The Human Cost of War in Iraq - Eyes Wide Open Exhibit
Another Vietnam and still raging
It is difficult to comprehand that the war in Iraq was not ended long ago. When the fiasco began, the American Friends Service Committee created a traveling exhibition to help translate sterile casualty reports into a more tangible, personal way for Americans to understand this war. I am a Quaker. I helped set up the exhibit when it came to Independence Hall in Philadelphia. That was in 2005. However, the exhibit and its goal can be transferred to any military conflict - to any situation in which people think that they will solve a problem by killing large quantities of fellow humans.
This is my account.
For the 4th of July
July 1, 2005
This morning I did something important. I awakened at 4:30 to be able to report to Independence Hall in Philadelphia by 6 am to set up a Quaker exhibit on the Iraq war. It is a memorial and tangible display of lives lost, both U.S. military and Iraqi civilians.
I thought I would be helping set up 1745 pairs of combat boots (as of 6 am today) and some civilian shoes in the grassy lawn fronting the Visitor’s Center to the historic cradle of liberty - the end. But no, no…it was much more personal than that. There were 1745 pairs of boots. Each had its bootlaces tied and knotted together. But each also had a heavily laminated white tag with a serviceperson’s rank, name, age at death, and home state or territory. One for each recorded U.S. casualty.
We volunteers helped unload box after box from a truck and line up the boxes alphabetically by state. Then some volunteers started setting up parallel lines of string along which boots would be evenly placed. Others started placing civilian shoes in rows in a different part of the lawn. The remainder of us had the sad task of removing new pairs of boots from boxes. They had the name tags but had not yet been placed with their state comrades. As I remarked to the indie film crew who was there, it is a chilling thing to have to put somebody’s daughter or son into a pile.
That being done, we moved to placing the boots along the string lines. Alabama was first. In addition to the name tags, many boots had personal items donated by the family, such as a family photo, commendation from their state legislature, or baseball cap. One pair had a box of what must have been the soldier’s favorite cigars. Another had native American clothing and jewelry. Particularly heart wrenching were the family photos with babies left behind and the goodbye letters from the surviving kin.
We had many single-stem plastic white roses to place in boots. Between the evenness of the rows, the frequent flowers standing upright and an occasional small American flag, it truly looked like a section of Arlington Cemetery. The flowers - oh my - if you are old enough to remember Vietnam, you had to be thinking of the song: Where Have All the Flowers Gone? Also, those single flowers were probably not unlike the one put by a Kent State student in 1970 into the barrel of the National Guardsman’s rifle pointed at her head.
And so we continued. It was the sort of solemn, important task one does with lips pressed together and very little talking. I had goosebumps on my arms much of the time. So did others. We took care to make sure each name tag was facing up, that the rows were straight, and miniscule bits of paper trash lodged in the grass were removed. That is the very least we could do for what was turning into hallowed ground, even if only for four days.
One or two states had extra items for its representative boots. For example, California had a seven inch state flag for every soldier. I learned that these were donated by an individual when the exhibit had gone through that state.
Oregon had an extra item, too, for most of its 32 fallen. And that is when this Quaker, who knows war means people die, got a surprise.
I was collecting empty boxes as others started unpacking and placing the boots from Oregon. These had something extra. Besides the state flag and white roses, these boots had happy little stuffed animals perched at the top. All had “Oregon” embroidered across the back. There were forest green bears, bright orange bears, and smiling stuffed toy reindeer. And when I saw those tiny stuffed antlers, spots on the backs, and cute little reindeer noses, I broke down and sobbed.
I did not expect to cry today. I didn’t cry when I saw the civilian baby shoes including name tags for 8-month-olds. I sighed, but did not cry, at some of the framed photographs and letters. But the reindeer blew me away. I had to walk to another part of our “mobile cemetery” and just let it come.
The Answer is Blowin' in the Wind
I recovered after several minutes and helped with the last of West Virginia and Wyoming. By this time, tourists were starting to arrive to see Independence Hall. Many started taking photographs and talking with us. It was serious and respectful. Strings had been removed, adding to the Arlington atmosphere. I am pleased that guests are welcome to walk through the rows to look for the boots representing a loved one.
What an experience! My shift was over, but even if it hadn’t been, I needed to leave to process all that had occurred. Even on the drive home, I was covered in goosebumps. For my sons, my nieces and nephews, and all the other young people who are still under the upper age limit of the draft, I feel I did something important today. Also, for us older folk who care about our young ones, I hope what I did turned even just one heart into realizing that senseless war has a cost which is too high.
Second stanza of In Flanders Fields by John McCrea:
We are the Dead. Short days
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
This was written during the Great War, the War to End All Wars. Obviously neither it nor its successors have succeeded. When will we have the one to end all wars?
Copyright 2009 Maren E. Morgan
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