I've spent the last two days very happy that I live where I live. I was able to see living history.
On Saturday I visited Arlington West. This is a sometimes-mobile exhibit that has taken up a semi-permanent residence on the beach in Santa Monica, just off the Pier. Over 2,000 miniature gravesites, complete with white crosses, Jewish stars or Muslim crescents, now dot the beachscape. Each one specifically represents a member of the Armed Forces killed thus far in the Iraq War. They also have a smaller plot for those who have died in Afghanistan.
Santa Monica, particularly on the weekends, very particularly by the beach and pier, is a tourist town. People from all over the country were down at the memorial site this weekend. It's very tastefully laid out. There is a banner marking the numbers of American war dead in every conflict since WWI. There's a sign marking the number killed in the current week. There is a detailed printout of every armed forces member who has died in Iraq, with their name, age, hometown, how and where they were killed. I thought if I saw one more "age 18" or "age 19" amongst the names I was going to be sick. There is a guestbook for people to sign, in addition to small pieces of paper that you can attach to particular gravesites with a personal message. There's also several stories of the war wounded, a forgotten group of brave men and women (well over 10,000 at last count).
And on Saturday, in honor of Veterans Day, Arlington West did something special. And it wasn't giving a political speech. They had a procession of 100 flag-draped coffins from the pier to the beach. The whole thing took around 15 minutes. The goal was to have 2,000 pallbearers in honor of each soldier laid to rest, but it didn't look to me like they reached that goal. They did read off every name of the fallen throughout the day, however. The oddity of the landscape struck me: you could look out toward Malibu and see 100 coffins just in front of the sweeping cliffs; turn the other way, and white crosses and stars and crescents peel out for several hundred yards, just underneath the ferris wheel and roller coaster and the sign that says "Playland."
A surreal scene, to be sure. But also an incredibly solemn one. I saw parents explaining the memorial to their children, writing their names in the guestbook. I saw Vietnam Vets out there, parents of the dead in Iraq, and the group of dedicated volunteers who have taken Arlington West all over the country, from Crawford to Washington to it's home base in Santa Monica. I saw the CNN reporter, who was doing live shots from there all day Saturday, step on one of the red plastic cups in front of the gravesite (they're there for candles) and put it back in the wrong place.
But most importantly, I saw Ron Kovic. He was out there talking to people, as he has for the last 40 years, since leaving 3/4 of his body on a battlefield in Vietnam, speaking truth to power, showing his respect for the men and women in uniform, siding with them and their well-being, and speaking out against the establishment, the ruling class, the decision-makers that have led to the memorial before me. Truthout.org was there, and they interviewed Kovic for the site (Here's a link
to the film they made about Arlington West; Kovic's interview is not part of it). Kovic was eloquent, saying that we must question authority, that we welcome the growing numbers of Americans who have turned against this war, that we owe it to the troops to speak out and help bring them home. He was as sickened as the rest of us that the President would use Veteran's Day to launch a political attack. Yet he counseled patience, saying that "we should not disgrace ourselves by attacking our brothers and sisters who disagree with us. We all love America. We just need to continue to speak out, and the public will hear our call." It was an honor to shake his hand.
I felt like there could be no greater statement on this Veteran's Day weekend that what these folks have done at Arlington West. The awareness they raise, the memorial they've built, does everyone proud, regardless of your feeling on the war.