“Four thousand faces of American military who had perished in Iraq stared at me,” said former WNC professor Don Carlson. “I realized that this war has been perhaps one of the most impersonal wars the U.S. ever fought.”
In 2008, the army veteran saw a Roster of the Dead, then totaling 4,000. He explains that with the all-volunteer military, more than in any previous war, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been remote to the vast majority of Americans. Impersonal.
He talked to professor Marilee Swirczek, and they envisioned a project to personalize these wars to folks and honor people who served in them with literary works, photographs and a memorial to American military personnel who died in war after Sept. 11, 2001. It started in a creative-writing/sociology class and became a WNC exhibition in 2009, titled “Always Lost: A Meditation on War.”
The Dallas Morning News supplied its Pulitzer-Prize-winning Iraq war photos, and students, veterans and other Nevadans contributed original literary works to accompany each one. The exhibit also includes observations, from Greek philosophers to American generals, about the effects of war on all and our obligations to those who served.
The heart of the exhibit, which has traveled since 2010, is the Wall of the Dead, with pictures and names of the dead, now 6,831 and ever growing. Kevin Burns, a professor and retired marine, named it from a Gertrude Stein observation: “War is never fatal, but always lost. Always lost.” Amy Roby, a former student, manages the project.
Always Lost is not political, not pro- or anti-war, as some folks understandably assume it may be. It is powerful, moving, humbling, stunning and thought-provoking — sometimes overwhelming. Burns explains that the photos are presented in random order, reflecting the chaotic effect of war on participants and others.
Particularly poignant is Army vet Noah C. Pierce of Minnesota, who enlisted at 17, returned five years later with post-traumatic stress disorder and eventually committed suicide. His mother notes, correctly, “He died for his country, and I’m as proud of him as I was five years ago.”
Bob Crowell, Carson City Mayor and a Navy vet, calls it, “Our community’s gift to the nation.” He reminds us never to forget and that those who served should inspire us to a “life of honor, dignity and hard work for ourselves, our families and our country.”
Carlson hopes what began as a classroom project in a small college in a small town in Nevada “will lead to a consequence of some healing.” Also remembrance and gratitude.
Funded via grants, donations and volunteerism, it has been glowingly recognized widely via print, radio and TV by many organizations and people. Tours are booked into 2015.
Swirczek sees the most heartening impact on Vietnam vets who were denied the gratitude and recognition they deserved for long after that war, but seem to say to today’s living service members and the dead: “We know you’re there. Thank you.” May the Vietnam vets find the closure, peace and redemption they deserve.
Spanish-American philosopher George Satayana said: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” General Robert E. Lee offered perspective that soldiers who know the worst of it acquire: “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.”
When Always Lost returns to Nevada, see it. You’ll bless not only all who gave their lives and all who made it home, but also those who created this memorial.
Ron Knecht of Carson City is an economist, law school graduate and Nevada higher education regent.