Arlington West shows tragedy of Iraq war
In the shadow of the Ferris wheel and the trinket stands, they carefully push more than 1,000 white crosses into the sand, methodically placing them in straight rows, using a string grid system as their guide.
After the crosses are planted, they set out a flag-draped coffin with an empty pair of combat boots in front and a helmet atop. The numbers on a sign are updated: As I write this, the death toll is 1,054, the number of wounded up to 7,384. Other big signs are put up, with photos and descriptions of young people who have made the ultimate sacrifice.
As the Pacific Ocean’s waves roll ashore in the background and the sun rises higher in the morning sky, tourists begin to wander onto the scene. Puzzled at first, they read the signs, then realize the meaning of “Arlington West”: Here, quietly spread before them, is a memorial to the American soldiers who have died in the Iraq war.
A hush surrounds the site as the tourists look over the photos or stare out at the crosses. A few tears flow. Some visitors place flowers by a cross and attach a note, designating that wooden stake to a particular soldier for the day.
The Los Angeles chapter of Veterans for Peace creates the Santa Monica version of Arlington West each Sunday. The original Arlington West first appeared on the beach at Santa Barbara last November, as a Veterans Day commemoration by that city’s Veterans for Peace chapter. Its effect was so powerful, however, that the veterans realized they had to keep it going and to spread the message.
“We want to show the actual human element of the war,” said Ed Ellis, of the Los Angeles Veterans for Peace chapter. “We want to reveal who’s been killed and wounded.”
He said many chapter members are Vietnam vets, who regrouped after the first Gulf War to speak out against war. But they are careful not to discuss politics each Sunday on the Santa Monica beach. “This display is for the soldiers, for the families,” Ellis said. “After Vietnam, we had to wait 20 years to get the Wall. This display allows people to express their grief now.”
Thousands come by each week. Ellis said there have been some powerful moments at Arlington West. One day a Marine came by. He’d been home from Iraq only a few months. He looked over the photos and descriptions of the soldiers who have died. He was the only one in his unit to survive an attack – 20 of his buddies were killed.
“He was on his hands and knees weeping,” Ellis said. “I went over and covered him. Some of the volunteers made a laminated display for his unit and we bring it out now every week.”
This week, the veteranswill add a new component to Arlington West: blue crosses in the front row representing the death toll from the past week. “People see on the news a soldier killed here or there and they don’t realize the toll in one week can be dozens of soldiers,” Ellis said.
The weekly undertaking requires much effort. Ellis said they have been blessed with many volunteers who aren’t part of Veterans for Peace. A group of employees from a Home Depot store, who lost a fellow worker in the war, come down to help in honor of their friend. Other volunteers just arrive off the beach.
/>36='””‘ />Arlington West will continue to grace the sands of Santa Monica until the Iraq war ends. Each week the number of crosses representing American soldiers grows on this couple of acres of beachfront.
But here’s another point to remember: It would take miles of beach to memorialize all of the Iraqis killed in this war.