Saturday, January 22, 2011


Our front porch faces a small, but heavily travelled street in downtown Burlington, Vermont. For the last eight years we have been tracking US military, and civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan using scoreboard-type signs with slots for the changing numbers.

Someone stole our first large, canvas, handpainted version of the sign -- twice. We figured it was a war of attrition we couldn’t win, so we switched over to the style above, on cardboard, then on foamboard, with computerized numbers, so all could be easily and cheaply replaced. Since then, no one has vandalized the “National Bad News Service” advertised on front porch flag.

Initially, the public information was shocking to the neighborhood. During good weather, when we were out front, many people would stop to shake their heads about and discuss with us the implications of those ever-rising numbers.

Over the years, two local newspapers have done several stories on our porch -- with photographs -- and we were surprisingly well-known to strangers as the owners of “the house with the numbers of the dead on it”.

But the shock value of the numbers had begun to fade, and even the information value was lessening: 4,436 US soldiers dead in Iraq did not seem much different (except to the families!) from 4,428, and the number of “excess” Iraqi civilian deaths was an unchanging, guesswork extrapolation from the 2007 Lancet study. Not exactly boring, but no longer the object of community discussion.

We added a paragraph from Gravity’s Rainbow below the explanation of the numbers:

Don’t forget the real business of the War is buying and selling. The murdering and the violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted to nonprofessionals. The mass nature of wartime death is useful in many ways. It serves as spectacle, as diversion from the real movements of the War. It provides raw material to be recorded into History, so that children may be taught History as sequences of violence, battle after battle, and be more prepared for the adult world. Best of all, mass death is a stimulus to just ordinary folks, little fellows, to try ’n’ grab a piece of that Pie while they’re still here to gobble it up. The true war is a celebration of markets.

This brought new readers occasionally stopping by, but now even that is getting old.

It’s time for some new use for our well-placed interface with the neighborhood, something interesting enough to be studied by passing pedestrians, but with an aspect large enough to be seen by cars going by.

We’ve taken the numbers down for now, and have put up a new, placeholder, flag of the nation of Tizofthee. The explanatory sign reads:

The national flag of the country Tizofthee, once sweet land of Liberty.

The front porch looks sadly empty. What best to do with the stage space? Suggestions welcome. Email me at


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