Against a backdrop of bustling evening traffic and winter darkness, more than 50 members of the New Haven community gathered Monday night to inaugurate a memorial for city residents killed in the Iraq war. But Yale students were mostly M.I.A.
The monument — situated on a traffic island across Elm Street from Ivy Noodle and titled a “Memorial to an Endless War” — consists of a pile of 10-pound stones, each of which represents a month of the war since the conflict began in 2003. As a way of visually illustrating the war’s ongoing costs, memorial planners said they will add a new stone every month, each inscribed with that month’s U.S. military and Iraqi civilian deaths.
Despite the charged political nature of the Iraq war, planners said so far the memorial has not met with any active opposition from community members. Few students turned out at the dedication, which was organized by the statewide interfaith group Reclaiming the Prophetic Voice and seven church congregations from New Haven and Hamden.
“The cairn took the shape of a grave to recall the scenes of the graves after Hurricane Katrina, covered with tarps and surrounded by brick: ‘Here Lies Vera, God Help Us,’ ” memorial coordinator Stephen Kobasa said at the dedication. “It’s not enough to simply remember the dead. We cannot end this war unless we begin to grieve our losses.”
The New Haven Board of Park Commissioners approved the use of Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees property for the memorial in October, on the condition that the monument be temporary and that it be removed once the Board determines the war has ended.
RTPV steering committee member Reverend Allie Perry said coordinators plan to commemorate the placing of future stones in a public, ritual manner. Monday’s ceremony featured a series of prayers, readings and speeches.
Although the memorial contains no religious symbolism, religious communities have a special obligation to call institutions that are committing injustice to account, Kobasa said.
Yale students were largely absent from the dedication. Lauren Russell ’09 said she did not see any other students at the event, but she does not view the low turnout as a sign of student indifference toward the war.
Vigils tend to be most successful when long-established communities rally together through word of mouth, she said, but Yale’s four-year turnover of undergraduate students makes such organization difficult.
Students can also express their opinions about the war through other means or can choose to rally around issues that they can take a more active role in changing, she said.
“Many students find solace in the tangible accomplishments they can achieve rather than standing on a street corner and watching cars pass by,” she said. “I think Yalies like to target issues that they can have impacts on, and the war isn’t one of them.”
New Haven resident Frank Panzarella said Yalies have in the past collaborated with the Connecticut Peace Coalition in order to protest policies such as South Africa’s apartheid in the early 1990s. Since the war began, the Peace Coalition has organized vigils on the Broadway triangle every Sunday, he said.
“Yale Opposes the War” co-founder Sarah Turbow ’10, who did not attend the event, said the piece provides an opportunity for the Yale and New Haven communities to overcome apathy surrounding the war.
But Ben Meyer ’10, co-founder of the student group “Yale Supports the War,” who also did not attend the event, said he does not think the monument will provoke much student reaction. Given that monument supporters have called for an end to the war, Meyer said, the monument amounts to political protest, rather than a memorial.
“This is not a memorial and in no way conveys the realities of war,” he said. “This is just another protest calling for the removal of our troops who are risking their lives so the people of Iraq and the rest of the world can live freely without the threat of Islamic terrorism.”
Although some people may try to frame it as partisan, the monument, which holds the whole political system responsible for the war, defies political affiliation, Kobasa said.
American Studies professor Alicia Schmidt Camacho said she thinks many Yale students feel disconnected from the war since it is mainly the lower class and minority groups who have shouldered the costs of the war.
In addition to the absence of students at the event, Anthropology professor Bernard Bate said he was disappointed with the limited faculty response to the war.
“There have a been a few [faculty] who have voiced resistance clearly in a scholarly fashion, but they have yet to use the word ‘crime’ — the usurpation of people’s power,” he said. “There’s a larger ‘something’ that I don’t really understand that has kept us from mobilizing.”
To the best of his knowledge, Kobasa said, other Iraq War memorials across the country have noted the number of U.S. military deaths, but not Iraqi civilian deaths. The U.S. government has displayed a lack of concern for accurately measuring Iraqi civilian deaths, he said.
Meyer said such figures are not easy to estimate, and the difficulty of differentiating between Iraqis who die in fighting and those who die in terrorist attacks on civilians may also complicate the final count.