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Panetta Wishes Lawmakers Could Summon Courage from World War I Memorial

Former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta Former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta Chip Somodevilla / AP file photo

Former Pentagon and CIA chief Leon Panetta recently lent his good offices in retirement to raising money to build the planned World War I Memorial in Washington’s Pershing Park.

His motive in part, he made clear in remarks Wednesday at the National Press Club, is that “our elected leaders can use a little bit of that courage” displayed by the 4 million men a century ago “who were willing to fight and die and follow the orders they were given and sacrifice.”

Noting that as Defense secretary, he had responsibility to “deploy men and women in uniform to battlefields,” he called such sacrifice a “reminder of why this country is great.” It would be nice, Panetta continued, to travel up to Capitol Hill for budget talks and pass the site of the memorial, and “remember what will happen if you don’t have leadership that makes sacrifices and takes risks.”

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Panetta was joined by other notables serving on the special advisory board of the statutorily authorized U.S. World War I Centennial Commission, which has neared a final design for the memorial to everyday troops. Its goal is to raise $50 million, of which only $6.5 million has materialized, said Commission member Edwin Fountain.

Panetta, who now helps run the Panetta Institute for Public Policy in Marina, Calif., reported that his father fought in World War I in the Italian Army (a son also served in Afghanistan).  “It’s important to remember these sacrifices—some people don’t even remember what 9/11 was about,” he said. “If we’re going to make the right decisions in the future, we had better damn well understand the past.”

World War I, fought from 1914-1918 with the U.S. doughboys entering in 1917, marked the first time the United States became engaged in the world, Panetta noted, and “the U.S. continues to have that responsibility to provide world leadership—if the U.S. doesn’t, no one will.”

Many of the forces at work in the run-up to World War I are present today, Panetta added, citing “terrorism, nationalism, territorial disputes, fragile alliances, and world leaders not able to see what threats are about.”

Similar lessons were cited by retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, now a consultant, who noted that the seeds of World War II were planted in the 1918 armistice and 1923 Versailles Treaty. “It’s important that you end wars the right way,” he said. The past’s link to the present is clear in the current battle against ISIS, McCaffrey added, citing the Western powers-imposed borders from 1916 that are now tragically shaky in modern Iraq. “The Brits after a couple of sherries in them start drawing the line,“ he said, under the Sykes–Picot Agreement.

Carol Moseley Braun, former Senator of Illinois, the first black Democratic senator and former ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa, noted that her grandfather fought in World War I at Meuse-Argonne and Verdun. He never got the medal he had earned until years later when Braun herself collected it and gave it to her brother for Father’s Day, she said. “My grandfather came back to America and still had to sit on the back of the bus,” said Braun, who serves on the commission’s diplomatic advisory board. “Everything was changed by the war,” she added, citing the status of women, empires breaking down, the beginning of civil rights and world geography.

Scientist Vincent Cerf, known as the “architect of the Internet,” noted that World War I led to technological innovation such as air travel and reconnaissance flights. “People don’t understand its origins,” himself included, Cerf added, calling that lapse “a source of embarrassment but also a source of concern.” When he was negotiating his title for his current employer, Google, Cerf suggested to the company’s founders that he be called “archduke.” Because of the assassination that triggered the first World War, that association might be inappropriate, his bosses said, so they settled on “Chief Internet Evangelist.”

Cerf plans to focus on the commission’s online education efforts as well as fund-raising. “With 330 million Americans” he said, they could make the goal “if each gave 15 cents.”

Charles S. Clark joined Government Executive in the fall of 2009. He has been on staff at The Washington Post, Congressional Quarterly, National Journal, Time-Life Books, Tax Analysts, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the National Center on Education and the Economy. He has written or edited online news, daily news stories, long features, wire copy, magazines, books, and organizational media strategies.

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