In Dryden, New York, a proposed solar farm recently caused a stir.
Thousands of solar panels — enough to power 7,500 homes — are scheduled to be installed near a rural cemetery in the town. Some opponents complain that it’s disrespectful to the veterans buried there.
Energy and environmental considerations aside, what does it mean to respect our deceased service members and veterans?
We visit their graves, to ensure their small flags stand upright. We grieve during “Taps.” These activities are healthy. But true respect — the kind someone who gave their life in service deserves — begins with learning from our country’s mistakes, not ensuring a scenic resting place.
It’s easy to forget that memorials — gravestones, ceremonies, monuments — aren’t deceased persons themselves. Rather, they’re sacred markers for the living. They provide a space for public mourning, and they teach history.
Memorials can be spontaneous and unique, or they can become so commonplace that we no longer experience them meaningfully. Unfortunately, many events honoring veterans I’ve witnessed over the past decade — I’m an Iraq War veteran myself — have fallen under the latter category.
On Memorial Day, we’ll honor our service members killed in battle, along with deceased veterans. We’ll be reminded of their sacrifice to our country. We’ll hear stories of courage in combat. Respectfully, we’ll bow for a moment of silence.
But what will we learn? What will we do in the following days?
Whatever we do, we should start by admitting that 16 years of war has run up enormous costs.
According to the Watson Institute at Brown University, the United States has spent $4.8 trillion on war since Sept. 11, 2001. That number doesn’t include residual costs, such as treatment for veterans and interest on money our government has borrowed to pay for war.
Perhaps most tragically, it doesn’t include the human costs, either — from resources redirected away from our communities at home, to the millions of Iraqi and Afghan civilians killed or displaced, to veterans and service members in the form of post-traumatic stress, moral injury, or worse.
Those things seldom come up at Memorial Day ceremonies. Most won’t discuss veteran suicide, either.
Since coming home from Iraq in 2008, I’ve known eight veterans who’ve committed suicide. Almost as many have made attempts. The latest Department of Veterans Affairs report on suicide says 20 veterans commit suicide daily — and even that estimate is likely too low.
Veterans who died from cancers linked to toxic burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan and Agent Orange in Vietnam — victims of military contractors whose top concern is profit — should receive special mention at ceremonies, too. Few will.
Iraqis and Afghans who died helping U.S. forces as translators and escorts — along with deceased workers from other countries who served food, cleaned latrines, and washed U.S. soldiers’ uniforms in hazardous duty areas — likely won’t be included either.
When we exercise our freedoms — our freedom of speech especially — we pay respect to veterans who took an oath to uphold the Constitution.
But we’re repaying them poorly if we don’t use those freedoms to question our nation’s military endeavors, especially when the results have been so barren. After our moment of silence this Memorial Day, we ought to ask if the wars waged in our name have been worth the costs — for veterans and everyone else.
Kevin Basl is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War and an instructor for Combat Paper NJ and Warrior Writers, two veteran-focused arts organizations.