The Vietnam Veterans Memorial project was plagued by problems from the start. Not only did the project’s leader, Jan C. Scruggs, have to contend with the fact that nobody had ever built a veterans memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., before, but many veterans and policy makers thought the design was too avant-garde. A giant wall of polished black rock etched with the names of the 58,256 American service members who were either killed or went missing in Vietnam seemed more reminiscent of the anti-war movement than the war itself. The project moved forward anyways and was completed in 1982. And it didn’t take long for the memorial wall to become, as Scruggs later described it, “something of a shrine,” for those who served in Vietnam — a testament to the adage, “if you build it, they will come.” On any given day you’ll see them, the veterans of the Vietnam War, among the crowds of chattering tourists. They appear, in some way, more anchored to the wall than everyone else.
Nearly 15 years ago, the United States entered into another conflict that has cost the lives of thousands of Americans, wounded tens of thousands more, and forced countless citizens to struggle with its economic and human ramifications back home. That is my war. That is the war I signed up for when, in 2006 — three years after George W. Bush stood on the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq beneath a banner that read “Mission Accomplished” — I wandered into an Army recruiting station and told a chubby sergeant first class with a wad of tobacco in his lip that I wanted to enlist. Now, 10 years later, the Global War on Terror is still drawing young Americans into that very same recruiting station to begin a similar journey that may eventually take them to the same battlefields it took me. And I imagine that 10 years from today it will continue to do the same.
So when I recently heard about a group of young veterans in Pennsylvania spearheading a project to build a Global War on Terror veterans memorial on the National Mall, my first question was, why? Even to me, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who’s devoted much of his post-military life to writing about those conflicts, the effort seemed foolishly premature. How can we even begin to think about memorializing a war that hasn’t ended yet — or, as some experts predict, is only just beginning? It’s the obvious question that will snag this project at every turn. But, as I gradually came to realize, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because if we as a nation value the importance of these monuments, it’s a question we must grapple with now as we face the prospect of endless war. And to answer it, we must begin with an honest assessment of what a national veterans memorial is, or is supposed to be. Specifically: What is its function? And who is it for?
How can we even begin to think about memorializing a war that hasn’t ended yet — or, as some experts predict, is only just beginning?
Take the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, for example. Every day, the wall draws scores of visitors from around the world. Most are tourists. You can tell by the way they stop just long enough to acknowledge it, and then move on, usually in the direction of the more photogenic Korean War Veterans Memorial nearby. Some pause to run their fingers across the wall’s facade, over the names of strangers who were killed or went missing in a distant war waged decades ago. If they’re old enough to remember the conflict, it may conjure memories of protests, or the draft, or televised body counts, or the pride they felt the day a cousin returned from ‘Nam with medals on his chest. But for most visitors, I’d imagine, the wall is a relic they feel little or no connection to. Still, it was constructed with them in mind. For those of us who didn’t experience Vietnam, the wall is there for us to witness and consider, even for just a brief moment, its human toll.
Among the crowd, there are also those who felt then, and continue to feel, the weight of that toll profoundly. There are the family members of the fallen, for whom the memorial functions much like a grave. There’s a name on the wall that belonged to a person they once knew and loved, whose death brought the war home for good.
Then, of course, there’s the Vietnam veteran. He may be there to pay his respects to fallen comrades, but the wall was built for those who made it back alive, too. It represents an experience that only he and a tiny fraction of the population can call their own, which is the experience of an American service member who deployed to the war in Vietnam. For him, the wall is an acknowledgement that whatever he experienced over there is worthy of respect and attention. And to both him and the families of the fallen, the memorial’s placement on the National Mall says: Your sacrifice matters, not just to you, but to us all.
… the memorial’s placement on the National Mall says: Your sacrifice matters, not just to you, but to us all.
The word “sacrifice” gets thrown around a lot when we talk about military service, but, as a soldier, it always made me uncomfortable when people thanked me for my “sacrifice.” I had made it through two deployments without a scratch. Plenty of guys I knew had been killed or wounded. Some came back without their sanity. That was sacrifice. But what had I given up? It wasn’t until I got out of the military that I began to understand how the word “sacrifice” can be applied to an entire generation of war veterans. It was only after I re-entered the civilian workforce that it became apparent what, exactly, I had lost: my sense of connection to the country I’d served. I returned from war eager to be a civilian again, but I couldn’t help feeling like I had risked my life for people who couldn’t care less that I left in the first place. But that’s what war does. It alienates. It creates a division between those who didn’t experience it and those who did, and that division is usually only perceived by the latter. The grand gesture of erecting a war memorial on the National Mall won’t heal that divide, but it could help.
Over the coming decades, the Vietnam veteran generation will gradually thin out. Then, one day, it will disappear, and so will everyone else whose lives were directly touched by the war. But the Vietnam generation benefited from the efforts of Scruggs, who worked tirelessly to ensure that the memorial was built less than 10 years after the end of the war. By contrast, the National World War II Memorial was opened in 2004, 60 years after our troops came home. And If a World War I Memorial is ever erected on the National Mall, not a single veteran of that war will be present at the ribbon cutting ceremony. Does that mean we shouldn’t build one? Of course not. Preserving a war’s legacy is an important function of a memorial, but it’s not the only one. If we wait for the Global War on Terror to reach its official conclusion before initiating the process of building a national memorial — a process that will likely take between eight to 10 years — we risk losing all of the good it could bring those who served and sacrificed during the initial phases of the conflict. Now is the time to start.
The Pennsylvania-based nonprofit organization leading the charge is called the Global War On Terror Memorial Foundation. The group’s founder is a former U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter pilot named Andrew Brennan, who, with Scruggs’ help, has managed to rally some of our country’s most influential veterans, including Gen. David Petraeus and Medal of Honor recipient Florent Groberg, behind the project. Still, their influence alone won’t be enough to overturn a statute written in 1986 that states Congress can only consider a memorial 10 years after the war in question has ended. To overcome that obstacle, they’ll need the help of the post-9/11 veteran community. They’ll need an army of support. In other words, if we want a GWOT memorial built on the National Mall within our lifetimes, it’s on us to make it happen. We’ve managed 15 years of counterinsurgency warfare in some of the world’s most physically complex environments. We can manage this, too.