Carry that weight

A Desert Storm vet spends 100 hours leaving his mark on the UC Davis campus

Make art, not war: Artist Jeff Dodson drags around his war stories to protest more bloodshed in Iraq.

Make art, not war: Artist Jeff Dodson drags around his war stories to protest more bloodshed in Iraq.

Photo by Jill Wagner

Jeff Dodson isn’t the kind of person to make a lot of noise. When he decided to put on a 100-hour performance-art piece and anti-war protest called “Unknown Iraqi Soldiers I Would Have Killed,” the soft-spoken, self-effacing art student didn’t send out press releases or post fliers. He just started walking.

To mark the 12th anniversary of the 100-hour ground war during Operation Desert Storm—in which Dodson participated as a soldier in the 197th Mechanized Infantry Brigade—and to protest the looming sequel to that war, Dodson decided to spend 100 hours living in the UC Davis quad, eating only one meal a day and dragging behind him a heavy plywood box.

The 40-year-old, who is pursuing a master’s degree in fine arts at UC Davis, stopped only occasionally for restroom and water breaks. Much more often, he was stopped by passersby asking, “What’s in the box?” And so, Dodson frequently sat on the grass with students, telling his story, but also just listening to other people’s thoughts about war and peace. “I’m just a guy, trying to sort this stuff out. I know I can’t see how anything good is going to come out of killing people.”

Inside the box are three stories of the Gulf War of 1991: “The official story, the unofficial story and the untold story,” Dodson explained.

The official story is a stack of three black books containing the government version of the “attack to liberate Kuwait,” which Dodson found years ago in a thrift store.

The unofficial version is Dodson’s own collection of writings, entitled Mr. Lucky Goes to War. The poems describe his experiences as an infantryman and his attempts to deglamorize the Gulf War, which he describes today as a “big, dumb mess.”

One of the poems, entitled “Iraqi Pancake,” drew its name from a mysterious lump in the road that members of his unit kept running over in their armored personnel carriers on their way across the desert: “Our whole battery runs him over / Bloody brodies / Yankees yanking laterals / Making him flatter / He got so flat / There was no more splatter.”

“Everybody joked that it was a body,” Dodson said. “I don’t know what it was. It could have been a dog, but it could have been human. That’s how taken-for-granted life was out there.”

“Iraqi Pancake” just as easily could be a prediction of what’s in store for Iraqi civilians when U.S. troops reach Baghdad. Though people on the UC Davis campus may be uneasy about war, it doesn’t compare to what Iraqi civilians are facing.

“Over here, we all have this worry. This thing is looming, and we’re all wondering what is going to happen. Over there, they are wondering just how much death and destruction is going to rain down on them,” Dodson said.

He was indeed lucky: He never had to kill and never saw anyone killed. But the notion that he might have has stuck with him.

The third “untold” story in the box is a collection of items Dodson calls “Unknown Iraqi Soldiers I Would Have Killed.” Inside the box are identification photos, a wool blanket and a pair of surgical scissors, all of which were dropped by Iraqi soldiers as they abandoned a bunker before Dodson’s company arrived. Had the soldiers not fled in time, it would have been up to Dodson and his comrades to kill them and “secure the hole.”

“I never fired a shot. But, at that point, that’s what I was. I would have killed them.”

Although the response to Dodson’s performance has been largely positive, he has endured some unfriendly and strange behavior.

On the second day of his protest, a big guy decided to use a small, metal cot Dodson had brought to sleep on as a trampoline and busted out most of the springs. The next day, someone spirited off the bunk when Dodson wasn’t looking, and he never saw it again.

That night, as Dodson was preparing to bed down under a tree, two men attempted to steal the information table and comment box he had set up on the quad, but he managed to run them off.

Then there were the doughnuts.

“Somebody crammed a bunch of powdered doughnuts in my comment box,” he explained with a smile and a shrug. “They were kind of forced in there, so it didn’t seem like a positive comment. I do love powdered doughnuts, though.”

That’s the thing that strikes you about Dodson and his whole endeavor: It’s all so unassuming and so quiet. “It’s something I struggle with, even as an artist. I hate advertising, and I hate to draw a lot of attention to myself. So, I’m trying to do something that is peaceful and hopefully powerful, too.”

He may have succeeded. Dodson’s protest ended on Friday, February 28, at 8 a.m., as quietly as it had begun. Only the great circle he wore into the quad grass remains. Unlike the mass protests, the fiery rhetoric and confrontation that have accompanied the war buildup, Dodson’s art isn’t just about peace. It is peace.