What does 115,000 flags look like?

At Lewis & Clark College, a group of anti-war students have placed 112,000 little white flags - and 3000 little red flags - all over campus. The white flags each represent six Iraqi civilian deaths, and each red flag represents one American dead.

The sight is extraordinary, especially if you know the campus:

From the official announcement by the college:

The Portland chapter of Students for a Democratic Society has arranged to bring the Iraq Body Count Memorial to Lewis & Clark. Currently displayed on campus, the memorial contains 112,000 white flags, each symbolizing six Iraqis who have died during the U.S. occupation, as well as 3,000 red flags representing the U.S. soldiers killed during the war. ...

"SDS decided to bring up the Iraq Body Count Memorial to create awareness that will lead to mobilization," said Lewis & Clark student and Students for a Democratic Society member Adam Sanchez. He said the memorial challenges media sources that claim the death toll ranges between 30,000 and 50,000 -- estimates that tend to take into account only combat deaths reported and confirmed by the media, according to Sanchez. He cited a recent study reporting that 655,000 more Iraqis have died since the beginning of the war than would have had the invasion never happened.

The memorial was initially organized by the Indigenous Support Network and was put on display at the University of Colorado in October 2006. In January 2007, the University of Oregon became the second school to display it, followed by Reed College. The memorial was installed on the Lewis & Clark campus on March 11.


  • (Show?)

    Why have a flag represent six Iraqi dead? Why didn't they put 650,000 flags instead?

    It is an interesting thought exercise to consider what Americans would do if the United States was invaded, and the invasion and occupation killed 2 million Americans (2 million would be the same percentage of the US population 650k is of the Iraqi population).

    Somehow I think most people here would look a little different at IEDs killing occupying Iraqi troops after they invaded the US and had killed 2 million Americans if the roles were reversed.

  • Thomas Ware (unverified)

    Not the SDS I remember.

  • (Show?)

    I don't think it's a very useful device to extropolate up the population sizes.

    Instead, find an analogy that works as a mental model for you. Iraq has 26 million people. New York and New Jersey combine for 27 million people.

    So, killing 650,000 people in Iraq is like killing 650,000 people in New York and New Jersey.

    Now ponder that.

  • (Show?)

    This display was at Reed last week and it was similarly moving. The Oregonian ran a story on the front page, if I recall.

    The reason for the flag count is that it is hard enough to put up 100,000 flags, let along 600,000.

  • (Show?)
    Posted by: Kari Chisholm | Mar 14, 2007 4:01:47 PM I don't think it's a very useful device to extropolate up the population sizes.

    Why not?

  • J Hoffa (unverified)


    Is that the count from the discredited Lancet Report?

    "J'accuse: Iraq the Model responds to the Lancet Lies" http://politicscentral.com/2006/10/11/jaccuse_iraq_the_model_respond.php

  • (Show?)

    To be fair, there is more than a little bit of Iraqis killing each other in all of this. We all laugh at the Republicans' illusions about Iraq turning into one big happy Democracy that loves America (except for those last few deadenders, natch), we shouldn't have any illusions that what is going on there has much of anything to do with us.

    In reality, Iraq was already in a state of hidden civil war between the Sunnis and Shi'ites when Bush decided to invade. There were death squads there before we came. We just poured gas on the fire, making it worse. And wasting our nation's blood and money in the process.

  • BlueNote (unverified)

    The Portland chapter of Students for a Democratic Society has arranged to bring . . .

    This is totally off point, but I had no idea that SDS still exists or has been reborn. Is this the real SDS? Does anybody know who the organizers are?

    I am from the Tom Hayden era of SDS and I still have a scar on my head from the riots in the spring of 1968. That was the night I met my wife. Talk about a walk down memory lane!

    Sorry for the interruption.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    "What does 115,000 flags look like?" Let's put this another way: "What DO 115,000 flags look like?"

    "Is that the count from the discredited Lancet Report?" You mean the "respected" Lancet report.

    "In reality, Iraq was already in a state of hidden civil war between the Sunnis and Shi'ites when Bush decided to invade. There were death squads there before we came." Really? That's news to me. I wonder why I came to a different conclusion after reading Robert Fisk's reports over the last four years and his book, "The Great War for Civilization." He and other experienced and knowledgeable reporters have mentioned on occasions that there had been intermarriage between Sunnis and Shias. Why did Zarqawi have a policy of setting Sunnis and Shias against each other if they were already at war? As for the death squads, I believe Saddam had a monopoly on them.

  • (Show?)

    Sunni and Shi'ia are really shorthand for various tribal affiliations, Bill. Just like Catholic and Protestant were during the Northern Irish "troubles". But it's not absolute. For example, while the Kurds are Sunni, they tend to identify themselves by ethinicity, not religion.

    To be more precise, Saddam - and most of the people who ran Iraq before we invaded - were Sunni Arab Bathists from the cities and tribes around Tikrit. And they ran the country's military, ministries, and security services, all for their own benefit.

    They engaged in massive ethnic cleansing in both Mosul of Kurds and Turkamen, waged a War for Oil against Iran (and lost), and literally altered the landscape in the south, depriving the so-called "swamp Arabs" (Shi'ia) of their entire way of life. It was genocide, and like all dictators, Saddam didn't do it alone. He had many people backing him.

    And many - especially the Shi'ia in the South (again a shorthand for a half dozen different tribes) resisted the Tikriti Sunni Bathist, and lost. They suffered even more in that defeat; tens of thousands of innocents were uncereminiously killed and dumped in unmarked graves as a warning.

    An occasional marriage or two doesn't alter that fact, any more than, say, the occasional settler/native-american marriage altered the reality of the early 19th century genocide against the indians.

  • Travis Smith (unverified)

    We had this display at the University of Oregon a few weeks ago. I was amazed at the scale of these event when the flags were so small. It makes it even harder to fathom that many have died in this war. It also made a lot of students think critically of the war and it was nice to once again hear fellow students talking politics and not american idol.

  • Thomas Ware (unverified)

    The SDS I remember: Twenty-three members of Students for a Democratic Society entered and occupied the recruiting station shutting down recruitment activity for nearly two hours before being arrested. Outside dozens more protesters supported those being arrested with chants.

  • (Show?)

    SDS has been "refounded," with a certain amount of cooperation from some leaders of the original. The original collapsed under the weight of Maoist sectarianism around 1970. The original SDS certainly did lots of things that were not civil disobedience involving being arrested. Also I daresay that students today choosing to identify with the earlier version probably means they are contemplating CD tactics, along with other segments of the anti-war movement. Code Pink has already begun moving more aggressively in that direction.

    Steve, the U.S. bears a lot more responsibility than what you say. The real religious sectarian bloodletting began last year with the attack on a crucial mosque southern Iraq by "Sunni insurgents". It was comparable for Shi'a to what an attack on St. Peter's would be for Catholics. Whether the attack reflected an actual sectarian motives by part of the "insurgency" or whether it was a more cynical ploy to stir up civil conflict & render the country ungovernable, I couldn't say.

    In any case U.S. culpability for deaths in Iraq long predates the invasion. It goes back to U.S. support for Hussein in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war and the period of Hussein's most mass-murderous human rights violations. Then there was the Gulf War of 1991, which of course was started by Iraqi aggression against Kuwait. Nonetheless, in choosing tactics for attacking Iraq, the U.S. led coalition decided to destroy a great deal of civilian infrastructure important to life an health in a substantially modern urban society, which Iraq was, particularly involving the nexus of electricity and water. These attacks were primarily conducted by the U.S.

    When the first President Bush chose not to overthrow Hussein, influenced by arguments that the results would look like what we are seeing now, he instead imposed a very stringent sanctions regime in hopes of producing an internal uprising or coup (though failed to support a major southern uprising when it did happen). He and Clinton both continued a policy of bombing Iraqi infrastructure periodically for various stated reasons, and maintaining the sanctions long after they clearly had failed to work.

    Those sanctions produced deaths in the hundreds of thousands, for which in my view the U.S. bears joint responsibility with Hussein. I.e. Hussein could have mitigated the effects to a degree by spending money differently, but the U.S. knew the sanctions were failing to hurt Hussein or his close supporters, were failing to topple Hussein, and were causing massive civilian deaths, yet persisted in them, producing Madeleine Albright's famously disgusting statement that the deaths were "worth it."

    The result was a horrifying and malevolent dance of death and debilitation by the Clinton administration and Hussein together on the bodies of ordinary Iraqis. Dan Handelman of Portland Peaceworks and Voices in the Wilderness, along with several other individuals in VIW, has been prosecuted for violating the sanctions by bringing in "illegal" medical supplies, including aspirin, beginning under Clinton.

    The combination of sanctions, Hussein's malfeasance as a dictator in how he spent resources available under the "oil for food" program as well as illegal oil smuggling, and continued U.S. bombing prevented the effective rebuilding of most of the destroyed infrastructure. Most of the civilian sanctions deaths were due to health and sanitation consequences of lack of electricity & clean water, along with communication and transport difficulties.

    Bush II took up Clinton's place as Hussein's dance partner for the first two years + of his administration, until he switched to an illegal war of aggression against Iraq, with the support of the bi-partisan establishment, many of whom still shamefully insist on the lie that "everyone thought/knew" that Hussein had Ws of MD. In fact there were many voices against that proposition, they were just ignored and dismissed out of partisan calculations in both major parties.

    The U.S. war of aggression, conquest and occupation in its conquest phase again destroyed a great deal of infrastructure. What was worse, however, was the mind-boggling and larcenous bungling of the first months of the occupation. Pentagon preparations under Jay Garner for an occupation, while probably themselves inadequate, were at least orient toward reconstruction and engaging the Iraqi people in it as much as possible. But Garner was ditched and nothing put in its place. The U.S. sat on its hand in the face of massive destructive looting that among other things gave the earliest "insurgents" their first weapons. The complete disbandment of the Iraqi army threw hundreds of thousands of men oriented to using force out of work. The army would have needed to be massively reconstructed, but should have been kept "inside the tent" in Lyndon Johnson's phrase.

    Reconstruction resources were not applied where they were needed most, and spent on paying hugely overpaid U.S. contractors / crony war profiteers, rather than contracting with and employing Iraqis. One consequence is still untallied corruption of the crudest sort. The result for Iraqis was a poverty, lack of security, and lack of basic needs such as clean water, electricity, cooking oil and so on.

    The Johns Hopkins study published in the Lancet uses standard epidemiological methods of the sort that are applied to other situations and reported as fact by the media, e.g. the estimate of 800,000 persons killed in the Rwandan genocide, or 40 million HIV/AIDS infected people worldwide in 2005. Interestingly, UNAIDS, armed with better data, have retrospectively revised those figures, so for 2006 reported 38 million, (with 2005 having been less, i.e. it wasn't a decline). So the Hopkins study should be taken as indicating an order of magnitude rather than a firm number. In particular it seems likely to have suffered from urban bias (like the UN/WHO AIDS figures).

    But given the scale of deaths caused by infrastructure destruction and failure to rebuild in the 1990s, and the renewed destruction of the 2003 attacks and prolonged failure at rebuilding then, a figure in the hundreds of thousands rather than the tens of thousands is much more plausible.

    As for civil conflict (and usually unreported "ordinary criminal" murders, which in fact occur at quite extraordinary levels, as a consequence of war-caused lack of adequate policing), at one level of course the individuals who commit acts bear moral responsibility for them, and those who organize them bear another level of responsibility. This applies to U.S. forces too, despite the administration's preference that the U.S. be treated with impunity.

    But at another level, in a war of aggression, the aggressor holds a degree of responsibility for all the consequences. To our responsibility as the aggressor in Iraq is added our responsibility as inept and corrupt occupiers. Had we pursued better, more humane, less profiteering reconstruction with a truly fiduciary sense of duty to ordinary Iraqis, it is possible that a stronger Iraqi government would have come together sooner and that civilian willingness to tolerate or need to rely upon militias and other armed groups would have been less.

    The U.S. owes the Iraqi people massive reparations in my view, although I have no idea by what mechanism they could be paid to avoid corrupt rake-offs by U.S. and Iraqi elements alike.

  • Sadie (unverified)

    I'm almost finished reading a book called, The Deserter's Tale by Joshua Key, as told to Lawrence Hill. There's a great quote on page 167, pertaining to who's at fault for the deaths of Iraqi civillians, "True, the Iraqis were killing their own people with those mortars. Still, I felt responsible. We had drawn the fire and innocent people had caught it."

    I think that sums it up.

    It doesn't matter if what happened to them before was awfull, it doesn't matter if a person is killed by an Iraqi or an American. This was our war. They didn't attack us, the Iraqi people have never done anything to us. Therefore, when our country decided to tear apart their cities, homes, and infrastructure, every death that occured as a result of this war - no matter who pulls the trigger - became a casualty of our war.

    Until we leave and give over security and complete control to the Iraqi people, these will continue to be casualties of our war, and casualties due to our lack of leadership, and purpose.

  • (Show?)

    Chris, I didn't say the U.S. didn't bear reponsibility for exacerbating a bad situation. I think my original analogy was pretty accurate: we poured gas on the fire. (Other foreign policy experts, like Gary Hart, use the terminology "kicking open a hornet's nest".)

    But I also don't like Democrats falling into the rhetorical (and factual) trap of saying that "us" Americans invaded "them" Iraqis, as if "they" were unified in any purpose whatsoever, and could (according to Republican mythology) be bribed, cooerced, or negotiated with into allowing us to "win". It's not just that "they" won't. It's that "they" can't, because there is no single group of "them" there.

    Iraq is a Frankenstein creation of 19th century British Imperialism (as is, by the way, the former Sunni-Arab dominance of the region). Saddam held it together the same way that Tito kept Yugoslavia as a unified State - using fear and blood as glue. But we won't, shouldn't, and simply can't (for any Republicans still holding out hope) follow that example.

    But for the "responsible" Democrats in the legislature who don't want to leave Iraq because they feel we have a responsibility to keep it "stable" - I have a message: Iraq was never stable. It never will be stable. It really can't be stable. So really, we should leave now - even if a full scale civil war breaks out after we're gone.

    I'm not in favor of war. Even when you have to fight, like we did in WW2, you are always diminished for fighting one. But I'm resigned to the fact that this is a lesson that some cultures (Nazis, Bathists, Jihadists, Republicans, especially Southerners) have to learn directly from bitter experience. Their evil/sinful pride makes them too stupid to learn it any way - other than by burying their own children.

    I would hope that, faced with the specter of full scale bloodshed, Iraqis would pull back from the brink. But I refuse to accept responsibility for what Iraqis do when we're gone. We're not, at that point, the ones pulling the trigger. And to be fair, we've never been the ones bombing each other's mosques. Responsibility is no excuse for us to remain.

  • (Show?)


    Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I agree that what I see as our culpability is not a reason to protract it. One of the many terrible things about this war is that U.S. actions over the past two decades have given us a tremendous moral responsibility and debt, but the reckless aggression and arrogant incompetence that led to the current occupation war and shaped its occupation phases have made it impossible to act practically to fulfill that responsibility and pay that debt.

    So I think we have to get out. But I think we should not tell ourselves nice stories that the civil war means we no longer have responsibilities. Rather we need to hold our responsibilities in mind and work where possible to gradually improve the situation to the point we can meet them at some point down the road. But we also should not fool ourselves that we are making anything better now.

    Also, current efforts by segments of the Bushites to promote a new war against Iran do not suggest that they actually understand or have learned anything about the concept of responsibility. You may remember back in the early 1990s that a frequent charge against Hussein was that he was at irrational, perhaps a madman, and at best prone to regular "miscalculation." Today it the U.S. that occupies those roles. There's a very interesting article, "The Redirection" in a recent New Yorker on this incomprehensibly nutty policy of provocations aimed to create an excuse for an air war on Iran, which again would be inexcusably anti-civilian in character.

    I'll be at the anti-war rally on Sunday at the South Park Blocks in Portland & encourage everyone who opposes the war to attend -- 12 noon, march at 1:30, kids camp & activities available.

    Iraq actually was formed in 1919 or 1920 as a consequence of the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire -- as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia came out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It originally had a royal family related to the Jordanian royal family, both imposed on those territories by the British as a consolation prize to the Hashemite sheiks of the Hejaz (best known in the West for working with T. E. Lawrence "Lawrence of Arabia") who lost control of their ancestral territory, which included the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, to Ibn Saud. The British tried to exercise a League of Nations Mandate over the territory but were driven out by 1932 by grassroots resistance that might have stood as a warning if the U.S. had paid attention.

    The decomposition of states emerging from the former Austro-Hungarian and Russian/Soviet Empires does suggest that the same thing might prove true in Iraq.

    However, the Iraqi state has not been purely an illusion, it existed for many decades before Hussein. Like Bosnia, the "necessity" for expelling members of the "wrong" group from areas, (so-called ethnic cleansing, a terrible euphemism that we never should have adopted from proto-genociders) reflects that fact that urbanization and secularization had created substantial "mixed" communities. The ethnic and sectarian wars are not whole groups against whole groups, but factions within each group who wish to heighten separation and conflict that had diminished.

    Such humanistic dimensions aside, there are many political people with stakes in keeping the Iraqi state together. The Kurds, who probably of the three main ethno-religious identity groups have the strongest factions among themselves with interest in partition, on the whole nonetheless look mainly to strong regional autonomy because attempted intervention would likely bring intervention from Turkey & perhaps Iran and Syria. The civil war is not a secessionist struggle but a struggle for dominance. I think its resolution will be in terms of distribution of power, maybe all in one center again as under Hussein, maybe more dispersed, depending on how the fighting goes.

    The U.S. did in fact attack mosques in the period when rebellions against the occupation began to pick up, because attacks were being carried out from them.

    We will have to agree to disagree about "pouring gas on the fire." The U.S. started the fire. We engaged in a war of aggression contrary to international law. And we ARE still shooting now. The practical fact of the matter is that we are aligned with the Shi'ite-controlled government -- despite the fact that they in turn protect Shi'ite militias that attack U.S. forces. Our presence has them in a cleft stick -- in the short term we bolster them, but in the medium term we are a liability to their efforts to build legitimacy. It is not an accident that the actual or implied timelines for "orderly withdrawal" plans like Earl Blumenauer's are very similar to what the Al-Maliki government says about what it wants for U.S. withdrawal.

  • John Frost (unverified)

    Back in the days of the first Gulf War, I was part of a group of students who did something similar at Lewis & Clark College. We placed planks with crosses, Jewish stars, and the Arabic word for 'peace' on the lawn outside the student center. It wasn't this many, just a couple dozen. Each night a group of conservative students from the campus would come down and toss the markers in a nearby gully and we'd fetch them out. After a few nights of this we asked Security to help us out. They sent their ex-Marine who fought in WWII who confronted the conservative group. The Security Office told them his friends in the Marines fought and died so everyone had the right to free speech. And that vandalizing the protest was the un-American act, not vica versa. It saddens me beyond words that the US learned nothing from electing Bush the elder and that L&C has become the host for yet another demonstration.

  • (Show?)

    What is wonderful about this display is the conflicting reactions and emotions that it evokes. This is what makes it a great public statement.

    For instance, at Reed flags were placed by Iraq and Vietnam veterans, by student SDS'ers, by visiting parents and prospective students, by community (Eastmoreland) residents, etc.

    If you saw the display, it's clear that the organizers don't say anything about who is responsible for what.

    The only clear implication that one can read from the differently colored flags is that there are an awful lot of white flags and very few red flags. It is factually accurate that many more Iraqis have died during this conflict than have American soldiers.

    Whatever political interpretation you place on this fact is best left to public debates like this one.

    Congratulations for continuing the debate.

  • GT (unverified)
    <h2>If you are so appaled by the war, why don't you all fly over there and stage a protest there? I am tired of all the grovelling about this supposed "war". This isn't even really a war, WW2 was a war. 1,000,000's of people died. Less people in Iraq have died than the number of people here in the U.S. get killed in car accidents and murders. Why not protest against the evil automobiles and how many deaths they cause?</h2>
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