Crosses or tombstones, plastic or wood, Iraq or Afghanistan? These are the questions currently plaguing Santa Barbara’s Arlington West War Memorial — the world-famous, often duplicated, and undeniably moving installation of crosses erected in the sand near Stearns Wharf most Sunday mornings in the name of the American servicemen and women lost during the Iraq War.
With President Obama aiming to deliver on his campaign promise of ending official U.S military operations in Iraq by the end of this month, and a death toll in Afghanistan growing by leaps and bounds, the volunteer-driven installation organized by Santa Barbara’s chapter of Veterans for Peace (VFP) is undergoing major — and to some, potentially damaging — growing pains as it works to reconcile these changes. “Things are still in flux,” explained Ron Dexter, a Korean War vet who has been part of Arlington West since its early days. “But we have decided to move in a new direction and that direction is Afghanistan.”
On the first Sunday in November 2003, a small group of peace activists gathered on the easternmost edge of West Beach to place some 340 homemade crosses — made by Santa Barbara’s Steve Sherrill — in the sand to honor each of the U.S. soldiers who had died in the then still-young war. Through wicked winter weather and tourist frenzied summer days, that informal first gathering grew into what is now known as Arlington West. Each week, as the death toll in Iraq grew, so did the number of crosses in the sand, their simple and solemn presence a powerful reminder of the true cost of war while also serving as a unique place where family and friends of the fallen could come and pay their respects.
Eventually, after the installation stretched out to cover more than an acre’s worth of the beach, the decision was made in late 2006 to cap the number of crosses at 3,000 for the sake of streamlining the labor-intensive installation process and switching the memorial to more of a symbolic representation. Though an ebb and flow of volunteers has eaten into the organizers’ abilities to build Arlington West each and every Sunday in recent months, the installation has managed to endure in more or less the same capacity while the Iraq War’s death toll has risen, as of press time, to 4,415. That is, until now.
Dexter explained, “Afghanistan has simply become more immediately important.”
Starting this Sunday, based on a vote of support from the VFP local board earlier this month, the cross display will no longer stand for U.S. casualties in Iraq. Instead, the 3,000-plus crosses will be swapped out for 1,236 “new” markers, each one representing the death of a U.S. military member serving in Afghanistan. Pointing to the troubling uptick in casualties in Afghanistan — since May nearly 250 U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan versus 45 fatalities in Iraq since the start of 2010 — Dexter explained, “Afghanistan has simply become more immediately important.” According to Dexter, the tentative plan is for the deaths in Afghanistan to be eventually memorialized with plastic tombstones, each affixed with the name of a deceased American soldier.
Sherrill, whom many credit as the mastermind behind that first installation, was the lone vote of dissent at the August 2 VFP board meeting. Fearful that such a move will be perceived as an abandonment of the cause, Sherrill has been outspoken in his criticism of the wholesale makeover. Writing a letter to The Independent, Sherrill explained, “The problem with the plan is that, to the outside observer, there is no visual evidence to suggest that the 4,400-plus fatalities in Iraq have not been forgotten [by Arlington West] … When word gets out that Arlington West Santa Barbara is no longer putting out crosses for the fatalities in Iraq, the flood of questions and criticism is going to have the chapter members scrambling around trying to explain themselves.” Adding that he would prefer to see a combination installation that included crosses and tombstones for deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sherrill concluded. “I am sad to say that, as of this writing, the Arlington West we have come to know for the last six-and-a-half years has ceased to exist.”
Aside from the obvious change in U.S. military emphasis from Iraq to Afghanistan, the other major motivating factor behind the Arlington West redesign is logistics. Already a fairly involved process — depending on the number of volunteers who turn out, the act of setting up the crosses can take upward of two hours — the idea that the Iraq crosses and the Afghanistan tombstones could both be presented on a weekly basis is out of the question.
As for concerns that the switchover shortchanges those men and women memorialized over the years at Arlington West, Dexter says that the Iraq wooden crosses — many of which have been adorned with dog tags, rosary beads, and various personal messages over the years — will remain on site, though not necessarily erected each week. “Absolutely, we will continue to put up crosses if people come specifically to visit them … We have no intention of abandoning the visitors who come to Arlington West.”