In a 2001 press conference, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld trotted out a photo of American Special Forces soldiers on horseback in Afghanistan. That image of Task Force Dagger became an early representation of our adaptation to the unconventional warfare we’d just engaged in.
Among the millions of Americans struck by the image was sculptor Douwe Blumberg. Nine months after seeing the photo he’d produced an 18-inch-tall bronze sculpture of a Green Beret riding and an Afghan horse.
Nearly ten years later, on this past Veteran’s Day, an 18-foot-tall, 5,000-pound replica of Blumberg’s horseman was paraded down Fifth Avenue in New York City with members of the team depicted and the artist in tow. It’s the first publicly accessible monument dedicated to Special Forces, and its final resting place will be overlooking Ground Zero.
There’s also a chunk of the World Trade Center embedded in the base of the statue. But in more ways than just a Green Beret using a horse as transportation, the statue represents the kind of war we’ve found in Afghanistan.
“The mounted warrior is such an iconic image, connected to both our past and present,” Blumberg says. “In a way, it shows the continuity of unconventional warfare.”
The continuity of unconventional warfare, in the case that this statue represents, doesn’t begin with the attacks of 9/11. And when the last US Regular pulls out, that will probably only be the official end of war in Afghanistan for the US.
In Afghanistan, where war has more or less been a part of life ever since humans there organized themselves, riding horses into combat has been a fairly regular occurrence. Neither is foreign intervention new to the area.
The Green Beret is riding a “Lokai” horse that shows “Tersk” breeding. Which means the horse is full of Eastern European blood brought in with the Soviet Union to Afghanistan in the 1980s. A few horses weren’t all the Soviets lost there, and it’s safe to say there was little they would call conventional about war there.
Though Blumberg’s statue, which is called De Oppresso Liber (Latin: To liberate the oppressed), depicts merely a blink of the experience, the statue is accurate.
All you need to know about making the work accurate is that members of Task Force Dagger were in the shop with Blumberg. The last thing they were going to let happen was an inaccuracy in the gear. It’s no secret how those guys feel about gear.
Doug Stanton wrote a New York Times bestseller called Horse Soldiers about the team, its mission, and its use of horses. He walked down 5th Avenue with Blumberg, the team, and the statue on Veteran’s Day this year. And he is well convinced of the statue’s accuracy.
“The proof is stand there with the guys as they admire it,” he says, “and hear them say, “Yeah, he got it right.’”
Blumberg went to Fort Campbell and met with the team. Always excited to see a civilian tell their story to the rest of the world, the team was standoffish and quiet at first. But once Blumberg convinced them of his commitment to getting it right, he couldn’t get them to shut up. They sent him saddles they had brought back after their tours, they shipped him their lockers of gear, they gave him photos that he wasn’t allowed to copy or show anyone else.
And he only had six months from the time the military commissioned him to complete the statue before Veteran’s Day.
“We must have set some kind of record with only six months to make it,” he says. “It took a lot of people and a lot of overtime hours and a lot of work to get it done.”
But the diligence and the sweat and the overtime hours have produced a long-standing symbol of the service and sacrifice of the Special Forces.
“It personifies the unconventional warfare skills and martial prowess those young men,” says Max Bowers, who was a Battlion Commander of the mounted teams. “It captures forever a moment in time when only those men could do what their nation asked.”