Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 8
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Memorial marks civilian, military deaths

Memorial marks civilian, military deaths | Photo by Glory BusheyJunior Adam Chapman watched his steps as he navigated the sea of flags being constructed on Ankeny Field. Chapman, along with sophomore Nadim Damluji, junior Lauren Benson and senior Avi Conant, organized the construction of a flag memorial to commemorate both Iraqi civilian and U.S. military deaths in the current war in Iraq.

“Being here on the Whitman campus, it is often difficult to see how the war in Iraq affects us,” Chapman said. “So, with this memorial, we would like to begin making the fact that we are at war visible to the Whitman community and start asking what this war means to us personally and collectively.”

Chapman hopes that, by “emphasizing the human costs of war,” the memorial will make it possible for people to listen to each other regardless of political orientation.

All four students participated in a class on the Iraq War taught by associate professors of politics Bruce Magnusson and Shampa Biswas. Students were asked to create a final project that would bring discussion about the Iraq War outside the class. Damluji had read a news article online in which Reed College had constructed a similar flag memorial and proposed this idea as a final project.

“Avi, Lauren and Adam were enthusiastic about the project . . . we were all on the same page from the beginning,” said Damluji.

Damluji described the timeline: from its origins to the actual construction: as “a long process.” The group had planned to buy all the flags themselves, but during a four-day weekend trip to Eugene, Ore., Damluji met a University of Oregon student who organized the original display. After discussing the project, the student agreed to put Whitman at the top of the waiting list for receiving the flags, with ASWC’s funding.

“It’s a traveling exhibit . . . It’s been traveling around different college campuses. You pay to ship it to you, and whoever wants it next pays for it next,” Damluji said.

Each white flag on Ankeny Field represents between six to 10 Iraqi civilian deaths. The numbers are based on a 2006 study done by the British peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet, which estimates that there have been about 655,000 to 1.2 million excess Iraqi civilian deaths since the U.S.-led invasion of the country in 2003.

In addition to the white flags, red flags interspersed throughout the memorial each represent the death of six U.S. soldiers. Since the beginning of the war, a total of about 3,880 servicemembers in the United States military have lost their lives, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

Benson pointed out that the decision to include both Iraqi civilian deaths and U.S. military deaths was out of a desire to battle the unequal distribution of Iraqi civilian deaths reported in the American media.

“We were inspired by the work of Edward Said [author of the book ‘Orientalism’],” Benson said.

She explained how Said recognized in Western society “a stereotyping and kind of creation” of an Arab caricature, and how the only way to combat those stereotypes is through humanism. “Part of our project is attempting to do this work of trying to change our conception of the Arab by recognizing our mutual humanity,” Benson later wrote in an e-mail.

Benson also clarified what “excess death” means in the context of the war as a whole. “When we say that 650,000 Iraqi civilians are ‘excess death,’ we’re talking about those hazards such as disease that are associated with the conflict in addition to those deaths caused by the coalition military.”

With the planning finished, all four students set out to enlist the help of the Whitman campus and the Walla Walla community via listserv e-mails and flyers around town. The group also got in contact with military veterans.

Over the course of four days, students, faculty and members of the Walla Walla community helped plant the roughly 160,000 white and red flags.

Benson was “overwhelmed” by the amount of support and discussion from people when the flags were going up.

“Even people who are not volunteering, I still see them standing around and talking about it,” she said. “The community has been really supportive. They’ve put in tons of hours.”

Volunteers had similar encouraging words about the flag memorial.

“It spurs dialogue in the same way that a really good movie does, by throwing something out of text: and into your face,” wrote senior Curt Bowen in an e-mail.

Bryan Lubbers, a consultant for IT Support Services of WCTS, described himself as being “pulled in” to the process. “[I decided] to put a few flags in. [Then I] went back to add a few more. And then did it again. And again. I’m pretty certain that I started the process because I knew a few of the folks who organized the show. But I stayed, and continued because I was pulled in.”

Heidi Brigham, the music listening library coordinator in Whitman’s Hall of Music, said that the temporality of the memorial did not stop her from volunteering.

“I’ve spent about three hours putting up flags, and my reason is that I see the display as a powerful statement about loss. I understand people who might think ‘Why bother?’ especially since it’s a temporary memorial.

Comparing it with the sand mandala done in Reid by Tibetan monks a few years ago, I see the temporary nature of this display is part of its message. Time is one thing we can’t reclaim, and the only thing we know for sure about death is that it’s permanent.”

Despite the positive support from people on- and off-campus, there were still some questions as to creators’ intent for the memorial.

“We received a couple of e-mails from people, asking ‘What is this?’ and whether or not we had a political motivation for this memorial,” Benson said. “We felt we needed to clarify that that’s not what we’re trying to do.”

An incident of minor vandalism occurred on Sunday, Nov. 25, when Damluji emerged from the Penrose Library and saw eight soldiers bending the flags down. When Damluji confronted the men, he was met with ire from the soldiers who felt that the memorial was condescending.

Benson wanted to make it clear, though, that not all confrontations with service members were antagonistic, mentioning that some soldiers would be attending the panel discussion.

Vigil, panel spark discussion

On Thursday, Nov. 29, Damluji, Benson, Conant and Chapman arranged a candlelight vigil, followed by a presentation led by Gulf War veteran Larry Whittle.

The cold weather did not stop a crowd of about 50 from coming together in the middle of Ankeny Field among the flags to discuss their feelings about the war with candles in hand.

“It’s hard to deny that I’ve had a lot of strong feelings, and . . . it’d be those moments when I’d be putting a flag into the ground and stepping back to look at it and see how big its gotten and how much left we have to do,” Damluji said to the crowd. “I just think I’ve let myself slip too easily into thinking about this war . . . in a more cold and academic way . . . and not really let myself find an avenue for these feelings. So I feel like I’m going to talk right now just to express [that] I’m confused about what all this means . . . I’m still confused [as to] how to challenge these emotions I’m having.”

Larry Whittle addressed this unease in his presentation made in Maxey Auditorium following the vigil.

“I have to be honest and say that I have mixed emotions. It’s kind of hard . . . to unpack all of these feelings and come to some reasonable understanding. I think that the key [to getting] a reasonable understanding is the problem,” he said. “We have a memorial here to our inability as a human race and as government systems . . . to come to reasonable understandings, because [the deaths from the war are] entirely unreasonable.”

Whittle, a veteran of the Marine Corps from 1989 to 1993, served in the Gulf War with the 2nd Marine Division of the 2nd Light Armor Reconnaissance Battalion. Upon getting out of the Marine Corps in 1993, Whittle went to now-Walla Walla University and obtained a bachelor’s degree in 1996 and a master’s degree in 2003, both in social work. Whittle now has his own practice as a counselor, where he specializes in child and family trauma treatment.

Whittle vowed that he was there to “tell his story” of personal experiences in the Marine Corps during the Gulf War. Throughout his talk, Whittle connected those experiences to the current war proceeding in Iraq.
“The reality is, we’re all human and we want to be with the people we love and who love us; and that’s a common experience whether you’re a Marine, whether you’re an Iraqi, or whether you’re anybody on the Earth. I think that we understand that about each other, and this allows us to empathize with what’s going on here,” he said.

Whittle’s presentation was followed by the four students explaining how they came about developing the memorial. Yet it was the panel discussion afterwards where the creators answered questions and defended themselves from the audience.

Junior Elsbeth Otto asked the group how the Iraq War class had changed their perceptions on the war.
“The biggest issue for me was how little I actually know [about the conflict],” said Chapman. He highlighted how the class opened him up to different perspectives of the war, and how these perspectives helped him “move toward [an] understanding” of the conflict.

Junior Veronica Prout, however, felt that some context was missing. In an emotionally-charged statement chiding the “close-mindedness of the campus,” Prout believed that the display blamed the soldiers more than it sought to understand them.

“You can’t help but have a political stance when it comes to talking about this memorial,” she said to the group, questioning whether the Iraq War class was “politically-biased.”

Benson reiterated that their was no political bias to the course and that, in the case of the memorial, the group had their opinions challenged throughout its duration.

“We are in no way insinuating that every soldier is responsible for these deaths,” said Benson.

Prout later clarified her feelings in an e-mail. She shared an experience where her boyfriend, currently in the military, came with her to pick up mail in Reid while still in uniform.

“As we exited the building, three male Whitman students passed us and one said, ‘Fuck the troops,'” Prout wrote.

Prout believes that there is a disconnect between Whitman students and current veterans of the Iraq War that transferred over into the class. “Speaking was difficult [at the presentation]. I put my heart on the line; a few yelled back at me,” she wrote. “All I desire is to be presented with diverse opinions so I can have a choice.

When only one side of the story is given, distortion is the result. After learning that in the Iraq War class, not a single current soldier or Iraq War veteran: who work only two blocks away: was invited to discuss their experience, I was disturbed. My only hope is that by speaking out, more people will understand the whole story and give our soldiers the respect they deserve.”

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