By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 5, 2008 - The Pentagon Memorial will be a place of remembrance, dedication and learning, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said. Retired Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers said he hopes the memorial – to be dedicated Sept. 11 – will become a learning experience for all Americans.
The general, who retired in 2005 after 42 years of service, said the memorial has much in common with the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
"Almost every American who goes to Hawaii visits the Arizona Memorial and learns about the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor," Myers said during a recent interview.
In the days after the attacks at the Pentagon, New York and Pennsylvania, many Americans pointed to the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, as the only comparable disaster to confront the United States. The Arizona Memorial remembers the more than 2,500 sailors and Marines killed aboard that ship in the attack.
The Pentagon Memorial can serve the same function, Myers said. The memorial can tell generations not yet born of the innocent men, women and children violent extremists killed in the attack on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. The memorial illustrates the extent of the sacrifices on that day, Myers said.
Myers added his hope that for future generations, the threat of violent extremism "will be a thing of the past – like slavery and other 'isms' because the international community took it seriously and worked together to eradicate it."
The official painting of Myers hanging in the Pentagon has, in the background, a painting of the Pentagon after the plane crashed into it. Myers' term as chairman will forever be tied to that event. He was the vice chairman on that fateful day, but President Bush had nominated him to be chairman.
"I was on Capitol Hill getting ready for my confirmation hearings when the first plane crashed into the Twin Towers," Myers said. "Once the second tower was hit, we knew it was an attack, and headed back [to the Pentagon]."
On the way back to the building, Myers received word that the Pentagon itself had been hit. "We came across the 14th Street Bridge, and all this black smoke was boiling up from the Pentagon," he said. "And you're thinking, 'Is this a dream or a bad movie I'm watching?' because it was very surreal."
The National Military Command Center in the Pentagon was up and running, and Myers ran against the stream of people evacuating the building to reach it.
"We still didn't know what was happening, or what more was going to happen," he said. "We needed to know who did this and what's next."
The intelligence agencies soon informed Pentagon leaders that al-Qaida was responsible for the attacks. "We were trying to anticipate what was the next event and how we could mitigate that," Myers said.
"Tragedy can bring out the best and the worst in folks," Myers said, "and that day it brought out the best in many, many people. Everyone who could help was helping."
Myers said he remembers the emotions and feelings he had that day, but he's finding as he travels around the United States that many people have forgotten.
"The further away you get from any tragedy, you tend to forget – you put it out of your mind," he said. "In some ways, it's our defense mechanism. I think since the United States has not been attacked on its own soil since that day, you can become a little bit complacent about it.
"That's one of the values of memorializing the innocent men, women and children who lost their lives here," he continued. "It reminds the nation what happened and the extent of what happened."
Myers said Americans are focused too much on the near fight – Iraq and Afghanistan. "There's a broader issue of violent extremism that needs to be dealt with," and that fight requires an international strategy, he said.
"It's not unlike after World War Two when communism was gaining a foothold in many countries ... and it looked like the world was going in a way that was against our best security interests," the general said. "We need an effort and a strategy that works against these extremists and with our friends and allies."
The country needs a good public discourse on the threat of global extremists, Myers said.
"The next president is going to have to take this seriously and explain to the American people why it is important," he said. "He's going to have to bring both sides of the American political system together on this one issue. If we don't, the probability goes way up that there will be more 9/11s."
The problem is global and is not going away, the general said. Other nations are going to have to admit violent extremism is a threat and make common cause with each other to combat it, he said.
"You have to ask, how do we get to the point that men and women don't want to join jihad?" he said. "I think you can develop a strategy to work your way down to that, but it's going to take decades."