3,501

Earlier this week, we passed the 3,500 mark for U.S. military deaths in Iraq. The Iraqi civilian death toll is currently estimated at somewhere between 65,000 and 71,000. These numbers haunt me, not least because I know I’m incapable of grasping what they really mean—to parents, partners, children, friends, communities.

When the U.S. death toll passed 1,000, back in 2004, Melissa attended a vigil to honor the war dead. In an effort to understand the scale of the loss at that time, she began this painting, which took over a year to finish. The full piece is enormous, measuring 4’8″ x 8’7″, yet the individual soldiers measure only 2″ each.
Last Judgment: Bush and 1,000 Dead.

Here’s her artist’s statement for this piece:

Last Judgment: Bush and 1,000 Dead
Ink and acrylic on paper, 2005
55″ x 103″

I started this painting on September 10, 2004. The night before, I had attended a local vigil honoring the 1,000 US dead in Iraq. We had just reached that tragic milestone, and it was an important event to mark.

While at the vigil, I felt helpless. I live in a liberal area, and while the hand-waves and horn-toots were supportive and affirming, it felt like we were preaching to the converted. Yes, we were helping to raise local awareness, but ultimately, did it make any difference? Would the Bush administration listen to the voices raised in these nation-wide vigils? Of course not.

I started thinking of two things. First, what could I do? How could I best express, and share, my outrage? As an artist, the answer seemed simple: I needed to create a piece that reflected my anger while remembering those who had died.

The second thought I had was, exactly what is 1,000? What does it look like? We live in an age where huge numbers are tossed about carelessly: 40 gigabye hard drives, $7 trillion national debt. These days 1,000 sounds small. Is it really so?

My solution was a painting depicting each and every one of the 1,000 US casualties. I chose the shape of a medieval tympanum, the arched carving located over the entrance to a cathedral. Tympanums traditionally show scenes of the Last Judgment, which seemed appropriate both for depicting the dead and for the concept that those responsible would, ultimately, be judged for what they have brought about. Also, we seem (sadly) to be living in times that echo the medieval: crusades against the infidel, a narrow-minded view of the world coupled with willful ignorance of fact and science, a self-righteous and self-aggrandizing religiosity.

In the center of it all are George Bush and his cohorts: Condeleeza Rice, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and John Ashcroft, bearing the (twisted) symbols of their appointments. (Since the painting was begun in Bush’s first term, the characters are from that era. Their replacements could fit these depictions equally well.) Instead of a benediction, Bush shows us the crossed fingers of the inveterate liar.

Across the bottom of the painting is a frieze of dead Iraqis. I didn’t want to imply that the only deaths that mattered, that were tragically wrong, were those of US troops. There is no accounting of how many Iraqi civilians have been killed in this military escapade; conservative counts are in the tens of thousands.

I finished the painting on October 6, 2005. At that point, we were rapidly approaching the next milestone in the war: 2,000 US dead.
—Melissa West

I’m not an artist like Melissa, but I thought I could follow her lead in a small way. Below is my attempt to understand what 3,501 looks like. Each X is an individual: relationships, dreams, fears; a baby once held by a mother; hopes for a better life and a better world; high spirits and heartache; the recklesness of youth; first words of love, spoken with mixed uncertainty and exhilaration.

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I will do my best to carry these in my heart, to mourn, and to remember.

June 09 2007 08:38 am | Uncategorized

One Response to “3,501”

  1. clarabelle on 09 Jun 2007 at 1:09 pm #

    I think it’s fantastic that you and Melissa have tried to make some sort of artistic and emotional sense out of this mad ‘war’.

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