice. It is on us to get this memorial built, because if not us, then who? And if not now, then when? It’s time to unite around this as a nation – blue, red, Left, Right, liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican — as this is something we can all get behind. It’s time to honor our fallen and our veterans the way that they deserve – the way that previous generations occasionally failed to do. It’s time to remember both the battles already fought and those yet to come. It’s time to recognize the fallen of the GWOT alongside those who fought in World War Two and in Korea and in Vietnam. And it’s time to #BuildTheMemorial.