A memorial for America’s long war

The Senate has approved a special waiver that will allow a monument for the post-9/11 war on terror to be built. Following action by the House in July, the waiver paves the way for construction of what’s being called the National Global War on Terrorism Memorial. With another 9/11 anniversary upon us, congressional action on the waiver provides an opportunity to take stock of what America’s military calls “the long war.”

A Colder War

Sixteen years after the 9/11 attacks, “long” is certainly an apt word to describe this campaign of campaigns. It is arguably America’s longest shooting war—longer than most measures of the Vietnam War, longer than World War I and World War II put together. However, to think of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) in terms of traditional definitions of warfare is to misunderstand the nature of this war. As I predicted in the months following 9/11 (see here and here), the war on terror would blend the shock, lethality and suffering of traditional warfare with the draining tension, ideological struggle and economic costs of the Cold War to produce something altogether different—a colder, harsher strain of conflict.

Indeed, in its duration, geopolitical and geographic scope, ideological dimensions, economic and human costs, the post-9/11 struggle against jihadist groups and their patrons is far more like the Cold War than other wars in American history. To those who have been listening to political and military leaders, this comes as no surprise. After all, just days after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush tried to brace the American people for “a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.” In October 2001, Adm. Michael Boyce, then-Chief of the British Defense Staff, predicted the war against terrorism “may last 50 years.” By 2006, U.S. generals began calling the campaign against terrorism “the long war.” In 2015, Gen. Martin Dempsey, described the struggle against jihadism as “a 30-year issue.” Earlier this year, Defense Secretary James Mattis called the conflict “America's long war.”

These men grasped the essence of the post-9/11 challenge: Defeating jihadism would require time and endurance and stamina. It would resemble not World War II or Desert Storm, but rather the lengthy ideological-political-military struggle with communism that shaped the post-World War II world. In this light, NSC-68, the pivotal national-security document penned in 1950 that provided a roadmap for fighting Soviet communism, appears strangely relevant: Now, as then, our enemies are animated by a “fanatic faith, antithetical to our own.” Now, as then, the challenge is “momentous, involving the fulfillment or destruction not only of this republic, but of civilization itself.” Now, as then, success depends on recognition by “all free people” that this “is in fact a real war in which the survival of the free world is at stake.”

Costs

GWOT veterans know from firsthand experience—and multiple combat tours—that this is a real war. Since 9/11, 6,913 American personnel have been killed, and 52,602 have been wounded or maimed. These figures enfold Operation Enduring Freedom (primarily but not exclusively in Afghanistan, 2001-14), Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003-10), Operation New Dawn (Iraq 2010-11), Operation Inherent Resolve (Iraq and Syria 2014-Present) and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (Afghanistan 2014-Present).

We should never forget that the vast majority of the 2,976 people killed on 9/11 were civilians. Nor should we forget that civilians unleashed the first counterstrikes against al Qaeda: United Flight 93’s passengers and crew fought the enemy, mounted a heroic effort to wrest control of their doomed plane, and in the process, spared their countrymen yet another psychological trauma. As the 9/11 Commission concluded, the objective of Flight 93’s hijackers was to attack “symbols of the American Republic: the Capitol or the White House.” But the enemy was “defeated by the alerted, unarmed passengers of United 93.” As Paul Greengrass, who directed a film about United Flight 93, pointed out, “They were the first people to inhabit the post-9/11 world.”

Contrary to what the press and some politicians say about “going it alone,” our troops have not fought or fallen alone in this harsh post-9/11 world. Nearly 2,000 coalition troops were wounded and 322 were killed in Iraq. Along with the 2,402 Americans who have died fighting for Afghanistan, 1,136 allies—Brits and Canadians, French and Germans, Italians and Danes, Australians and Poles, Jordanians and Turks, Spanish and Swedish—have died in that broken country. These numbers pale in comparison to the price our Afghan allies have paid: 30,470 Afghan security personnel were killed between 2001 and 2016, and 8,214 Pakistani troops have been killed fighting jihadist groups during that period.

The nationalities of the fallen remind us that this is in every way a global war on terrorism. It has carried U.S. troops to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, the Philippines, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Tunisia, Mauritania, Somalia, Georgia, Eritrea, Cameroon, Djibouti, Syria, Libya, Mali, Niger, Yemen, Jordan, Kenya, Nigeria, and all the way to Timbuktu (literally).

As during the Cold War, there are both setbacks and successes in the Global War on Terrorism. It hasn’t been not an unbroken string of victories. After almost 16 years of war and counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism and nation-building, military officials describe the situation in Afghanistan as an “eroding stalemate.” Mattis bluntly reports, “We are not winning in Afghanistan.”

After rapidly toppling Saddam’s regime, U.S. troops endured a brutal “postwar war” in Iraq. The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq allowed al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to reconstitute and morph into ISIS. U.S. reluctance to reengage then created a vacuum—and an opportunity—in the region that both Iran and Russia have seized.

But there have been important victories: al Qaeda founders Osama bin Laden and Muhammad Atef, Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, AQI leader Musab Zarqawi, and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein—terrorists all—have been sent to wherever mass-murderers go after they meet their Maker. Thousands of their followers have been killed. Nine-eleven mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is in a cage in Guantanamo Bay, along with 40 of his fellow jihadists. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri are either dead or deep underground. Iraq and Libya are no longer patron states of terror. Afghanistan is no longer a launching pad for terror attacks against the U.S. And the Taliban is no longer in control of Afghanistan (though neither, it seems, is the government in Kabul).

In Iraq—after the catastrophe of the summer of 2014, when ISIS swept through Iraq’s western half and nearly overran Baghdad—ISIS has been eviscerated. The coalition has liberated 78 percent of the territory ISIS held in Iraq at the height of its power and 58 percent of the territory it held in Syria, as The Washington Post reports.

Listening and Healing

America’s post-9/11 veterans have led every step of the way. In taking the fight to the enemy and shifting the battlefront away from our shores, they deserve a memorial—and those they protect need a memorial to remind us of their sacrifice.

That’s why the congressional waiver was so important. As Stars and Stripes explains, the Commemorative Works Act requires Congress “to wait 10 years after the official end of a military conflict before considering a memorial in the nation’s capital.” With the war on terror far from over, that presented a problem. “A 40-year-old servicemember that seized the first airfield in Kandahar in 2001 is now 56,” Andrew Brennan, executive director of the Global War on Terror Memorial Foundation, told Military Times. “Given that these efforts often take five to seven years, we’re in a position where that servicemember may be taking grandchildren to see the memorial for the war he fought in.”

The waiver ensures that the first generation of warriors who fought the GWOT will be able to appreciate the memorial.

Brennan, a Blackhawk pilot during the war in Afghanistan, began pushing for a GWOT memorial after he saw how Vietnam veterans gathered for the annual Rolling Thunder ride and journeyed together to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. “I saw what this memorial did for the Vietnam generation,” he said in an interview with Stars and Stripes. “It offered a lot of healing for that group, and I wanted something similar for my generation.”

He believes the GWOT memorial can be “a sacred place of healing and remembrance for our GWOT veterans, a place for families to gather to honor their loved ones and for future generations of Americans to learn about a war they will likely grow up alongside of.”

Brennan obviously was listening to what the generals and commander-in-chief said in the days after 9/11.