Nancy Green checks the number in The New York Times every week, then prints it on a piece of paper that she puts on the poster, which she carries to South Main Street in Providence on Saturday at noon.
Sometimes, there are only five or six people there, presenting themselves in opposition to the war in Iraq for those passing by to respond to or ignore. Green, a nurse who feels the need to be publicly counted, was moved to act by none other than Paul Wolfowitz, the former deputy defense secretary and one of the architects of the wrong-way war in Iraq.
Wolfowitz left a lot of people stunned and amazed when he was asked, in the spring of 2004, how many Americans had died in the war. He came up with a figure that was more than 200 shy of reality.
“It made me really angry,” says Green. “I knew the numbers better than he did.”
She found a peace sign from another time, another national breakdown, and put the numbers of the American dead in Iraq on it and joined the group on South Main Street.
“Investing some time on a Saturday morning, it’s not that big a deal,” she says. “It’s the least I can do.”
Since she has been there, she has noticed a shift in the numbers. The ratio of passing drivers who jab an approving thumb skyward compared with those who flash a middle finger has changed from about 3 to 1 to 4 to 1.
It is an unscientific survey, but Green takes it as a hopeful sign.
She doesn’t always make it to South Main Street, but her sign is always there with the latest numbers. It is a simple and eloquent reminder of how a war that was supposed to be swift and precise and end with flowers being showered on the American invaders has become bogged down in a deadly muddle of roadside bombs and shoddy equipment and too few people to do the job.
“There is just the number, nothing else,” she says. “People know what it is. I hope at some point people are going to say this is too much. They’re going to ask ‘What’s the reason — all these people being sent to Iraq and so many dying?’ ”
Not many are asking yet, so the small Saturday ritual in Providence continues, along with small gatherings in other places where people discover that they are simply not able to live with this war day after day in silence and indifference.
“It makes a point,” Green says of the small weekly gathering. “It brings the issue out in front of people.”
When the war is over, Green is planning a small ceremony to burn the sign. She doesn’t know when that will be, of course. And she doesn’t know how the end will be determined or defined.
So she does her hour on South Main Street in Providence. And people stop and sometimes say a few words through the small sound system. The only rule is to keep it clean.
And dozens of people see the number on the sign and there’s a good chance that many of them will think about it, unless they’re on a cell phone or listening to an iPod or haven’t been told there’s a war going on.
During a war that we know so little about, and often find on the inside pages, these small doses of reality, offered by our neighbors in assorted places, become more and more vital.
The total of American combat deaths in Iraq as of yesterday was 2,239.
When Nancy Green first took her sign to South Main Street, the number was 1,234.
The number of Iraqi deaths is something no one seems quite sure of.
Go, Nancy! You are an inspiration to us all.