Lines in the sand

An ever growing beach memorial to America's war dead has come to symbolise the catastrophe of the Ir

We're gathered at the beach by the entrance to Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara's historic pier, in sight of the yachts in the marina and the beachfront hotels, and we're setting out crosses for America's war dead. A few early-morning joggers have stopped to watch. The sun is creeping from behind the mountains. It's already comfortably warm, and we have a couple of hours' work ahead of us.

Three thousand 18-inch crosses must be spaced with military precision - a yard between one cross and the next, five feet between rows, the whole covering almost an acre; in front of each cross a flag of the kind distributed at patriotic parades; on some of the crosses, labels naming individuals and the circumstances of their death, with the accumulated messages and memorabilia from colleagues and families.

It wasn't always such a labour setting up this Sunday memorial. Arlington West, named after Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, has grown as the catastrophe of George Bush's war has grown. Stephen Sherrill, a local activist, is credited with instigating it in its earliest form - 340 crosses clustered in the sand. He had begun making the crosses during the early months after the invasion of Iraq, barely keeping pace with the casualty figures, wanting to find a concrete expression for the numbers of the dead, while the White House was keeping the coffins off America's TV screens.

On that first Sunday, 2 November 2003, the police came enquiring after a permit, left without seeing one, and haven't been back since. This is liberal Santa Barbara, where First Amendment rights are respected, and the Bush administration never had much support. Sherrill hadn't looked beyond that first act of political theatre. He wasn't thinking about the next weekend, or the one beyond that; couldn't imagine that the war would be dragging on three and a half years later with the body count at 3,651. It was the local chapter of Veterans for Peace who took over Arlington West and ensured its longevity. Since then, a further 20 chapters around the country have taken the idea and shaped it to suit local circumstances.

Sherrill is here still - part of the team - but it's the veterans who have developed the routine for measuring the intervals between crosses and distributing the kit, which they do now with a breezy informality out of which a rhythm emerges, as they discuss the danger of an American strike against Iran, and an upcoming Bob Dylan concert, and the report in today's LA Times that 45 per cent of the insurgents in Iraq are from Saudi Arabia, where the Bush family loves to do business.

There is something authentic about this that commands attention - the undemonstrative chore of making it right week after week, every cross, every flag planted precisely in the sand and gathered up before sunset, veterans and volunteers clearing time and space to acknowledge the sacrifice of fallen soldiers.

Orderly but radically democratic, with the capacity to shift its form over time, Arlington West continues to evolve in unpredicted ways. Sherrill describes it as "an extended exercise in anarchistic thinking". When the number of the dead passed 3,000, the veterans decided that a line must be drawn. How much of the beach could they claim? Could the sides of the trailer in which they transport the crosses be extended any higher? How far could they expand the task of setting up and clearing away?

To begin with, all the crosses were named. But there were objections. Opponents accused the veterans of exploiting the dead for political ends. In a few cases, relatives asked to have names removed. The veterans decided to post only the names of those who had been "visited" - about a third, so far. But a label is made for every one of the dead, with information and photographs clipped from newspapers, and kept on hand in case a visitor should come.

Public reaction has changed significantly over the years, veterans tell me. The cemetery has proved a barometer of attitudes to the war among the American public at large. Early on, a small but vocal minority responded angrily with accusations of treason, some returning week after week to harangue veterans and volunteers. Lisa Leitz, a University of California, Santa Barbara graduate student researching military resistance who is a regular at Arlington West, says that these days there is only the occasional "drive-by" objection - a muttered reference to 9/11, for example, followed by a rapid retreat.

So is Arlington West a memorial or a protest? The pathological secrecy of this administration has made the distinction academic. To bring into public view what the White House would prefer to keep hidden, even something as demanding of attention as the death of a serviceman, has become a potent political act.

Joe Treasure's novel "The Male Gaze" is published by Picador (£12.99)