The first Sunday of November 2003, a group of local activists erected 340 wooden crosses on the beach immediately west of Stearns Wharf in the beautiful seaside community of Santa Barbara, California. The wooden crosses marked the deaths of U.S. servicemen and servicewomen in Iraq.
Outraged that the Bush administration had barred U.S. media from photographing returning coffins containing the war dead from Iraq, founder Stephen Sherrill, along with a small group of local activists, erected the first installation of what has become widely known as the Arlington West memorial. “I didn’t feel that the American people were mindful of the terrible price we were paying – and were about to pay – for the invasion and occupation of Iraq,” says Sherrill. “The statistics in the newspapers were just tiny little numbers, too easy to breeze over.”
Since the first installation of the crosses in 2003, the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq has grown beyond 4,300. Every Sunday morning, members of Veterans for Peace and volunteers from the community, place crosses in the sand in remembrance of those whose lives have been sacrificed in Iraq. Hundreds of observers from across the nation and around the world visit Arlington West every week. To date, there have been approximately twenty duplications of the original Arlington West all across America, including their weekly “sister memorial” in Santa Monica, California.
In the intervening years since the memorial started, Veterans for Peace members and volunteers have effectively transformed what began as an angry anti-war protest into a genuine memorial — somber, chilling, and irresistibly moving. The memorial has been deliberately de-politicized in an effort to make Arlington West a non-threatening experience for everyone, regardless of their political affiliation. Gone are the placards denouncing George W. Bush that were there in the beginning. In their place are flowers, flags, and the names of the dead attached to the crosses and posted on makeshift bulletin boards.
The immense temporary cemetery was named after Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Virginia, a burial ground for soldiers killed in active duty. It takes two dozen volunteers about three hours to erect the display of over 3,000 crosses. Planted in straight, tight rows covering over an acre of beach, it makes a stunning visual statement. In the background, the sound of “Taps” can be heard playing nonstop from a nearby recorder. At sunset, the music ends and the crosses are taken down, packed up, and stored away until the coming week.
Each cross has a name, rank, age, place of death, and how the death occurred. It is remarkable how many ages marked are 19. The phrase heard over and over, spoken by the viewers, “This really makes you think.”
Adjacent to one of the most heavily traveled intersections in Santa Barbara, Stearns Wharf has always been a favorite place for tourists to stroll. But now, it has also become a place where friends and relatives of the deceased can pay their last respects.
Unfortunately, as of August 2010, the temporary cemetery has entered into a controversial change. The cross display will no longer be erected every Sunday standing for U.S. casualties in Iraq. Instead, the 3,000-plus crosses will be swapped out for 1,236 “new” plastic markers, each one representing the death of a U.S. military member serving in Afghanistan. Since the start of 2010, there has been a “troubling uptick” in casualties in this war — nearly 250 since May versus 45 fatalities in Iraq. The other major motivating factor behind the redesign is logistics. Already a fairly involved process, this removes some of the heavy labor needed for the weekly project. Many of the wooden crosses will still remain on the site, but not necessarily erected each week. According to a spokesperson for the founding organization, VFP, “We will absolutely 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.”
Although the memorial has always suggested debate due to its controversial origination, nonetheless, it serves our fallen well. Arlington West is a definite “must visit” to remember our brave and honorable American military citizenry.