The proposal for a Global War on Terrorism Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, to honor the country’s post-9/11 war dead, described in Sunday’s Globe, may seem like a no-brainer. It is, in fact, premature. Before proceeding further, Americans would do well to reflect further on exactly what they propose to memorialize.
Existing federal legislation prohibits installing a war memorial on the Mall until at least 10 years after the fighting has ended. Democratic Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts is cosponsoring a bill that will waive that requirement. On the surface, the argument in favor of such a waiver is compelling. Given the open-ended nature of the conflict in which US forces are presently engaged, to wait for it to end before honoring the fallen is in effect to postpone that honor indefinitely. In effect, “forever war” may well mean “soon forgotten.”
Yet Moulton’s proposed legislation skips past larger issues that demand prior resolution. Two in particular stand out: the war’s actual purpose and when exactly it began.
“Global War on Terrorism” has never accurately described the enterprise upon which the United States embarked in the wake of 9/11. The formulation is at best misleading where not simply fraudulent. In practice, US opposition to terrorism is selective rather than global. When it comes to regimes that it deems useful for other reasons — Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, for example — Washington routinely turns a blind eye to their overt promotion of terrorism. Indeed, on occasion, the United States itself supports groups that engage in terrorist activities, albeit while rebranding those groups as “freedom fighters.”
Furthermore — and crucially — terrorism per se was all but irrelevant to the George W. Bush administration’s decision to initiate what became the largest and most costly of our post-9/11 military campaigns, the Iraq War of 2003-2011. Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were not allies. They were sworn enemies. Rather than reducing terrorism, Operation Iraqi Freedom fostered it. That may not have been the intention. It was undeniably the result.
How do you memorialize the fallen in a war without end?
Efforts to recognize Americans killed in the war on terror are bumping into a law against building a memorial on the National Mall until after a war is over.
To depict the 2003 invasion of Iraq as part of a larger project undertaken to combat terrorism, therefore, is nothing short of Orwellian. Sustaining that fiction serves only to allow proponents of that disastrous conflict to evade accountability.
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We can more usefully characterize the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 as a continuation of a prior Iraq War that the United States had seemingly won in 1991. In short, the aim in 2003 was to finish unfinished business. That unfinished business had next to no connection to the terrorists who perpetrated 9/11.
Yet to acknowledge the linkage between Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom is to highlight this important fact: Well before the events of September 2001, US troops were already serving, fighting, and sometimes dying in the Middle East. In other words, to identify 9/11 as the date when hostilities began is arbitrary, misleading, and ultimately unhelpful.
It is worth noting that today, 26 years after the fact, no memorial honoring US troops lost during Operation Desert Storm exists in our nation’s capital. Should they not be included in the memorial that Moulton proposes? I see no reason why they should not.
And why stop there? Why not include the Marines killed by a suicide bomber in Beirut back in 1983? Were not these 241 “peacekeepers” de facto combatants confronting adversaries that US officials classified as terrorists?
In sum, the problem with a proposed Global War on Terrorism Memorial in remembrance of US service members killed since 9/11 is twofold. First, fighting terrorism comes nowhere close to describing the actual purpose of US military endeavors in the Middle East since 9/11. If a war against terrorism, it has also been a war for oil and regional dominion. It has been a 21st-century equivalent of a war for empire.
Second, to the extent that the US can be said to be fighting (some) terrorist entities (some of the time), that fight commenced a full two decades prior to September 2001. The events of 9/11 merely called the attention of the American people to an ongoing military project in the Middle East that had previously escaped their notice.
That the nation has a solemn obligation to honor the sacrifices of those who lost their lives in military campaigns throughout the Islamic world is no doubt the case. Yet remembrance should begin with a truthful accounting of the events that led to those sacrifices. To base remembrance on convenient half-truths or willful self-deception would be to dishonor the dead.
The proper moment for constructing some suitably somber edifice out of granite and marble will present itself in due course. For now, the imperative is to reckon with what has occurred and continues to occur. That means coming to a full understanding of why these young men and women died. In that regard, we still have a long way to go.