Last Sunday, October 4, marked an anniversary to be mourned rather than celebrated for members of the Santa Barbara chapter of Veterans for Peace, as they commemorated four years of their Arlington West war memorial in their usual location by Stearns Wharf. In addition to their weekly cemetery of wooden crosses for the soldiers who have died in the Iraq war, the group invited Ann Wright-a U.S diplomat who resigned from her position in 2003 in protest of the US invasion of Iraq-to speak in an afternoon ceremony held among the crosses.
Against the dramatic background of thousands of crosses with shadows lengthening in the afternoon sun, Wright’s words drew around 40 spectators. Her speech reflected the same frustrations that triggered her initial resignation from the Foreign Service, including the notion that America would be safer without the Iraq war. “It really is in our own interest, our own security interest, to get out of this war,” Wright said. “Over 2.1 million Americans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and not one of them is coming back the way they left. They are all coming back emotionally scarred or worse.”
Wright is herself a former army colonel and a member of Veterans for Peace since she found out about the organization in 2004. This was not her first visit to the Arlington West memorial, and she expressed her grief for its continued operation this weekend.
Arlington West founder Steve Sherrill explained that he never intended for the memorial to become the weekly Santa Barbara tradition that it is today. When he first undertook the project, working evenings in his own garage to make one wooden cross for each soldier who had died in the war, he thought that he was making preparations for a one-time event. “The concept was to give a visual representation of the numbers that were coming up in the papers,” he recalls. “[It] was born mostly out of frustration and protest.” The first display went up on Nov. 2, 2003. Now, four years later, it has motivated the creation of similar monuments by other Veterans for Peace chapters throughout the nation.
Early on in the memorial’s evolution, the organizers decided to de-politicize it as much as possible, from then on omitting signs and placards with political content or criticisms of the president. One main goal in making this change was to create a more welcoming environment for people of all ideological beliefs to come mourn and pay their respect to dead soldiers. Now, the display is more of a memorial than a protest. There has also been a noticeable drop in the amount of criticism the group receives. According to local Veterans for Peace Chapter Vice President Bob Potter, negative comments are fairly rare now.
As the number of crosses increased, setting up Arlington West each week became increasingly arduous. The crew was finally forced to make the decision last January to cap the number of crosses they would make at 3,024. Sherrill still stood by the necessity of that decision this weekend. “You gotta deal with reality,” he explained, in reference to the increasing burden of transporting and setting up over 3,000 pounds worth of crosses each Sunday.
Despite having capped further cross-making just above 3000, an arduous task awaits the dedicated organizers and volunteers each week. The group-made up of around twelve Veterans for Peace members and two to three dozen volunteers-wakes up each Sunday to begin working just after daybreak. Using a 500-yard measuring tape, they mark off even columns and rows for the crosses and set the whole display up in about an hour. Volunteer Joanne McGarry has been helping take down crosses regularly for nearly three years. “It’s really good hard labor for a good purpose,” she said, sounding satisfied with the job ahead of her that evening.