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Thursday, May 13, 2004

LIVING MEMORIAL

The memorial to the soldiers who've lost their lives in Iraq is located in the Epimetheus simulator, next door to a disco and across the street from something called SL*Mart, a knockoff of a Walmart superstore, except that this one is permanently on fire. In the afternoon of Sunday, May 2nd, the memorial was officially opened by Ace Cassidy, its creator.

"I know that there are a lot of people with very strong pro-war or anti-war views," Cassidy tells the audience of twenty or so residents, "I have those myself. But this is NOT a place for airing those issues. It is solely for the memory of those who are no longer with us." Behind him, the names of individual soldiers are displayed across the memorial's marble plaque. Cassidy compiled this list of the honored dead from a website that keeps track of all coalition fatalities, and he's now gathering up .jpegs of their faces, so that those can be displayed at the memorial, too. As the memorial's informational notecard reads, “Mothers have lost sons, wives their husbands, children their parents, men their girlfriends. Each of the names that appear on the sign here represents a real person who is no longer with us."

The card also warns that “[t]his site is NOT a place for political discussions, where people share their pro-war, anti-war, pro-Bush, anti-Bush feelings. There are plenty of other locations in Second Life for that. Here, it is only the memory of these men and women that is important."

But within minutes of the ceremony, that caveat is quickly cast aside.

"I think it is also important," Cassidy is saying, in his opening statement, "that we honor the memory of the Iraqi men, women, and children who have suffered because of this war..."

"Heavy, can you please put the gun away," Fuego Falcone tells Heavy Wheeling, another member of the dedication audience, "I find [it] disrespectful."

"I support soldiers," Wheeling answers, "and the bravery it takes to fight a war, but let’s all be truthful. We’re wasting young people’s lives over money."

"There are many who agree with you Heavy," Cassidy begins, gently, "but this is neither the time nor the place."

"Wow," says Wheeling. "What is the point of this, then?"

"It is a place of mourning," Shakin Rebus tells him.

Edkc56 Gardner turns to Wheeling. "Call a radio station."

"It's a memorial, Heavy," Ace Cassidy says. " No more, no less."

After a pause, Heavy Wheeling says "OK", and the dedication continues.

"The important thing for me," Cassidy continues, "is that these people not be forgotten in all the politics of it all." But right now, some financial obstacles obtain. "I am trying to raise Linden [dollars] so that this place can be moved to more ideal land someday," he says. "Somehow, being snuggled up against a burning Wal-Mart clone, a diva's disco, and that giant penis-looking thingie isn't quite right."

As if on cue, someone I'll call Bluto Darksky appears at the memorial, and makes a general sexual proposition to no one in particular.

"Hi," says Darksky, cheerfully, "wanna f***?"

"bluto..." Cassidy begins. "Please leave. This isn't the place for that."

Bluto Darksky looks around. "Is this the Iraqi memorial?"

And the dedication presses on. Though Cassidy doesn't really know anyone serving in Iraq, he says, "I spent about a half hour a few months ago, sharing a beer with a soldier who was on his way back... it didn't sound pleasant for anyone over there."

"I guess any place where men fall under fire is unimaginable for most of us in our comfy homes in front of TVs and PCs," YadNi Monde muses.

"True," Bluto Darksky agrees, then turns to the group. "Sorry for being an a**hole before, guys."

"I support the war," Nico Herbst announces. "End of story."

"I’ll never support any war," Monde responds. "End of my story."

"Because you’re a dumb ass," Herbst comes back. "[You’d] rather have thousands of people dying over in Iraq just because we didn’t go in there?"

"Stop the discussion, please," Gardner interrupts. "take it outside."

"Please," says Zarah Dawn, sighing, "this is not the place for a discussion of political views."

"So to the folks here," I say, addressing my question to the gathered residents, "how many know someone personally who's in Iraq right now?"

Almost a fourth of the audience speaks up.

"I do."
"I do-- I have a friend from another online game who is over there now... I have a lot of friends overseas and some on standby to go."
"I have two nephews there now... two nephews and a future son-in-law."
"I have a married couple I have known since high school there."

"My best friend throughout high school died in Iraq," a young woman announces, quietly. "They didn't give me details. Was a bombing. He was just a cook." People offer their condolences.

"[That] was a little unexpected," she tells me later. "The memorial, I didn't know it was today.
I, well, I... kind of a shock, I guess." She had kept in touch with her friend in Iraq, before his death. "[H]e didn't have his computer, so I had to mail him. I just put my letters in with his family's... [H]e was a fatalist, sorta. Very patriotic. Kind of a runt, but said he wanted to be involved."

As it happens, Cassidy launched his memorial only a few days after Ted Koppel found himself embroiled in a minor controversy, over his decision to read all the names of the US war dead over an entire "Nightline" episode, which many thought to be a kind of implicit anti-war statement. "I saw that just as I was getting this place polished off and presentable," Ace Cassidy tells me. "I thought it was great-- not a political thing at all... It's very similar to what I'm doing here-- just a simple reading of the names. But what I'm doing here also includes non-US soldiers. There are entries in the database from Bulgaria, El Salvador, and some others, in addition to Spain, UK, and the US. I get the data from a website [and] if I get more Linden dollars donated than I can spend on the memorial, I might turn some into US$ via Gaming Open Market, and make a contribution to [the person who runs the casualty list] site."

"Ace," says Fuego Falcone, as the ceremony draws to an end, "I personally would like to shake your hand for doing this. I've sent a lot of people overseas, and know how it is over there. I heard a lot of stories."

At that, Falcone turns toward the marble plaque, then types, "Stands at attention and salutes" into his chat line.


POSTSCRIPT: The second screenshot of this article is the first one in New World Notes that I have altered, after its creation, by blurring out the name of a dead soldier, in red. (The other screenshots were taken in a way to obscure the list of the dead.) While I reported this story, it occured to me that it didn't seem appropriate, to display the names of the fallen, right now, in this space. But as the world of Second Life becomes more and more inextricably meshed to real life events and concerns, and NWN tries to keep up with it, that policy may have to change. -- Wagner James Au

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Comments

If you didn't publish the names due to privacy concerns, i.e. not taking the in-world memorial out into the broader accessible Internet, that makes sense. But if you didn't publish it because you would feel it would be too much like Ted Koppel, you shouldn't have been hobbled by such concerns. Intoning lists of names is a political statement. Reporting the news of in-world activities, including memorials of soldiers who die, is just reporting news, it need not be perceived as political bias. The relatives of the RL person who died in Iraq, however, might not like to have his death associated with anything that seemed frivolous like an online game -- ppl might have different sentiments about that depending on how exposed to online culture they are.

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