Thursday, May 14, 2015

21st Century struggles with memorializing the fallen -- May 14, 2015 column


America’s last surviving World War I veteran died in 2011. Frank Buckles was 110 years old, and he devoted his last years to pushing for a national World War I memorial on the National Mall in Washington.

There still isn’t one.

If all goes as hoped, though, the National World War One memorial will open in 2018, the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the “war to end all wars.” But it won’t be on the Mall. 

After a design competition to be announced any day, the World War One Centennial Commission hopes to transform Pershing Park, a block from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, where today a statue of Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, leader of the American Expeditionary Forces in the war, commands a dismal plaza that has fallen into disrepair.  

Buckles had dreamed of repurposing as a national monument the District of Columbia’s elegant, open-air memorial to the city’s 499 World War I dead, but city officials balked. An effort to create a memorial to doughboys in Constitution Gardens on the Mall, costing up to $10 million, also collapsed.

And now there’s the problem of money. When Congress approved the Pershing Park site last December, it decreed: “No federal funds may be obligated or expended” for the World War I memorial.

It took only 60 years to build the World War II Memorial in Washington. The saga of the World War I memorial shows how long and winding the road can be to commemorate our war heroes, and that has implications for memorializing fighters in the War on Global Terror. 

We do have state, local and online memorials that honor troops who have died in Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and related conflicts. Nearly 6,900 American men and women have died in combat since 2001.

But unlike previous wars, this one may not end when all the troops eventually come home from Afghanistan as most have from Iraq, not if the cancer of extremism continues to spread in the region.  

That matters because under the Commemorative Works Act of 1986, which governs new memorials in Washington, a new war memorial cannot be built until at least 10 years after “the officially designated end” of a war.

Then there’s the question of where to put such a memorial. The National Mall is officially full. Congress in 2003 designated a “Reserve” area where no new memorials can be built. The swath of prime real estate from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial and from the White House to the Jefferson Memorial is a “substantially completed work of civic art,” Congress said. Some memorials were grandfathered in and Congress made exceptions for others, but new commemorative works are prohibited.

With budgets tight and the congressional Republican majority eager to hold down spending, the prospect of significant federal funds for a memorial to the War on Terror appears slim.

Fortunately, the story of the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans’ experience won’t be completely missing from the nation’s capital.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial  Fund, which built The Wall, plans an underground Education Center at the Wall that not only will put faces with the 58,000 names listed but also will include photos of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

“Every hour on the hour, we’re going to show photos of Iraq and Afghanistan” veterans, Jan Scruggs, founder of the fund, told DOD News last month.

“This will have enormous psychological importance to the people who served in these wars. Eventually they’ll get their own monument, I suspect… But this will be a place that will be a very big deal to them,” said Scruggs, who hopes to start construction in 2018 and open the education center in 2020.

But, again, there’s a question of money. Scruggs said the center needs to raise $92 million more.

While space at the education center is not a permanent way to commemorate the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s a decent start while we consider what a fitting monument to our latest combat veterans should be.

Let’s hope we get together as a country and build a national tribute before this generation of vets fades away.

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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