On this Memorial Day, as our nation flirts with a wholly unnecessary and foolish war with Iran, it is worth pausing to reflect on what, exactly, we are memorializing with this holiday.
In our nation’s brief history, more than 658,000 of our children have died in combat, including more than 6,800 in the Global War on Terrorism since 9/11. Another more-than 538,000 have died of disease, training accidents and other non-combat deaths during our wars.
On every day, but especially on Memorial Day, it is imperative we remember and honor these men and women whose lives were cut short by war. I had the honor of serving alongside men and women who volunteered to take on this risk, and with a few who made the ultimate sacrifice.
The lives of all of these brave men and women, whose names grace the granite and marble of our nation’s monuments, were lost to their loved ones, to our society and to humanity. We will never know what may have been of their lives and their loves had they not been sacrificed in the human folly of war. They willingly stepped into the breach of humanity’s worst tendencies and greatest failures, and gave themselves up so that others might live. Each of them deserves the honor given in the Gospel of John: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
The selfless love of our service men and women, and especially of those who laid down their lives for us, is worthy of immeasurable praise. But, I fear too much of what passes as praise and honor of our nation’s veterans overlooks the human cost of our wars, and glosses over the horrors of war, past, present, and future. We create a sort of rose-tinted mythology around our honored dead, easily maintained among the tidy rows of headstones and engraved names, that overlooks the profane reality of what war does to real human beings — sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and friends.
Perhaps the best treatment of this topic was penned by English poet and soldier Wilfred Owen, who wrote the poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” while serving on the Western Front in the great folly of the First World War. The last stanza of his poem recounts the agonizing and grotesque death of a comrade after a gas attack:
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Owen, who died on the Western Front in 1918, calls to us from the grave to walk behind that wagon and stare into the face of humanity’s recurring inhumanity, to sear into our memory the suffering, sickening, slow death of this young man. Expanding that death 658,000 times, we see how idiotic it is to hold onto Horace’s old lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori — It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.
Our dead should be honored. We need to honor their sacrifice. But it is absolutely neither sweet nor fitting that the lives of these young men and women were cut down, predominantly due to politicians’ inability and unwillingness to avoid the lunacy of war. Yet, as a society, we continue to wrap their deaths in orgies of red, white and blue, constantly resurrecting and retelling to our youth Horace’s old lie, and idealizing the same folly that continues to send the best of each generation to highly-celebrated, flag-draped deaths.
We honor and remember these deaths on Memorial Day, and we should. But, those planted beneath the flag this Memorial Day are not the only lives lost to our nation’s wars. The lives that could have been, that should have been, are lost for hundreds of thousands more who return alive, but forever changed. Mangled and maimed — physically, mentally and emotionally — these men and women live on, too often dead to the life they lived before they were sent off to war.
The reality of this long, slow post-combat death was reflected in a slew of thousands of responses to the Army’s tweet several days ago, asking “How has serving impacted you?” Many gave positive responses, but many also gave raw answers that, like Owen’s poem 101 years earlier, uncover the true meaning of Memorial Day.
One respondent said combat service continues to impact his family, as he struggles with a “combat cocktail”of “PTSD, severe depression, anxiety. Isolation. Suicide attempts. Never ending rage.”
He gives voice to the lives destroyed, to those alive and walking among us whose former selves died in combat as surely as those whose names are etched on monuments. Unfortunately, while we love to drag out our patriotic best for the dead on Memorial Day, our country has a long and shameful history of overlooking those who continue to suffer long after the last homecoming parade (if there were such honors, which was not the case in Vietnam).
Long after World War I, our veterans continued to suffer and die from cancers caused by mustard gas. And our government did its best to ignore and defy responsibility for their suffering and deaths. Between 1945 and 1962 our nation used 195,000 to 300,000 U.S. troops as live subjects in atomic bomb tests. Many have died from cancer. Many continue to suffer with cancers, organ failure and with excruciating ailments, caused by our government. And our government continues to do its best to ignore and defy responsibility for their suffering and deaths. Vietnam veterans who were subjected to Agent Orange also suffer from cancers and a long list of other ailments, caused by our government’s use of a toxic chemical on and around our own troops. And our government continues to do its best to ignore and defy responsibility for their suffering and deaths.
More than 380,000 veterans have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with traumatic brain injuries, many of whom will suffer a slow and debilitating decline in mental and physical function, ending in an inglorious and horrible death. As many as one in five of those who’ve served since 9/11 suffer from PTSD, and 15 percent of Vietnam veterans likewise continue to suffer from and relive the trauma they saw, suffered and inflicted 50 years ago. More than 40,000 veterans are homeless. For many veterans, the suffering is simply too much. Since 2001, veterans’ suicides have gone up 32 percent. Veterans are 50 percent more likely to commit suicide than those who never served, and approximately 22 take their own lives each day.
And, our nation’s response to this suffering, to the slow deaths of our veterans, continues to be willful, cowardly failure to care for and provide for them and their needs. Self-righteous politicians (most of whom never served) are lined up behind podiums across our country today to memorialize the dead. But they willfully and shamefully ignore our responsibility to care for the walking dead who return forever changed, and irrevocably fucked up because of our wars.
Why? The answer is reiterated every budget cycle. There is plenty of money to allocate for more war, for creating more mangled veterans and honored dead. We’re set to spend $750 billion this year on more war-making, more life-shattering, more killing and slow, lingering death. We cannot escape the fact that wars, and the industry behind them, are terribly profitable. There is money to be made in the etching of more names on more monuments, around which we will gather in red, white and blue ceremonies in years to come. You see, the dead don’t cost us much. The profit margin of their blood is immense. But, the living dead — the ones who come back forever corrupted and changed — well, there’s no money to made in them. And, there’s no money to be made in caring for them. They are discarded by our nation, as we fund the waging of more war, and the shattering of more lives. But, none of that is really good speech material for politicians eager to gain reelection, or for corporations whose existence demands we maintain a constant wartime posture.
None of this even touches on the lives our veterans carry home with them — the spiritual, emotional and mental weight of the lives they take in combat. That definitely doesn’t fit within the patriotic pomp of this three-day weekend. But, if we’re going to truly memorialize the human cost of our wars, we cannot, with any measure of honesty, overlook the lives that were taken, as we honor the lives that were given. The weight of those lives, for those of us who helped take them, include more than 206,000 Iraqi civilians since 2003, more than 174,000 Afghanis, and more than 2 million civilians in Vietnam.
None of this should be construed as a slight to the men and women who have died in the service of our nation. Several of them were my friends. All of them deserve our praise, honor and thanks. But, if we truly want to memorialize our dead, we need to go beyond wrapping their deaths in patriotic pomp. We need to ensure their deaths are not squandered, and ensure our nation does not wander into unnecessary conflict, does not claim and shatter any more lives without absolute necessity, and that we care for those who remain alive, but forever changed. If we want to honor our dead warriors, we must ensure their sacrifice is not unnecessarily repeated. Anything less is more propaganda than honor, served up to children ardent for some desperate glory.