War memorials tell of beginnings and ends — a treaty signed, a last battle, a final death toll. But for supporters of a new monument in New Haven commemorating the ongoing Iraq war, such landmarks are only aspirations.
On the second day of December, an interfaith social justice coalition plans to unveil a monument memorializing U.S. military and Iraqi civilian deaths till now in the Iraq war. There has been little vocal resistance to the monument thus far, but observers said the installation could potentially generate opposition from those who think the memorial is an inappropriate political statement.
The memorial, which will stand next to the 1905 Broadway Civil War Monument in the Broadway triangle, will feature a pile of stones, each of which will be inscribed with an American and Iraqi death toll from a different month. A new stone will be added to the monument for every month the war in Iraq continues. Reclaiming the Prophetic Voice, a Connecticut social justice interfaith coalition, is in the midst of designing the cairn, which will contain 10-pound Red River stones roughly arranged in a six-by-six-foot diamond pile.
Group member Stephen Kobasa, who has been the monument’s main facilitator, said he hopes it will serve as a visual reminder of the war’s human cost.
“The memorial is an attempt to confront people with the truth about the war, whether they want to know or not,” Kobasa said. “It’s not just a place to come and say, ‘Oh, what a sad thing this is,’ like with the Vietnam War memorial. It’s ‘I can do something to keep another stone from being added.’”
Kobasa said he has not heard any outspoken criticism of the memorial since park commissioners approved it. Very little public response to or acknowledgment of the memorial has emerged, Kobasa and commissioners said.
But Zerkel said exhibits that highlight the war’s death toll inevitably provoke some degree of political criticism, which Kobasa said he is prepared to face.
“I’m sure that any attempts to call attention to the human cost will, to some extent, be considered political because it’s showing that there are great tragedies associated with the war,” Zerkel said. “But I don’t know that you can say it’s inherently political to call attention to the fact that people are dying.”
The New Haven Board of Park Commissioners approved the monument three weeks ago, but Kobasa and commissioners only finalized construction plans this week. Commissioners mentioned safety concerns about people possibly throwing the monument’s stones at cars or pedestrians, said Robert Levine, Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees director.
The nine-person body approved the monument with one dissenting vote, on the condition that Kobasa restore the space to its original condition following the monument’s removal at the end of the war.
Given the difficulty of determining a war’s “end,” if the Iraq war were to morph into an occupation, Levine said, the board will also have the power to remove the monument when it thinks the war has effectively ended. For now, the stones will be separate, although Reclaiming the Prophetic Voice will glue them together if they become a public safety hazard, he said.
Kevin Walton, the one dissenting vote on the board, said he would like to see an end to the war, but public property managed by the board is not appropriate for what he said amounted to political protest. In light of recent public debate over the benefits and drawbacks of impromptu memorials dedicated to crime or accident victims on city-owned sidewalks, the parks commission is inappropriately protesting one war and not another, he said.
“There are a lot of things going on in New Haven that need to be addressed, especially in light of the Board of Aldermen wanting there to be a time limit to remove memorials for victims of crimes here in New Haven,” he said. “The [victims] are usually young, inner-city kids, black and Latino. It’s symbolic for me. There is a war going on right here in New Haven.”
The status of individual sidewalk memorials falls under the purview of the Board of Aldermen, not by the Board of Park Commissioners. The former does not control the city’s sidewalks.
The Board of Aldermen discussed the sidewalk memorials in early October, but reached no decision as to whether memorials would require permits or be subject to removal after 30 days.
“Personally, I can’t tell anyone how to mourn,” Walton said. “I think [the individual memorials are] people protesting to say ‘Hey, listen, someone was tragically taken away from us right here,’ beside being a memorial to the person who was taken from them … Most of them died tragically, shot down on the street.”
Reclaiming the Prophetic Voice first considered putting the monument on the New Haven Green, but their request was denied by the Green’s managers, Kobasa said.
Although it was the second choice for the monument’s location, the Broadway triangle is more fitting because both students and New Haven residents walk around the area, Kobasa said.
Anti-war protesters also gather at the Broadway triangle on a weekly basis, but Kobasa said their presence did not factor into the monument’s chosen location.
“All of us bear responsibility, so students as well as citizens need to acknowledge it,” he said. “There is not a lot of student-generated activity around the war that I’m aware of … Broadway looks more like it’s speaking to both communities.”
Mary Zerkel, national coordinator of “Eyes Wide Open” — a traveling exhibit consisting of deceased soldiers’ combat boots and a wall of remembrance — said exhibits and memorials about the Iraq war’s casualties present a much-needed avenue of public mourning.
“We have really noticed that people need a public place of mourning because there hasn’t been any sanctioned public mourning for the deaths in the war,” Zerkel said. “The administration has tried to hide photographs of coffins and so forth, so with our exhibit we try to make sure we keep a very neutral memorial tone while not hiding the fact that we’re against the war.”
“Eyes Wide Open” has received negative criticism on occasion, she said, but spectators from across the political spectrum have also felt comfortable approaching the memorial. The exhibit has visited over 100 cities and has established memorials in over 40 states and Puerto Rico using the boots of deceased local soldiers.
Part of the exhibit, which is sponsored by the Quaker interfaith social justice network American Friends Service Committee, traveled to the Yale Divinity School last fall.
Kobasa said the Jewish tradition of leaving stones at a grave to memorialize dead individuals inspired the cairn’s design. Although Reclaiming the Prophetic Voice is an interfaith organization, the monument will have no religious associations, he said.
The memorial will omit deaths of military personnel and civilians from other countries in order to place emphasis on the disparity in numbers between American deaths and Iraqi civilian deaths, Kobasa said.
“The killing has been going on for a long time and our ability to be indifferent to it has been going on for a long time,” he said. “It’s not just when a flag goes down, it’s not just our own losses — it’s everyone’s.”
The death of five soldiers and one sailor Monday brought this year’s total U.S. military death toll to 852, making 2007 the deadliest year for U.S. troops since the start of the war, according to the New York Times.