Middle East

Ten years on, a long road ahead for Iraq war memorial

Front-Back: The Lincoln Memorial, Reflecting Pool, The World War II Memorial, Washington Monument and the US Capitol on the National Mall are seen from air in this October 17, 2012 file photo above Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB / FILES

WASHINGTON: Ten years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, veterans have a long ways to go in securing their place in the nation's collective memory through a monument on Washington's iconic National Mall.

The sprawling promenade in the heart of the capital, where the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial tower over memorials for World War II and the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, showcases more than two centuries of history.

But any plan to commemorate the almost 4,500 American troops killed in Iraq has to meet tough regulations and will probably have to wait for history's verdict on the now deeply unpopular war.

"There is a very high level of support for some kind of memorial in Washington," Paul Rieckhoff, founder and head of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), told AFP. The nonprofit has more than 200,000 members and is America's largest organization for veterans of the post-9/11 wars.

"We lost friends there, some of us got wounded," said Rieckhoff, who served from 2003 to 2004 as an infantry rifle platoon leader in Iraq.

"It is important that you have a reminder of the human cost of war in the capital."

But Congress has set the bar high for national memorials in Washington.

Since 1986, the Commemorative Works Act requires that a monument remembering "a war or similar major military conflict" may not be authorized until at least 10 years after the "officially designated end" of hostilities.

"That's a 10-year waiting period for authorization, and then designing, funding, and building the monument often takes another ten years or more," University of Pittsburgh history professor Kirk Savage told AFP.

While it took less than a decade after the US withdrawal from Vietnam to create the memorial listing the names of more than 58,000 dead and missing US soldiers on a black granite wall, World War II veterans had to wait almost six decades until a memorial opened to the public in April 2004.

There is still no monument on the Mall honoring the soldiers of World War I.

Savage, who traced the history of Washington's public memorials in his book "Monument Wars," says it will be difficult to properly define an official ending point of the Iraq war.

After a swift victory against Saddam Hussein's troops, US President George W. Bush made a theatrical appearance aboard an aircraft carrier on May 1, 2003 to announce the end of major combat operations under a now infamous "Mission Accomplished" banner.

But the vast majority of casualties occurred over the next several years, as the US military faced a mounting insurgency and near-daily attacks by an Al-Qaeda affiliate that emerged after US troops had captured Baghdad.

And while Bush's successor Barack Obama completed the withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011, there are 66,000 US soldiers remaining in Afghanistan, and US drones regularly target suspected terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen.

"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," Savage wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post.

"A permanent state of war, ironically, could mean a permanent ban on new war memorials."

Despite America's continuing fight against an elusive enemy in the so-called War on Terror and the inconclusive legacy of the contentious Iraq invasion, plans are in the works for a temporary memorial to the US soldiers who fought and died in the years after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The group that built the Vietnam memorial is raising money to launch an underground visitor and learning center on the National Mall to tell the stories of fallen US soldiers.

"We have also decided to display the photographs of those who have fallen in the post-9/11 wars," Lee Allen of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Fund (VVMF) told AFP, stressing that "these brave heroes won't have a memorial on the Mall for many, many years" due to the required waiting period.

Last November, the VVMF invited congressional leaders and senior government officials to attend a ceremonial groundbreaking.

The actual date for construction to begin is still unknown, because under the Commemorative Works Act the organization is bound to have the entire funding for the project available up-front.

Allen says the VVMF has so far raised about $26 million of the estimated $95 million cost.

"We are hoping to have construction underway by 2014 in time for the troops to come home from Afghanistan," he said.

Rieckhoff hopes a national memorial will make the overseas wars less remote for those who remained at home, as the US military has abandoned the tradition of citizen soldiers and evolved in a highly professionalized combat force.

"There is no precedent in US history for being at war this long with this small percentage of the population," he said.

"That dramatically changes our social connection to war. For many people it feels like a reality TV show."

About 2.6 million US soldiers have served in Afghanistan and Iraq, with 400,000 men and women deployed more than once.

"That is less than one percent of the population. In Word War II, the figure was close to 12 percent," Rieckhoff said.

But he said what veterans need even more than public recognition is better support for the transition from military service to civilian life.

"No matter how you feel about the war itself, if you see the backlog in disability benefits, the high unemployment and the rising suicide rate among veterans, it does not feel that we are really honoring their service."





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