by Hank Leukart
July 9, 2006

Fallen soldier tourism

A fake cemetery fits perfectly in Southern California.

A memorial cemetery sits on Santa Monica Beach

A memorial cemetery sits on Santa Monica Beach (view all Santa Monica, Ca. photos)

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OS ANGELES, Ca. — Each Sunday, Veterans for Peace, an organization composed of war veterans who promote non-violence, installs a temporary memorial they call Arlington West on the beach adjacent to Los Angeles’s Santa Monica Pier. The memorial consists of over 2,000 white, wooden crosses anchored in the sand, representing U.S. solders killed in the Iraq war. Adjacent placards list the names of fallen American military personnel, and the list is updated weekly.

By itself, such a memorial is not strange, but when I visited the memorial next to the Santa Monica Pier on Independence Day, it took on a strange aura. Tourists and vacationers packed the pier, buying fast food, playing skee ball, and taking photos with cardboard-cutouts of celebrities. Families enjoyed swimming in the Pacific Ocean. Skinny Southern California girls in bikinis lined the beach. The activity surrounded the beach cemetery, swallowing it, and the juxtaposition between the cemetery and its surroundings was striking.

Southern California is a place where anything can become a tourist attraction: millions of people visit overpriced clothing stores, pits of tar, and concrete celebrity handprints year round. Most treated the beach cemetery like just another charming stop — like the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, the cotton candy vendor, and the Ferris Wheel — on the way to the beach.

Of course, no bodies were buried under the crosses on the beach, but still it was strange to see hundreds of beachgoers trample across what looked like a cemetery to catch a few waves. Are bikini-laden Southern Californians insensitive toward dead soldiers? As a rule, probably not. All the same, shouldn’t they show more respect, even when the symbols of dead soldiers stand directly between them and a perfect tan? Maybe, but why was a cemetery built on the beach in the first place?

Real cemeteries usually aren’t built on beaches for a variety of reasons. For starters, the ocean tide would wash the bodies and headstones away over time. Beaches usually provide a backdrop for fun and partying, which isn’t the natural setting for a cemetery. Secluded, inland cemeteries also give family members a sense of peace and provide a quiet place for them to commune with the deceased away from the commotion of daily life. If you build a memorial cemetery on a popular beach, you’re setting it up for tourist trampling; it’s not the fault of beachgoers that they need to walk through the memorial to get to the ocean.

If that’s true, why did Veterans for Peace decide to build their temporary memorial on Santa Monica beach? The answer is obvious. The intentions behind their cemetery were the opposite of those behind the building of a real cemetery. Instead of creating a secluded place where family members could mourn their loved ones, they hoped to attract hundreds of onlookers, shock listless citizens, and raise awareness for their cause. They hoped to pull people from their lives of leisure to become more conscious of the world around them. In the process, they managed to create yet another Los Angeles tourist attraction. Whoops. How very Southern Californian. WB

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