May 27, 2011

I recently came across an old editorial about American soldiers caught in a seemingly unending war abroad. “Had there been any honorable way of retreat open to us,” the piece argued, “we should have availed ourselves of it as soon as the facts of the situation became apparent. But as there was no such means of escape, we stayed there, and our tenure has been very costly in life and money.”

So wrote the editors of The Washington Post, not about the war in Iraq or Afghanistan or even Vietnam, but about the U.S. occupation of the Philippines more than a century ago. When the editorial appeared in 1906, the occupation had been dragging on for almost eight years since the United States declared victory over Spain in the war of 1898. Eventually 5,000 U.S. soldiers (and at least 250,000 Filipinos) died in a long and brutal counterinsurgency campaign.

There is no monument in Washington to the dead of the Spanish-American War — and there may never be one to the American soldiers who have fought and died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial seems the great exception to this rule, with its simple and moving list of the names of the dead. It appeared to bring a psychological, if not a political, resolution to that conflict. But even the Vietnam War belongs more to the age of World War II: Countless young men were mass-mobilized through a draft for a conflict that, despite its merciless guerilla tactics, was fought and settled between nation-states. In one measure of how anachronistic the Vietnam War has become, a visitors center is planned for the memorial, with a goal of making the war less remote for young people.

It is no wonder that new generations have trouble connecting with Maya Lin’s wall of names. Today, we have a fully professionalized, volunteer military that moves relentlessly from one part of the world to another, from one operation to another, relying increasingly on elite forces and unmanned weapons. The Commemorative Works Act does not even have a frame of reference for this institutionalized warfare, with its never-ending actions against shifting and elusive adversaries. Our military has become in many ways its own world — an extension of a national security apparatus that remains largely hidden but hovers in a permanent state of emergency over many aspects of our lives. The old ideal of the citizen-soldier that underpinned our war memorials, even the tribute to the American dead in Vietnam, has been eclipsed, apparently forever.

Today, the monumental logic of closure fails us. And yet the urge to commemorate endures. Instant memorials have sprouted on the Internet while wars still rage, one answer to the slow-moving pace imposed by Washington’s regulations. These are grass-roots, family-driven efforts, motivated, I think, by an urge to counteract the isolation in which veterans and their families often suffer.

One heartbreaking measure of our inability to achieve closure in the ongoing wars is the proliferation of veterans grievously wounded in both body and spirit. The constant threat of improvised explosives, combined with remarkable advances in medical technology, has produced one of the most profound changes in professional warfare: ever higher ratios of the wounded to the dead. In Vietnam, the ratio was not yet three to one; in Iraq, it is almost eight to one. Many of these troops are permanently disabled, human memorials to the costs of war, but largely out of sight of the general public.

If our permanent state of war can ever be suspended long enough to allow new war memorials in the capital to go forward, the realities of injury and trauma may emerge front and center. Traditionally, American war memorials avoid the wounded and idealize their soldiers (think of the statues at the Korean and Vietnam memorials). Perhaps in the future, the figure of the disabled soldier will become a new icon for monument designers.

It is also possible that enough time may pass for us to begin to recognize the injury and trauma that have been unleashed on other people in the wars we have fought across the globe. If we are ever authorized to build a monument to the war in Afghanistan or Iraq, I hope we will have the wherewithal and heart to honor their losses — the countless Afghani and Iraqi civilians dead, wounded and orphaned, caught in the crossfire of our global war on terror. For all our differences in culture, history and allegiance, we share with them the fundamental human cost of war.

Kirk Savage, a professor of art history at the University of Pittsburgh, is the author of “Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape.”