Opinion: How should we honor the dead of our failed wars?

At Arlington, it’s easy to let your heart swell with pride as you pass certain graves — of heroes of wars that ended slavery or defeated fascism. The same can’t be said for more morally troubling wars.

FILE - In this April 9, 2019, file photo, Afghans watch a civilian vehicle burnt after being shot by U.S. forces following an attack near the Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File)

About 10 years ago, as the war in Afghanistan was slowly, painfully winding down, I walked through Arlington National Cemetery with a fellow Marine veteran and a relative of mine visiting from Ireland. We passed row after row of pristine white tombs, the dead of all the just wars and unjust wars that made and remade this country, and my relative told us he found it quite moving; he hadn’t been expecting that. Perhaps he thought it’d be more bombastic, or obviously militaristic, and he was taken by the beauty and serenity and quiet dignity of the place.

So we brought him to Section 60 to see some of the newest graves, of kids born in the ‘90s, and I told him the sight filled me with rage, these young lives thrown into a mismanaged war, where even their deaths, at that late stage, were mostly ignored. Just the background hum of a global superpower.

A couple of years later, in 2021, the Afghan war finally ended, taking with it a few American children of the 2000s, and, in a moral failure laid on top of the military failure, leaving tens of thousands of Afghans who worked with us at risk in the now completely Taliban-controlled country. The last Marines to fall died in a suicide bombing at a gate to Kabul’s airport, a blast that killed 11 Marines, one Navy medic, one soldier and about 170 Afghan civilians. The Marines were trying to manage the chaos of the poorly planned evacuation of Afghans from Kabul — a humanitarian mission at heart, trying to help those we were abandoning. A week before she died, one of the Marines, Sgt. Nicole Gee, posted a photo of her cradling a baby in Kabul and captioned it, “I love my job.”

America responded to those deaths with a drone strike against a Kabul vehicle the military claimed was transporting ISIS members who were about to carry out another attack, but that, in a twist that felt grotesquely emblematic of so many of our failures, turned out to carry an Afghan aid worker. The blast killed the aid worker and his relatives, seven of whom were children. The sort of people those Marines died trying to help.

How do you memorialize the dead of a failed war? At Arlington, it’s easy to let your heart swell with pride as you pass certain graves. Here are the heroes that ended slavery. Here are the patriots who defeated fascism. We think of them as inextricably bound up with the cause they gave their life to. The same can’t be said for more morally troubling wars, from the Philippines to Vietnam. And for the dead of my generation’s wars, for the dead I knew, the reasons they died sit awkwardly alongside the honor I owe them.

I watched a lot of Marines go off to Afghanistan, a war that I could have gone to but that I chose to avoid. Mostly, they were young. That’s the thing Hollywood most often gets wrong about war when they cast grown men to portray America’s finest killers. Look at a Marine infantry platoon, so many of whose members joined at 17 or 18, and you see boys. Boys who haven’t grown into cynicism yet. Some find it in the middle of their tours. Some keep that idealistic flame burning through multiple deployments. And some die before it can be extinguished.

For so many of the kids I saw, their mission mattered to them, and so their mission should matter to all of us when we remember their deaths. And the mission was a catastrophe. Memorial Day should come with sorrow and patriotic pride, yes, but also with a sense of shame. And, though it has faded for me over the years, with anger.

A few months after Kabul fell I went to the Bronx to see a war photographer I admire, Peter van Agtmael, taking a group of adult learners through a display of his photography from 9/11 to the present at the Bronx Documentary Center, photographs now collected in the book “Look at the U.S.A.”

“I just got back from Afghanistan, and it’s controversial to say, but it’s beautiful,” he told the group. “It’s beautiful to see Afghanistan at peace.”

Beautiful. I thought of a Marine in 2009, just back from Afghanistan, hollow-eyed, telling us in a monotone about his best friend taking a bullet to the head in these beautiful regions of the country, now at peace. What would he make of such a claim? Around me on the walls I saw a burned soldier in a combat hospital, the arm of a Trump supporter climbing over a wall by the Capitol on Jan. 6, the dust cloud of an improvised bomb detonation in Iraq.

Toward the end of the gallery, there was a huge print hung high up. You craned your neck and saw a homeless encampment in Las Vegas, and then, craning further, you saw an F-16 fighter jet, an aircraft that costs tens of millions of dollars, flying above. Amid our national forgetting of the wars, there was something powerful about seeing this accounting of America in the South Bronx, in a community whose struggles have so often been subject to forgetting, effacing, indifference. And, God, it was painful.

In the past when I’ve thought about the recent dead, I’ve told myself that service to country, service unto the point of death, is a momentous enough sacrifice to overshadow all other questions. The cause doesn’t matter so much if the fallen I knew served courageously, looked after their fellow Marines and kept their honor clean. But I’ve come to feel that airbrushing out the complexities of their wars is, ultimately, disrespectful to the dead. We owe it to the dead to remember what mattered to them, the ideals they held, as well as how those ideals were betrayed or failed to match reality.

This Memorial Day, as I get ready to take my sons to march in our local Memorial Day parade, our country is in the midst of the most divisive antiwar protests since the early days of the Iraq war, protests my friends characterize as either “objectively pro-Hamas” or as “opposing undeniable genocide.” Questions long dormant, about how we use our might and whom we help kill, feel like live political questions once again (even if we’re not talking much about actual American military deployments, or the troops who have most recently died at the hands of Iranian proxies). The debate is raw and angry.

Good. What a good, uncomfortable, painful national mood for remembering the dead. This year, when I remember them, I will not just remember who they were, the shreds of memory dredged up from past decades. I will remember why they died. All the reasons they died. Because they believed in America. Because America forgot about them. Because they were trying to force-feed a different way of life to people from a different country and culture. Because they wanted to look after their Marines. Because the mission was always hopeless. Because America could be a force for good in the world. Because Presidents Bush, Obama, Trump and Biden didn’t have much of a plan. Because it’s a dangerous world, and somebody’s got to do the killing. Because of college money. Because the Marine Corps is cool as hell. Because they saw “Full Metal Jacket” and wanted to be Joker. Or Animal Mother. Because the war might offer a new hope for Iraq, for Afghanistan. Because we earned others’ hatred, with our cruelty and indifference and carelessness and hubris. Because America was still worth dying for.

Phil Klay is a novelist and a Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq War. His most recent book is the essay collection “Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times.