Veterans, community groups, and campus activists organized an action of solidarity to make the University of Oregon the second school in the nation to visually represent the Iraq death toll. Two hundred volunteers placed 112,000 white flags around school property, with each flag representing 6 Iraqi lives destroyed during the US occupation. 3,000 red flags represented the US soldiers killed during the war.
The sea of white stretches across our campus grounds this week as a solemn symbol of the magnitude of destruction of human life caused by the current imperialist war. 655,000 dead Iraqi citizens. How can we comprehend the vastness of this figure? By politicizing the public space that surrounds us in our daily life. By reminding ourselves, and those around us, that each day lives and limbs are being sacrificed by a mechanism of destruction that so easily disregards these losses as a statistic, often not even a headline.
Juan Ignacio Stewart and the Indigenous Support Network initially organized this memorial on the University of Colorado, Boulder campus in October 2006. He spoke at the University of Oregon on Jan 25, 2007 about the frustration and anger that motivated him to take action. He recounted the historical pattern of U.S. imperialist forces invading and occupying regions of the world for economic purposes. Beginning with the 1954 CIA overthrow of the democratically elected President Arbenz of his homeland — Guatemala — Juan Ignacio Stewart recounted the long list of international atrocities carried out by U.S. forces leading up to the current occupation of Iraq. The realization that this war conjures patriotism and consumerism at home, while allowing death and destruction to go unnoticed abroad, gave him the inspiration to create a visual memorial that challenges complacency.
The Iraq Body Count Memorial also challenges the dominant media and government sources that claim the death toll is significantly lower, ranging between 30,000-50,000 deaths. Data from past conflicts, however, show that media reports account for only 20% of deaths, in part due to sampling error (“Iraq Death Toll Withstands Scrutiny,” Nature October 19, 2006). The most recent study, which concludes that 655,000 more Iraqis have died than would have if the invasion had never happened, was conducted by four public health experts at Johns Hopkins University (The Lancet, October 2006). Their comprehensive methodology entailed a team of 10 Iraqi health workers visiting 47 neighborhoods in 18 different regions to survey a total of 1849 households. The random sample, which brought the surveyors into the more dangerous regions of warfare, is seen as more representative of the actual death toll in Iraq.
The Iraq Body Count Memorial is not the only action that must be taken to confront imperialism. However, it is a powerful tool to create awareness that can lead to mobilization. Student leaders at the University of Oregon are eager to have the flag display travel to other schools and communities across the country. Contact the firstname.lastname@example.org for information on how to obtain the flags.
Rebecca Clausen is a doctoral student studying Environmental Sociology at the University of Oregon.