Tomorrow's commissioning of USS New York (LPD 21), with 7½ tons of melted steel from the Twin Towers in her prow and her motto "Never Forget," will not just be a milestone in preserving the memory of 9/11.
The New York, a new amphibious landing ship, or Landing Platform Dock, also marks a historic shift in thinking about the threats America will face in the future, and the role our US Navy will play in fighting them.
As a historian, I don't often get the chance to become part of history. However, over the last year and a half, I've had the privilege to get to know the officers and crew who will serve on the New York, and to learn about their ship and its mission -- a mission that reaches back to the meaning of 9/11 but also forward to the wars of tomorrow.
When we think of the Navy, we usually think of warships and submarines and aircraft carriers. These, of course, remain vital to defending our interests and protecting the sea lanes (even though, under Obama budgets, their numbers will drop to dangerously low levels -- e.g., 10 carriers, instead of the 12 to 15 America needs to project power and police the seas).
YET the sailors and Marines who'll serve aboard USS New York and her six sister ships are preparing to enter a different potential battle zone -- the one where the blue water of deep water oceans turns to green and brown. These are distant coastlines and river deltas and narrow shipping channels -- what strategists call the littoral.
Columbus and Magellan long ago discovered that the oceans are one. In our increasingly interconnected world, we're now realizing that the coastlines are one. USS New York and her Landing Platform Dock sisters will form a key part of a new amphibious seagoing force, which will dominate the vital littoral in future conflicts.
The littoral is where pirates and terrorists can lurk, using uninhabited coastlines and inland waterways for their bases -- much like today's Somali pirates. It's where offshore oil facilities requiring protection from terrorists are found, and where USS New York and other ships will engage in hurricane- and tsunami-relief efforts. It's where the United States will have a point of entry for dealing with failed states like Somalia, and potential failed ones like Pakistan (whose capital Karachi is a teeming sprawling port on the Indian Ocean) or Mexico.
It's where our sailors and Marines will fight an enemy equipped with suicide speedboats and anti-ship missiles in strategic narrows like the Malacca Straits between Malaysia and Indonesia, or the Straits of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. And the littoral is where any military conflict with a rogue power like North Korea, with its long, jagged coastline facing onto the Sea of Japan, or Iran, is going to be decided.
THE US Navy is evolving into a new kind of power instrument.
USS New York is built to transport Marines, weapons and supplies as part of an Amphibious Readiness Group that can be deployed continuously at sea, without need for forward bases, and which can reach out and touch an enemy from 200 miles away. In any future conflict, she will be landing Marines and Special Forces in her 14 38-ton Expeditionary Fighting Vehicles, or EFVs, which can drive inland from the sea for more than 50 miles. She'll be landing more with her two tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey helicopters, supported by precision strikes from aircraft flying with the Amphibious Readiness Group.
The New York and her sister ships mean that the days of bloody beachhead landings like Omaha Beach and Tarawa are gone. Instead, sailors and Marines will be able to move directly inland from the sea, cutting off and isolating enemy resistance and seizing vital seaports. The new forward-deployed Navy will allow American dominance of the world's dangerous littoral areas in any future conflict.
Because, for all the Obama administration's hopeful pronouncements, there will be future conflicts.
IT'S been my privilege to meet many of the crew of USS New York, and they understand that this is still a dangerous world. 9/11 lives on as part of their personal experience, as well as part of their ship. Many told me it was why they went into the Navy in the first place.
I spoke to one sailor who was sitting in his high-school class in Manhattan when the planes hit the World Trade Center; another watched the burning towers live on TV in his junior-high-school classroom in Ohio. He resolved then and there to follow his parents into the military. I spoke to a Damage Control engineer who received her fire-fighting training from men who fought the Twin Towers blaze, and who feels honored to carry on that same tradition aboard the New York.
Only a sudden duty-roster change kept one Navy veteran, a native of Long Island, from joining friends on furlough in Lower Manhattan that day. He envied them for being able to help with the rescue efforts while he was stuck on a locked-down Norfolk naval base. When he learned they were building a ship bearing the name USS New York, he was determined to be part of her crew. "I had my eye on her for four years," he told me.
NEARLY every sailor or officer I spoke to had handpicked this ship for his or her next tour of duty. They all "feel elevated," as one sailor put it, to be part of a ship that means so much both to New York and America. " 'Never Forget' means a lot to me," one native New Yorker told me, "and I know what the people of New York will expect from us."
Their sense of pride in their ship -- which will literally be carrying steel from the Twin Towers in her prow as she fights this nation's enemies -- is palpable. So is their sense of dedication to the new mission of the US Navy.
The terrorists of 9/11 hoped to destroy America's confidence in itself and its values -- yet that faith lives on in the crew of LPD 21. They will always remember what this ship represents, both as a terrible moment in the past and as a new chapter for the future.
And tomorrow, all of us will have our chance to thank them for their service and dedication -- and never forget.
Arthur Herman's most recent book, "Gandhi and Churchill," was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this year.