Tug of War

Tug of War

The bells of Christ Church toll six o’clock as 14 people gather on a small, grassy triangle framed by Broadway, Elm Street and Park Street. Despite December’s darkness, the area is spangled with light: streetlights, traffic lights, headlights and taillights, business lights from behind plate glass windows, snowflake-shaped lights edging the nearby parking lot. Stephen Kobasa crouches to light four votive candles set in the crevices of a pile of stones.

These aren’t just any stones. They’re piled in a shape that, quite intentionally, resembles a grave. Each one bears—or once bore—a written message: a month and a year, and the number of casualties, both military and civilian, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The November 2018 stone logs four numbers: 0 US military casualties in Iraq, 5 US military casualties in Afghanistan, 310 Iraqi civilians killed and 250 Afghan civilians killed.

The group encircles the memorial cairn, and Kobasa reads a brief Advent credo and a poem, noting that “sometimes we need to be very specific about the traditions we speak out of, not out of an exclusionary sense but simply to show who we are.” He’s followed by a woman who adds a few words about light that encompass other faith and secular traditions. A few pedestrians look twice as they pass, but no one stops. The entire event takes only about 15 minutes. Then people shake hands, hug, wish one another peace and disperse.

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This loosely organized group of dedicated activists has been observing the same ritual since 2007, each month marking the known losses of life from two wars in “a culture where there’s massive and deliberate indifference to the cost,” Kobasa says. The first such gathering took place not here, on Broadway Triangle, but in front of United Church on the Green, where a group of mostly clergy from New Haven, Hartford and New London calling themselves Reclaiming the Prophetic Voice gathered to lay a group of small stones and read the names of the war dead.

The stones were Kobasa’s idea. “I’ve always been very moved by the Jewish tradition of leaving stones on the graves as a mark of remembrance,” says Kobasa, a member of St. Thomas More Catholic Parish. “It struck me as a very powerful image of remembering. It’s a sign that there are those who do .”

That first group left their stones under a tree on the New Haven Green, but regulations required them to be removed. So the activists petitioned the Parks Commission and obtained permission to place a cairn at Broadway and Elm next to the Civil War monument instead, “with the proviso that it would be only as long as the war went on,” Kobasa says.

War goes on, and so does the monthly service of remembrance, now in its 12th year. Kobasa always collects and labels the stone. Allie Perry, an ordained minister and worship leader at Shalom United Church of Christ, lines up who will speak. Perry was there at the first memorial gathering and has rarely missed the monthly ritual since. She says she never expected to still be marking the losses of these wars more than a decade later. Kobasa was not so optimistic. “I had a deep fear that that would be many years hence,” he says.

Once the ritual was underway at its new location, stones were retroactively labeled and numbers catalogued to mark the beginning of the conflict dating to October 7, 2001. The pile is now sinking into the earth under its own weight. “It feels like it’s an act of resistance as well as witness,” Perry says. It’s also an opportunity for the activists to support one another. “The people that gather are folks that care about ending violence, that care about ending war, that are involved and active in so many ways, and… it’s created a community,” she says.

While the numbers acknowledged every month are usually faceless, Perry and Kobasa recall one time they touched close to home. Captain Ben Sklaver, a member of Mishkan Israel, was killed in Afghanistan in 2009. That month, Perry asked Herbert Brockman, then Mishkan Israel’s rabbi, to lead the gathering. Sklaver’s parents came and brought an individual stone with their son’s name on it. It was a powerful reminder, Kobasa says, that every death marked on the stones represents a person with a family and friends who are grieving.

Kobasa and Perry acknowledge that other recent conflicts could be added to the toll. Kobasa mentions Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan by name. The numbers they acknowledge could include Iraqi and Afghan military casualties. Sometimes, Perry says, they note the suicides among US military personnel who have returned home from conflict. By one count, an average of 20 veterans commit suicide each day. Even the numbers that are counted on the stones are “desperately incomplete,” Kobasa says. The group relies on the website icasualties.org, which lists every US military casualty in Iraq and Afghanistan by name, along with other information. Civilian deaths in Iraq are counted by the websites Iraq Body Count and Airwars. But the closest the group can come to a number for civilian casualties in Afghanistan is a monthly average based on an annual report about the conflict compiled by the United Nations. When a news report gives specifics such as names, Kobasa says, “We try to acknowledge that. These are individuals with histories.”

In daylight, the cairn is hardly noticeable with the city teeming around it. A humble laminated sign posted on a nearby tree elaborates on the numbers represented by the memorial and asks, “How many more stones will be piled here before these wars end?” Kobasa finds it significant that the cairn rests near the city’s Civil War monument. Dedicated well after the end of the war, in 1905, that memorial was able to offer some “clarity” about the war and the fact that “the sacrifice was justified, as horrible as it was,” Kobasa says. “The idea of a just war—that cairn has no part in that. The cairn does not make any such claim. It’s simply saying this loss needs to be remembered.”

It remains to be seen how the narrative of these wars will be told, Perry agrees. In the meantime, she and Kobasa say they and others will continue to show up on the first Monday of every month at six o’clock and lay another stone until the conflicts cease. “It’s important to keep doing because otherwise it’s really so invisible,” Perry says. Kobasa calls the act “futile, but necessary.”

“We will not let this pass,” he says. “We will not let this go unnoticed.”

Memorial cairn for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
Broadway Triangle (intersection of Broadway, Elm St and Park St)
Next gathering: Jan 7 at 6pm

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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