Coincidental with the first chill of winter, tens of thousands of red and white flags blanket Ankeny Field and surrounding areas of the Whitman College campus as part of a project memorializing the deaths of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians in the Iraq War.

The memorial will be on display through Dec. 2. It was organized by several Whitman students, including Avi Conant ’08, Adam Chapman ’09, Lauren Benson ’09 and Nadim Damluji ’10. Its purpose, say the organizers, is “not only to raise awareness of the human costs of war but also to begin constructive dialogue about what it means to be a nation at war.”

“I think the sheer scope of the display makes it extremely effective,” says Damluji. “It is one thing to glance over the number of Iraqi and American casualties in a newspaper or on the Internet, but another thing to experience those numbers during one’s everyday routine. They take on a new meaning and become something more understandable when they sprawl over a place you usually throw a Frisbee around. We hope to bring humanity into discussions about the Iraq War, and not just have it be coldly political.”

The memorial project stemmed from a politics class on the Iraq War taught by Shampa Biswas and Bruce Magnusson, associate professors of politics. Damluji saw the memorial on another college campus and proposed that it come to Whitman.

The flags are on loan from a University of Oregon student who originally conceived of the display. ASWC funded the project at Whitman.

“We want (the event of the memorial) to remain apolitical,” Benson says. “However, we hope that the discussion and dialogue that it sparks will be political and will bring together a range of ideas and perspectives. Our primary goal is to provide a social space for discussion about the war.”

“It would be cheap and easy to force a political agenda through emotionally manipulating viewers of the display,” Damluji adds. “Worse, it would not truly honor the lives lost. We (want) to let viewers create their own feelings about the war, whatever those may be, and have our job be to raise awareness about the numerous lives lost as a result of the war.”

Each red flag on Ankeny represents the death of six U.S. soldiers. Some 3,857 American servicemen have lost their lives since the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. 2007 has seen the highest number of casualties in five years of conflict.

A sea of white flags, each representing between six and 10 Iraqi civilian deaths, also fills Ankeny. The flag count is based on a 2006 report from the independent British journal Lancet, which estimates anywhere from 655,000 to 1.2 million Iraqi civilian deaths since the U.S.-led invasion of the country.

Altogether, nearly 160,000 flags stand along Ankeny in a startling visual representation of human loss from war.

In conjunction with the memorial, a candlelight vigil will be held on Ankeny at 7 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 29, followed by a student-led panel in Maxey Auditorium. Larry Whittle, a Walla Walla social worker and U.S. Marine Corps veteran, will speak at the event. Whittle served in ground combat in the first Gulf War and now works with children as a family counselor. “He has very unique story that is particularly powerful,” Damjuli says.

Organizers of the memorial hope it will also prompt discussion of war in the Walla Walla community. To that end, they have contacted local veterans’ groups and posted flyers throughout the town. “This is an issue that affects people beyond Whitman College, and we wanted to make everyone aware of it,” Damjuli says.

— Katie Combs ’08

Keith Raether
Office of Communications, Whitman College