SOU’s Iraq War flag exhibit overwhelms Ashland

“Overwhelming,” is a word often used to describe the sight — a shimmering carpet of tiny flags spread over the big lawns of Southern Oregon University, each one representing five people killed in the Iraq War.

There will be no speeches, candles or picket signs during the week of the display, just the silent image of the human cost of war — and the emotional impact taking place in the people who look at it.

“I cried when I drove by. I knew what the flags were, without anyone telling me,” said Susan Bizeau. “Now that I’m standing here, learning the numbers, it’s sickening.” Flag display sparks controversy —

The numbers, explain volunteers operating an informational booth, are 3,974 Americans dead (now past 4,050), and 655,000 Iraqis dead. The dead Americans are represented by red flags sprinkled among the white ones at a ratio of — to 150.

“It’s really sad to see all these flags,” said Kane Pappa, 13, of Talent. “It gives me a picture in my mind of all the families that are here.”

“It’s pretty overwhelming. I’m not unfamiliar with the numbers but it’s pretty graphic when you see and realize that every one of these flags has five more bodies not shown. It kind of leaves you speechless,” said Liberty McGeo, who was shooting a video on the project.

Jim Mau of Ashland, a combat veteran of the Vietnam War, said he came to the display to “connect with the red flags,” but was leaving with two questions, “Would there be this many white flags without the red flags — and would these white flags even be here without the red flags?”

“It’s for you to answer,” he added.

The display started in Colorado, became a nonprofit organization and has planted the flags at the University of Oregon, Portland State University, Lewis and Clark College and other schools in the West. It’s sponsored locally by Peace House, the Friends Meeting (Quakers) and SOU’s Students for Truth.

Sunday strollers ambled by the display — which was framed with cherry blossoms and stretched half a mile — from one end of the campus to the other. They stopped to contemplate, chat or discuss their feelings, pro or con, with booth volunteers who’ve been trained in compassionate listening, said Pam Vavra, chairwoman of Peace House.

“Mostly it’s mourning and grieving, as well as a lot of gratitude for increasing our awareness of the sheer number of the casualties,” said Vavra. “One woman said, ‘Why do you want to bring this up?’ A few arrived irate but left with understanding after talking to others about it.”

While the American body count is exact, Vavra said estimates of the Iraqi dead range from 400,000 to 1.2 million. Most of the Iraq dead are civilians, she added, and they’re all from military action.

“Our weapons are pretty effective,” she said, in explaining the disparity of the two body counts.

Asked if it were different to see the flags, rather than just read a set of numbers in the newspaper, Selma Moss of Ashland said, “You’d better believe it. It’s very visual to see how many lives were lost and we shouldn’t even be there.”

David Wick of Ashland noted, “This is important to do. We’re so isolated and insulated from the reality of this.”

“It’s a very effective means of bringing the enormity of these dead to the public eye,” said onlooker Sidney Abrahams.

Added his wife, Rhoda Abrahams, “I read about it but had no concept of what it’s like. It really blows your mind.”

The organization hopes to buy enough flags (at $58 per thousand) to represent every death and is asking donations at Its 124,000 flags fill 30 cardboard boxes, weighing about 300 pounds, and took 40 local volunteers eight hours to install.

Volunteer Suzanne Marshall of the Peace House board said one Iraq War veteran asked why the had put up flags for the Iraqis. She added that it has quite a physical and visual impact for veterans but “almost everyone has been positive about it.”

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