I respect military people, in history and in our own times. You’ve seen the bumper sticker: “If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you are reading it in English, thank a soldier.”
We owe our military people for everything — for our very way of life.
I recently revisited the Western Nevada College arts and humanities exhibition “Always Lost: A Meditation on War”— a multi-media war memorial honoring those who served and continue to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. The title comes from Gertrude Stein, an American who survived the Nazi occupation of her beloved Paris: “War is never fatal but always lost. Always lost.”
The exhibition’s focus is called the Wall of the Dead — panels comprised of wallet-sized individual photos of U.S. military men and women we have lost since 9/11. Viewing the nearly 7,000 faces and knowing the deaths continue is challenging, to say the least.
“Always Lost” includes a Pulitzer Prize collection of Iraq War combat photographs taken by photojournalists embedded with Marine units in Iraq in 2003 and loaned to “Always Lost” by The Dallas Morning News. Some are difficult to look at: an Iraqi mother with her children in a ditch, her arms around them, their clothing spattered with blood; American service members in the chaos of a firefight, pulling an Iraqi civilian from a burning truck; an American soldier, eyes closed, a letter from home held to his lips; the gore from a fatal head wound leaking onto the ground.
There is literary work by Nevada writers (I’m proud to be among them) and “meditations” — thought-provoking observations about war from ancient to contemporary times. It’s chilling to contemplate the timeless nature — and toll — of human warfare.
But it’s those thousands of individual photos that get to you — faces of our nation’s war dead in these most recent, ongoing wars. They’re as moving — and sobering — as all those names etched into the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C.
These elements make “Always Lost” a unique, even life-changing experience. An entry in the guest book that travels with the exhibition reads: “You cannot possibly leave this exhibition the same person you were when you walked in.” Another, signed “a Vietnam vet,” reads: “A national treasure.”
“Always Lost” was first displayed at WNC in 2009. Subsequently, because of demand from across the country, the exhibit was replicated with a donation from the Carson Nugget/Community First. One copy is on an official Nevada Sesquicentennial Tour sponsored by the Nevada Department of Veterans Services; the other copy is on an extended Minnesota tour sponsored by the Minnesota Humanities Center. Displayed at 30 locations around the country since 2010, “Always Lost” is scheduled, to date, at 15 additional national venues through mid-2016, from San Antonio to Kalamazoo. Mich.
But the grants and donations that fund this poignant, traveling war memorial will be expended at year’s end. Researching our war deaths, building and shipping additional Wall of the Dead panels as casualties accrue, managing the exhibitions’ schedules, etc. — cost money. Without funding, this Nevada memorial with its message of awareness and unity will end.
A century and a half ago, Abraham Lincoln enjoined us to “highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain ….” But first we must remember them, as well as the tens of thousands returning to us wounded in body or spirit.
“Always Lost: A Meditation on War,” which Mayor Robert Crowell calls “our community’s gift to the nation,” makes us remember them. All of them. Please help. We owe them that much.
Novelist and Dayton resident Wilma Counts taught for the US Dept. of Defense Dependents Schools in Germany for 28 years. To donate or learn more about “Always Lost,” go to www.wnc.edu/always_lost/