Commemorated by General Muholland and Vice President Joe Biden on Veteran’s Day in 2011, the horse soldier memorial is a larger than life bronze representation of an iconic image from the early days of the War on Terror. The actual name of the statue is “America’s Response” in reference to the US Special Forces soldiers who were the first in to fight in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. Some of these soldiers even rode into combat against the Taliban on horseback. Although I never rode horseback in Afghanistan and missed the initial invasion, I later served in the same unit as these men and was fortunate to meet and work with some of them.
The juxtaposition of a modern day Special Forces soldier carrying high tech weapons and equipment while riding on a horse was something that deeply inspired the sculptor of the work. The story of what came to be known as the “horse soldiers” has entered into the popular lexicon and the mythos of Special Forces over the last decade. Not only were the horse soldiers America’s initial counter-attack in the war on terror, but the unconventional nature of the Special Forces campaign to defeat the Taliban has come to be seen as a justification for the very existence of such a unit and capability. The invasion of Afghanistan is seen as perhaps the most pivotal and important moment in the history of Special Forces.
The statue is said to be located at 1 World Trade Center where the soldier protectively looks over the new World Trade Center building. However, the statue is actually pretty difficult to find. I had to navigate a labyrinth of streets and closed off construction areas, only finding the monument after asking a police officer in front of the 9/11 museum. Backtracking around roped-off areas, the statue can be found next to the Path train to New Jersey.
The atmosphere in this area is upbeat and happy, with constant movement as people move back and fourth. The only people really sitting around are the construction workers taking a break. Otherwise, this multi-cultural environment of people bustles from the train station to downtown Manhattan. Pretty girls in short skirts, Asian tourists, fat women, orthodox Jews, and old people walk right past the horse soldier monument completely oblivious to its existence.
This is understandable because the statue is actually behind two layers of fence and surrounded by barbwire on all sides. A large sign about the Port Authority is also laced into the fence in front of the statue, further obscuring the public’s view. If you were not there looking for it, you would probably never know it was there. Just across from the statue is a tourist information stand and in the park a musician is playing electronic music.
One of the construction workers walks up to his friends leaning back against the cement k-rails which also surround the monument. “This guy fucking sucks,” the worker says in reference to the musician. “It sounds like fucking Tetris music.” He friends laugh as he joins them in leaning up against the cement barriers. They smoke cigarettes and look at their cell phones.
A few passing tourists notice me trying to look through the chain link fence at the statue and they finally take notice. A few step up to take a photo with their phone before hurrying off.
As a veteran of 5th Special Forces Group, I am very familiar with the story of the first Special Forces teams who went into Afghanistan. I also am quite familiar with the equipment the soldier represented by the statue is carrying. These are tools that all Special Forces soldiers would be very familiar with. The ACOG 4x rifle sight, PEQ-2 infrared laser, and the M4/M203 rifle and grenade launcher which they are mounted too. The chest rig for extra magazines, the boonie hat, and desert boots are all things we wore and used more than any of us care to remember.
Here they all are, literally larger than life and ignored in downtown Manhattan. The horse soldier monument is a well intended memorial to the soldiers who responded to 9/11 but I can’t help but feel that the statue seems completely out of place here.
Two uniformed soldiers stand guard just across from the monument, looking bored while on mandatory duty. Like the monument, they are work horses reduced to fulfilling the role of show horses for the American public. There is no security reason for them to be there, but rather there is a social function. That function is to constantly remind the public that the military is inextricably linked to the 9/11 attacks. The military response is woven into the disaster narrative.
Turning back to the statue, there is a pile of red flowers at the base of the monument. Upon closer inspection, the flowers are made of plastic and silk. Also at the base is a engraved description about America’s response to 9/11 and the actions of 5th Special Forces Group.
Both and horse and the rider depicted on the statue have their jaws hanging open, their expression is gasping, as if in horror of the bloody combat that they are surrounded by. In the sixteen hundreds the famous Italian architect, Bernini, built a sculpture in front of a church which was made by his chief rival: Borromini. One of the figures in Bernini’s sculpture is aghast, his arms held out in horror as if the church is about to fall down on him. This intentional insult only adds to the irony of the modern day horse soldier memorial. Both the soldier and the horse look absolutely horrified at what is going on around them, although this was probably far from the artist’s intention.
While tourists waddle around oblivious to the horse soldier, I feel just as out of place. However, I’m no where near as horrified as the horse soldier. My feelings about war and public perceptions are apparently much more jaded than the Special Forces soldier cast in bronze, now trapped behind several fences, cement barriers, and barbwire.
While the other 9/11 memorials refuse to let us forget about the pain of the attacks, including two giant weeping holes in the ground where the twin towers once stood, America’s response is hidden away and caged as if he had done something wrong.