Playing the name game with Denver's War on Terrorism Memorial

On July 24, 1909, Colorado dedicated a memorial on the west side of the State Capitol to local soldiers killed in the Civil War. The monument shows a Union soldier facing south and includes four plaques listing the names of the battles.

In 2002, the state decided to clarify the history of one of those conflicts: the Battle of Sand Creek, now known as the Sand Creek Massacre. In 1864, Colonel John Chivington attacked a peaceful camp of Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians, primarily women and children, in eastern Colorado, slaughtering many of them; at the time, the camp was described as a military target.

It wasn't, and 93 years later, with the approval of the Colorado Legislature, the Colorado Historical Society added another plaque to the memorial, acknowledging that the monument's creators had "mischaracterized" events and explaining what really happened: "The controversy surrounding this Civil War Monument has become a symbol of Coloradans' struggle to understand and take responsibility for our past."

Taking responsibility for the more recent past, on March 19 the Capitol Building advisory committee will consider plans for the War on Terrorism Memorial, which was conceived in 2007 by state senator Mike Kopp and approved by lawmakers, and is scheduled to break ground on Memorial Day 2011. The monument, slated for installation in Lincoln Park, will "honor servicemen and servicewomen killed after September 11, 2001, during the War on Terrorism, including but not limited to those killed in Afghanistan and Iraq," according to the law that created it.

There's only one problem: At the committee's February meeting, Representative Paul Weissmann suggested that since the Obama administration no longer uses the George Bush-created term "War on Terror," then Colorado's monument shouldn't, either. And since there's no way to know whether these conflicts will one day be lumped together under another name, he believes plans for the memorial — which he voted against in 2007 — should be put on hold until a decision can be made on how to proceed.

Have these conflicts, like the one at Sand Creek, been mischaracterized?

"I have a fundamental problem trying to tell a story before it is completely written," says Weissmann, a Democrat. "Semantics and markings and labels are important. What if we're in Afghanistan for twenty years? I hope we aren't, but how do you write that chapter?"

Rather than wait two decades, Weissmann may soon propose legislation that would allow the names of the individuals to be honored without naming the memorial itself.

That suggestion has infuriated Kopp, a Republican who accuses Weissmann of playing partisan games. "It's a polarizing issue, and I don't want the people we were trying to honor to be caught in the middle of something that is very polarizing," he says. "It is a part of history we are living through, and my point in 2007 was not to make a statement about this war, but to honor the sacrifices that Coloradans have made."

To help clarify the issue, the committee asked Colorado state historian William Convery to provide a history and analysis of nomenclature when it comes to wars, memorials and war memorials in Colorado. That memo, which includes background on Sand Creek, among other things, will be presented on March 19. While not "linguistically precise," Convery says, "...the phrase Global War on Terrorism has come to define the multiple operations...that have been waged by the United States and its allies against militant Islamic extremism in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks.... In lieu of a more precise option, I recommend its use.

"Perhaps someday a similar addition [to the one now on the Civil War Memorial] will be made to the Fallen Heroes Memorial," he adds. "Or perhaps not."

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