By Terry Tempest Williams
In the town of Blue Hill on the coast of Maine, there is a field of small white flags, one flag placed for each soldier killed in the Iraq War. Since 2003, I have watched this field move from green to white, from spring to winter. This piece of land, located between the First Congregational Church and the public library, belongs to Rufus Wanning, an arborist, known throughout Hancock County as the tree specialist who helped Blue Hill save the American elms that stand in the community like elders. He has given permission to the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center to use his property as a meditation and memorial to those who have given their lives for their country.
Across the field of flags is the American Legion, Duffy-Wescott Post 85. I recall a vigil in 2005. We gathered in support of Cindy Sheehan, the mother of Specialist Casey Austin Sheehan, after she had simply asked to have a conversation with our President. Her son died in Iraq on April 4, 2004. At that time, the rising numbers of dead painted in black on a white wooden sign read: 1,873 American soldiers; 26,559 Iraqi civilians.
Five years later in 2010, my eyes turn once again to the field of white flags and the magnificent elms that shade them. The numbers have changed. And so has the emphasis on Iraq. The sign now reads, “In this place, we remember those lives lost in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. 5,618 American soldiers; More than 1.3 million civilians.”
But something else has changed, as well. The care. The vigilance. The field looks unkempt, grown over. Many of the white flags are now stained with rust from the weathered posts. Queen Anne’s lace, astragalus, clover, and various tall grasses have moved in. Crickets and grasshoppers create an incessant dirge. The bench, once beneath the oak, has not only been moved but replaced by a worn wicker one exposed in the sun. The field of flags looks tired like us. Seven years. We are all suffering from war fatigue.
Randolph Bourne wrote, “War is the health of a state.” We are tired of two wars that have shackled us to a military economy at the expense of education, health care, and energy alternatives. It is difficult to rally opposition against the wars when “We, the People,” are suffering from apathy, indifference, or, perhaps, worst of all, cynicism.
There is another war in the Gulf. Not the Persian Gulf but the Gulf of Mexico on our own home ground. We try to remain optimistic. We grasp at the false headlines that falsely give us hope. “On the Surface, Oil Spill in Gulf Is Vanishing Fast.” This headline ran in The New York Times on July 28, Day 100 of the BP Blowout. It was front-page news, above the fold.
The next day, Time magazine asked the question through its headlines, “BP Spill: Has the Damage Been Exaggerated?” In the article, writer Michael Grunwald sided with Rush Limbaugh (who calls it “a leak”), saying, “Limbaugh has a point. . . . It does not seem to be inflicting severe environmental damage.”
And less than a week later, Carol Browner, White House energy adviser, said, “75 percent of the oil appears to be gone.”
The media message to the American people continues to be “move on.” End of story.
The BP blowout and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are the same story. The plot is oil. The arc of the story moves from our complicity to our complacency.