The Commemorative Works Act of 1986, which regulates new monuments in Washington, prohibits new war memorials until at least 10 years after “the officially designated end” of the conflict. As long as our troops remain mired in the theater of war, however, will there be an “officially designated end” to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan?
And even if all the troops return home someday, as those in Iraq are scheduled to do at the end of this year, will our interventions be considered part of a larger, unending global war on terrorism? The Obama administration has backed away from this terminology but not entirely from the logic behind it. If these two wars are merely operations in one long military campaign against the forces of terrorism, the conflicts of the 21st century may never get their own memorials in the nation’s capital. A permanent state of war, ironically, could mean a permanent ban on new war memorials.
Washington’s most recent war memorial, the World War II Memorial, finished barely a year after the invasion of Iraq, nostalgically evokes a time of greater clarity. It hammers home a message of victory that is absolute, clear-cut and richly deserved. Its inscriptions trumpet the nation’s “great crusade,” its “righteous might,” the “destruction of the enemy.” As Gen. George Marshall declares on the northern end of the monument, “our flag will be recognized throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other.”
This immense memorial is not only a last hurrah to American supremacy in old-fashioned symmetrical warfare between nation-states. With its huge dedication by President George W. Bush at its entrance, it is also a sad reminder of the Bush-era hope that overwhelming force would crush terrorism and bring democracy to distant shores. Of course the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq did not follow the nostalgic script of World War II but the older, asymmetrical model of the Philippine insurgency.
Public monuments do not easily accommodate wars of asymmetry. Monuments are supposed to be symmetrical and conclusive; the asymmetrical wars we would rather forget obey a different logic. Brutal, protracted, indecisive, they do not lend themselves to triumphalism or closure of any kind.