Last month, nearly 15 years after September 11th, a mall opened at Ground Zero. The Westfield World Trade Center is aggressively ordinary, despite resting on the site of the nation’s most memorable and deadly terrorist attack. As The New York Times notes, “there is little to suggest that [the mall] occupies consecrated ground … this mall could be just about anywhere.” Walking the pristine marble floors of the concourse, past stores like Apple, Sephora and Kate Spade, there’s no indication that the soil underfoot might contain debris from the first foreign attack on American territory in two generations.
A nearby museum and memorial officially commemorate those who died in the World Trade Center attacks, underscoring the absurdity of the mall’s presence there. The juxtaposition of the memorial and the shopping mall gestures at America’s complex attitude toward commemorating wars and tragedies.
As a veteran of the Global War on Terror who deployed twice to Iraq as an infantryman, there’s no permanent federal monument where I can publicly mourn and remember. As important as the country’s various 9/11 memorials are, they’re memorials to civilian victims of terrorism, not members of the military. There is no official government monument recognizing the casualties of what some have taken to calling the Long War.
That’s not for lack of effort by veterans and organizations that support us. For years there have been various attempts to build a federal memorial in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the service and sacrifice of those who’ve fought and died in the Global War on Terror, or GWOT – an umbrella term coined by the George W. Bush administration to describe the military efforts, mostly in Afghanistan and Iraq, to quell future terrorist attacks against the U.S. If the term sounds vague, that’s because it is. President Obama, recognizing the “boundlessness” inherent in the term, dropped it from official use. But many veterans like myself continue to use it, and service members are still being awarded the “Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.”
The primary reason no GWOT monument yet exists is that, per the Commemorative Works Act of 1997, combat must have ended a decade before work on a memorial can begin. The Global War on Terror continues unabated. How are we supposed to “remember” wars that might never end?
To answer that question, it might help to explore why we memorialize wars at all. As Geoff Dyer eloquently writes in his book The Missing of the Somme about the memorialization of the First World War, monuments are built to underscore “profound ruptures with the past”: There was the time before the war, the war itself, and then there is now. Memorials, then, are like dams that prevent the past and present from running together, blending into a single, undifferentiated moment. They separate us from the horrors of the past, pinning it to the earth with bronze casts and marble obelisks so we can appreciate it from a safer vantage point, years in the future.
Our failure to construct a memorial to the thousands of Americans who’ve fought and died in the endless War on Terror tells us a lot about the changing nature of war itself. Diffuse in space and time, our wars have become distended into a permanent present. As military theorists have pointed out, modern combat is coming to resemble more of a hunt than a battle – with violence simultaneously narrowing itself to individuals even as it roams across larger swaths of the globe. The violence is frenetic and ongoing, so there can be no rupture with the past. It’s always wartime somewhere.
Malls, with their artificial lighting and dizzying push to consume, allow people to lose all sense of time. In that sense, the Westfield World Trade Center is a fitting memorial: It’s a symbol of our inability to move war and other horrors into the past, and ourselves into the future.