This I Believe

Pete - Portland, Oregon
Entered on August 20, 2007

Iraq Names Project

This past Memorial Day Nancy Hiss knelt on the sidewalk outside the Federal Building in Portland, OR and began work on the Iraq Names Project. Her plan is to chalk the names of all Coalition Forces killed in Iraq.

Now, in the middle of August, she has drawn more than 1,700 names and is 5 ½ miles away in NE Portland.

Nancy draws the outline of the name in letters about 20″ high. If she has volunteers that day they fill in the letters with colorful sidewalk chalk, if not she does it herself. She talks with pedestrians, cyclists, shopkeepers, homeowners, and curious motorists who stop and ask what she is up to.

This memorial to the fallen and their families goes down in chalk – when it rains the names are washed away. Some are peed away by dogs or street people. Passengers queued up at bus stops shuffle them away. Pedestrians carry the chalk off on their shoes, cyclists on their tires. Chalk is temporary.

For the past several weekends I’ve joined Nancy and other volunteers for a few hours at a time. I am learning what it means to witness. Kneeling in the hot sun I cast a shadow of war-weary frustration and anger. Kneeling there I also seem to bleed off some of the sorrow and hopelessness and helplessness this war has brought to us all. It is almost as if my own tiny pain is returning to ground, like an electrical charge, through the act of briefly noting and honoring these fallen Coalition troops.

Our main responsibility as American citizens is to talk to one another – to come to grips with the realities of our world. As citizens we should be responsible for helping to guide public policy by the force of our collective wisdom.

Nancy is creating conversation. She isn’t out on the sidewalk shouting, “Bring the troops home now!” She isn’t warning, “If we don’t stop them in Iraq they will follow us home!” She is honoring fallen troops and their families. And that, my friends, is all it takes to get people talking and wondering. That is one way to take our tractor-pull national politics out of the hands of the slippery Beltway opinion-shapers and the sound-bite media and put it on our front porches and sidewalks.

I believe that we need to regain our sense of American community. And I believe that it takes a village to raise a nation.

If my value as an American citizen lies in watching television and spending money on the doo-dads and gee-gaws dangled before me I’ll take a pass. I want to play a much more important role as a citizen; I want to be one of 225,000,000 informed voters. If we can’t trust our government or media to inform us we can inform one another as Nancy Hiss does. We can stand on the sidewalk and talk to each other.