A tourist exploring the National Mall in Washington, D.C., will encounter monuments commemorating American soldiers who served in some of the 20th century’s most epochal conflicts, such as WWII and the Korean and Vietnam War. The defining U.S. battle of the 21st century, the Global War on Terror, seems poised to have a more difficult road towards memorializing. A new organization seeking to create a monument to honor soldiers from this conflict face a knotty question: when is the right time to memorialize the longest-running war in U.S. history, one that doesn’t seem to have an end date in sight?
The Global War on Terrorism Memorial Foundation believes now is the time to honor those who have served and sacrificed, which includes nearly 3 million veterans and more than 7,000 dead. Like past memorial campaigns, the non-profit, founded by a group of veterans last year, has to meet a series of challenges: obtain congressional designation as the official national non-profit building the memorial, secure federal space on the National Mall, choose and commission a designer, and raise funds.
But the GWOTMF has one additional hurdle: Congressional approval of an amendment to the Commemorative Work Acts of 1986, which states that an official war memorial can only be erected 10 years after the conclusion of the conflict.
The GWOT, which started soon after 9/11 and continues today, has become the longest war in U.S. military history at 15 years and running. According to Lisa Wong, a board member of the memorial group and an active-duty Air Force captain, her group’s pitch a lot harder without an end in sight.
“We don’t see the need to wait,” she says. “With this type of war, it’s unclear when and if this will end.”
Wong sketched out a scenario that helps explain the group’s push to build as soon as possible. Take the case of a 40-year-old sergeant who was serving in 2001. He’s now 55 years old. If the GWOT Memorial Group was able to get authorization today, they still expect a decade-long process to raise money and finish the memorial. That soldier would be 65 before any permanent memorial was finished, and that’s a best-case timeline.
In a war fought by an all-volunteer force, it seems particularly unfair that today’s veterans may not get a chance to see their sacrifice memorialized. Memorials can also raise awareness of veterans’ issues and help the national heal and confront mixed feelings about the conflict. Maya Lin’s iconic monument to the Vietnam War was dedicated in 1982, just seven years after the conflict ended. Wong believes in that case, speedy memorialization helped a veterans community that wasn’t getting proper support.
While the group has attracted support, they’re holding off in major fundraising until they obtain approvals. Jan Scruggs, the veteran who founded the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, has mentored the group, and just wrote an op-ed about the movement, suggesting that after spending more than $800 million on monuments at the Pentagon, the World Trade Center and the crash site of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania, it’s time to honor the troops. The organization has also been in talks with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, as well as the National Desert Storm War Memorial organization about collaboration and this past fall, Congressman Ryan Zinke (R-MT) and Seth Moulton (D-MA) introduced a bipartisan bill to authorize the memorial, though it has yet to receive a vote.
Wong understands that not everyone is going to agree, that anything attached to a controversial conflict will get pushback. But for a war that’s such an important part of our nation’s history—”everyone knows where they were during 9/11”—it’s important to create a gathering place for families and a way for the country to come together.
“We want this to be a memorial that honors, heals, remembers, and educates,” she says. “We are aware of the differences of opinion people may have.”