The rows of plain black boots lining the floor of St. John the Divine Cathedral in Manhattan were dotted with flags and fake white flowers. Friends and passersby had stuck beanie babies and photos in the heels; one pair displayed a poster for a Good Charlotte and Sum 41 concert.
Thousands of these combat boots and other shoes were lined up to memorialize the lives of soldiers and Iraqi civilians lost in the Iraq War.
“It’s incredible,” said Sue Niederer, who lost her 24-year-old son in Iraq, describing the “Eyes Wide Open” exhibit, which is traveling all over the country this fall and next January. “If this won’t open their eyes, nothing will. The first time I saw it, I can’t even tell you the emotions I felt,” she said, clutching a pair with an eight-by-eleven-inch photo of her smiling son attached.
The traveling public memorial began in January 2004, when Michael McConnell, a director at the Quaker advocacy group the American Friends Service Committee, placed 500 loaned combat boots on Federal Plaza in Chicago, each pair representing the number of soldiers who had died at that time. The display drew Illinois Democratic Senator Richard Durbin out of his office and moved many residents and tourists, including a woman who said she knew the number was 500, but she didn’t know it was so many, McConnell said.
He sensed the visual power of shoes when he spotted a photograph of rows of soldiers’ boots in a news magazine.
“I thought, That’s it,” he said. “When you put them out, people can visualize the human beings that should be there but are not.”
As military and civilian deaths mounted in Iraq, the temporary, 500-boot display in Chicago expanded into an exhibit of thousands of boots and shoes representing US soldiers and Iraqi civilians that has toured the country, including stops at both the Democratic and Republican national conventions.
Tour manager Marq Anderson, who has traveled with the exhibit for the past eighteen months, said it became permanent when uncles or high school friends or “buddies from Iraq” found the names of soldiers they knew on tags attached to boots and began inserting memorabilia in them.
The AFSC worked with September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a group of relatives of 9/11 victims who have lobbied against the Iraq War, to collect about 3,000 pairs of shoes to represent the unknown number of Iraqi civilians who have died since the war started two years ago.
Evening shoes and Spider-man sneakers were placed alongside combat boots, and members of Peaceful Tomorrows attached as many names of Iraqi civilians as they could find.
“As 9/11 families, we have something to say about civilian casualties,” said Colleen Kelly, director of Peaceful Tomorrows. Kelly said members wanted to “provide a more telling and visual account of civilian casualties.”
Niederer told The Nation the civilian aspect of the exhibit “has to be there.” “They didn’t do anything. They want their country back,” she said.
Alex Ryabov, a 22-year-old marine who recently returned from Iraq to his Brooklyn home and co-founded Iraq Veterans Against the War soon after, said that the addition of shoes belonging to civilians provided a new dimension to the memorial.
“There’s no official or semi-official count of the Iraqis. It’s important to give an idea of the sheer number of human beings killed.”
Standing on the steps of the cathedral, Ryabov said, “You wouldn’t know there was a war going on,” as he waved his hands at the Manhattan streets below. “People don’t realize the death and destruction.”
McConnell said that while he has received some complaints from military families, most are comforted by the “living memorial.”
“Even though we have objects representing death, this is fundamentally a testament to life,” he said. And the exhibit has political power. “As individual families bury their dead, it’s a very private grief that leads to personal questions. With a public memorial, it leads to political questions. Why this war?”
“Eyes Wide Open” will continue its tour until Thanksgiving, and then resume in January. The next stop is Massachusetts: Holyoke (October 25-28), Boston (November 1-8) and Amherst (November 11-13). Details on exhibits nationwide are available at the exhibit’s website.