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William Rivers Pitt: Desecration of the Dead

Desecration of the Dead

By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Tuesday 16 August 2005

His name is Larry Northern, and he is a wretch.

The Arlington West cemetery has been growing for more than a year. Begun in California by activists seeking to honor those soldiers killed in Iraq, and also seeking to highlight in an unavoidably searing way the price we are paying for the invasion of Iraq, the cemetery is made up of small grave markers made of simple wood. There are crosses, and crescents, and stars of David. Each one represents a dead American soldier.

When word got out that the mother of a fallen soldier had camped herself out in front of the Bush "ranch" in Crawford with a demand to see the president, the Arlington West cemetery was packed up and sent to Texas. This was no small job, as there are now nearly 2,000 grave markers - each bearing a name - that make up the cemetery.

I was in Crawford last week when Arlington West arrived, and I watched as the demonstrators prepared it. The land available to the protesters in Crawford is essentially little more than a series of long, narrow, muddy ditches by the sides of the road. The grave markers were set up along the entire length of the road leading to the site.

This was no mean, haphazard setup. I watched family members of fallen soldiers take tape measures to carefully map out plots of land, making sure each cross was given its own respectful distance from the others. The assembly of Arlington West in Crawford took more than a full day, and was done under the glare of the hot Texas sun. By the end, the cemetery stretched the better part of a mile down the road, each marker bearing a name.

Some markers were surrounded by flowers and American flags. The flowers were placed there by loving relatives of that soldier, relatives who came to Crawford to stand in solidarity with Cindy Sheehan and the other military families, relatives who want to know why their loved ones were spent by the man who would not come out to speak with them.

Some time around 10:00 p.m. on Monday night, Larry Northern of Waco, Texas, drove his pickup truck down to the Crawford protest site. He got out, went around back to the tailgate, and attached a pipe and a chain to the rear of the truck. He got back in and proceeded to drive his truck through the Arlington West cemetery, grinding and smashing through the grave markers. Five hundred of them were knocked down, and 100 of them were totally destroyed.

The harassment of the activists in Crawford has been growing by the day. Last Thursday, I watched a guy on a motorcycle, wrapped from head to boot in black leather and helmet, with a Rebel flag handkerchief tied around his neck, roar into camp and yell something at the people setting up the grave markers before fleeing down the road. That morning, a caravan of Secret Service SUVs blasted through camp at high speed, leaning on their horns the whole way. One local guy in a pickup truck roared down the road and sideswiped a parked car, narrowly missing a couple of people. And then, of course, there was Larry Mattlage, who got sauced on Keystone beer before firing his shotgun into the air a few times near the demonstration.

One could say this is to be expected. Cindy Sheehan and the military families who have joined her have touched a raw nerve among the slowly dwindling ranks of Bush supporters. They are angry, and more than a little scared of the fact that one grieving mother has managed to throw a couple of torpedoes into the side of their battleship.

But the Arlington West cemetery is something else entirely. Truthout reporter Scott Galindez was on the scene after the attack. "Respect for this country's dead is not a partisan issue," he wrote afterwards. "Putting up memorials of our country's fallen is not a 'liberal' act. It is an American act. Even a group of counter-protestors from Dallas last week draped flags and flowers over many of the gravemarkers, and many were moved to tears at the sight of the long line of dead soldiers. It's too bad that someone else who disagrees with Cindy felt they needed to wipe out the memory of our fallen in such an obscene manner."

"Obscene" is the proper word. Among the comments from Bush supporters that have appeared on a variety of forums and blogs, many have taken the line that Casey Sheehan would be appalled at what his mother is doing to his memory. Leave aside for a moment the audacity of those who think they'd know the mind of a man more than his own mother, and focus on this bit about desecrating his memory: A Bush supporter drove a truck through a line of grave markers with the names of dead American soldiers inscribed on them. It is difficult to imagine a more profound desecration. Once upon a time, soldiers returning from Vietnam were spit on. Larry Northern spit on our soldiers when he did this thing. Period.

Mr. Northern was arrested and charged with criminal mischief. Ironically, he was apprehended because one of the crosses he destroyed punctured the tire on his truck. Some have argued in the aftermath of the attack that he should be charged with a hate crime. However that shakes out, it was hate that motivated him. His hate was so strong that it motivated him to destroy crosses and stars and crescents bearing the names of soldiers he almost certainly has said he "stands for."

A man who owns property near Bush's "ranch," and right across the street from his church, has offered the protesters an acre of his land for their campsite. This was welcome news, because the county commissioner was preparing to hold a vote on closing Prairie Chapel Road and evicting the demonstrators. "We can fit more people and we will be closer to the ranch," reported Cindy Sheehan after this offer was made. "Miracles, miracles."

They are out of the ditch now, and will shortly rebuild the Arlington West cemetery. They will do so with love and respect. The memorial will be safe from hatred and attack. The vigil goes on.


William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.

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