- De Oppresso Liber and Reflecting Absence: Ground Zero Memorials and the War on Terror
New York’s ninety-second Veteran’s Day Parade on November 11, 2011, featured a sixteen-foot-tall, five-thousand-pound bronze statue of a Special Ops soldier riding an Afghan pony. Driven on a float down the middle of Fifth Avenue, fronted by uniformed military personnel and members of the city’s police and fire departments, the huge statue—modeled at “life-and-a-half-scale”—found its way to the West Street lobby of One World Financial Center, opposite the Lower Manhattan site designated “ground zero.” In a ceremony that evening led by Vice President Joe Biden and Lt. General John Mulholland, the statue—named America’s Response Monument, and subtitled De Oppresso Liber—was officially dedicated. A year later, on October 19, 2012, in an event attended by Wall Street businessmen and representatives from the Green Beret Foundation and the United War Veteran’s Council (which organizes New York’s Veterans Day Parade each year), the memorial was resited in front of the Vesey Street and West Broadway entrance to the PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson) rail station at the World Trade Center (fig. 1).1 That location may be temporary: De Oppresso Liber’s backers have always aimed to gain a permanent home for the statue in nearby Zuccotti Park, where Occupy Wall Street still maintains a presence, or on the grounds of ground zero itself.
Dominating whatever space it occupies, the dynamic and precisely detailed memorial demands our attention: the stallion’s raised hoof, flared nostrils, alert ears, and agitated tail and mane suggest he is raring to go; the commando’s taut body, aggressive glare, and cache of weapons imply martial heroics and resolute purpose. De Oppresso Liber—“liberate the oppressed,” the motto of the US Army Special Forces—commemorates the “horse soldiers” of Operation Enduring Freedom, covert combat troops that President George W. Bush ordered into Afghanistan in response to the attacks of 9/11. Their mission was to assist a loose coalition of anti-Taliban forces called the Northern Alliance to destroy terrorist training camps and capture al-Qaeda leaders. Parachuting into [End Page 203]
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rocky terrain, an elite corps of thirty-four Green Berets, part of a combined joint special operation called “Task Force Delta,” commandeered horses owned by Afghani tribesmen and rode into battle at Mazar-i-Sharif with M4 carbines, attached grenade launchers, and eTrex GPS units.
“It’s as if the Jetsons had met the Flintstones,” Sgt. First Class weapons specialist Ben Milo related to Doug Stanton, author of the best-selling book Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan.2 Calling in bombing runs by the US Air Force and Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from ships and submarines in the Arabian Sea, the horse soldiers, along with other “Task Force Dagger” teams, CIA operatives, and Afghani fighters, routed a Taliban army estimated at fifty thousand strong over a thirty-day period. Their “A” team commander carried a small piece of steel salvaged from 9/11’s wreckage of the World Trade Center and often showed it to Afghani tribesmen, explaining, “This is why we’re here.”3
Department of Defense photos of the mounted troops were among the first pictures released of US combat operations in Afghanistan (fig. 2). Waving them in front of reporters at a November 16, 2001, press conference, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld enthusiastically detailed how Special Ops “embedded in Northern Alliance elements” were helping “to bring in food, to bring in ammunition, to bring in medical supplies, winter gear, and also to communicate with the overhead air power that the United States has...