Monday, September 21, 2009

Acknowledging the Cost

Olympia Veterans For Peace staged its annual Arlington Northwest vigil and display this weekend. Starting early Friday morning, I joined about 20 other volunteers laying out almost 3,000 white military head stones and crosses in memory of American service members killed in Iraq. Each marker carried the name and other information about a dead service member. The display has over 4,000 markers but after five hours laying out a grid and placing the markers, we stopped for a noontime opening ceremony. More markers went out later but we never got them all in place.

The display also has, for the first time, markers to represent casualties in Afghanistan. These were located on a small hill just west of the main display, somewhat reminiscent of that war’s remote and out of mind (until now) status. The markers were blank with the intent of filling in names during the course of the display. One visitor inscribed very artistically, a moving tribute to his best friend and the two soldiers who died with him in 2007.

Arlington Northwest sends multiple messages. Are we honoring the dead in support of what they did? Does recalling the names of the dead cause people to realize that war is waste, pure and simple? One thing I do know is that it’s a lot of work. We pulled it off again this year but it’s a lot of effort by a relatively few people. One member asks if we are getting what we want out of ANW. As a chapter, we have a variety of perspectives and motivations so I suspect we will have equally varied answers to that question. (I am asking that same question of myself but that’s another story.)

I see the display as a way of bringing the cost of war home to America. Just seeing row after row after row of identical (well, mostly) white markers makes a strong impression. I look at them and know viscerally that, regardless of the necessity of the war, all these dead cannot be good. Certainly not good for the casualties, whose lives are ended, violently and prematurely. Not good for their families, left with a gaping hole in the rest of their lives. Even the most ardent supporter of war cannot point to any of these dead and say categorically that it is good that this person is dead. We can discuss the necessity of a war and the reasons why we must send soldiers to their death but I can never accept those deaths as anything I want to happen.

At this point, maybe we can begin to talk about when it may or may not be legitimate to use military force against another community, about when a nation may legitimately ask its sons and daughters to attack and kill other sons and daughters. That discussion took place at different times throughout the display. I was privy to a few of those exchanges and fellow volunteers told me about others.

Beginning on the second day of ANW, markers for the approximately 100,000 Iraqi civilians killed during the occupation began to go up in the space adjacent to the military markers. This is the Iraq Memorial to Life, an effort created by one of our VFP members who helped set up one of the first ANW displays a few years ago and saw the power of the names. He began creating a memorial to recognize the Iraqi dead. The first display was last March in Olympia. Adding the Iraqi names to ANW added an important dimension to the effort. Soldiers and civilians lie together in complete equality—the equality of death, of opportunity lost. As patriotic citizens we can ask, “Why is this done in our name?”

Many Americans will insist that these are the difficult costs of living in a dangerous world, that we must keep Them from attacking Us. If you ask exactly how invading nations that did not attack us prevents further attacks, they fall back on buzzwords like “support the troops” or “America cannot be defeated”. None of the rationales and talking points are worthy of these dead—American, Iraqi and, increasingly, Afghans. That’s why it is important to remember their sacrifice.

ANW closed at 4:00 pm Saturday with a brief ceremony and a bugler paying “Taps”. As we removed the military markers, volunteers put Iraqi markers in their place. The 100,000 civilian dead would not only fill the newly emptied space but, literally every piece of ground visible from Capital Lake if we had enough markers, time and space. And that’s just for the numbers verified by Iraq Body Count, which is pretty much considered the least number of civilian casualties. Other surveys have higher figures.

The opening for the Memorial to Life featured remarks by a local imam who stood in a space between the military and civilian markers and asked us to spend a day in the shoes of the family of a dead soldier and then to spend a day in the shoes of the family of the dead Iraqi. He invited us to understand that the loss is no different. In the words of another meditation about war, “at each end of the rifle we are the same”.

We put up markers until after sundown. The pegs for the ANW markers were still in place which made set-up much easier even though the MTL markers had their own pegs. A few were missing, though, so I just hooked the new marker to the other one. When I returned with the proper pin, I found two cyclists trying to reset the obviously poor installation. Their effort showed me that Americans do care.

The other side of America also arrived by bicycle. Around 8:00 pm a stocky cyclist stopped by to ask about the display. When the organizer told him what it was the cyclist insisted that we were memorializing terrorists, the enemy that had killed his friends and that he had killed during his three times in Iraq. The organizer handed the assault and that’s what it was) well and calmly but it made no difference. The cyclist just kept at it, during which identified himself as a sergeant first class platoon leader. He certainly looked the part, all the way to his shaved head. When he refused to listen to anything the organizer said, I and another veteran joined the “discussion” but he belligerently gainsaid anything we said with the reply that “I’ve been to Iraq.” He insisted that he knew more about the world than any of us did. It was clear that he was not particularly interested in any kind of discussion; only in silencing any thought that conflicts with his own.

Therein lies the difficulty of the task. The sergeant-cyclist doesn’t necessarily represent all of America but his words and attitude resonate with many who believe that world peace will come about when everyone acts in America’s interest and until that time we need to force them to do so. Fortunately, they are a minority. Unfortunately, they are noisy and plenty of powerful interests from the military establishment to weapons manufacturers have a vested interest in war. Unfortunately, too, the sergeant-cyclist, when in full uniform and saluting the flag, is an icon that keeps many other Americans from speaking out against war, even when we realize it is a mistake. It’s easier to ask a more soldiers to die for a mistake than to admit that mistake.

That is the message I want to send with Arlington Northwest.


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