Today, Feb. 4, there are 1,438 pairs of combat boots in the “Eyes Wide Open” exhibit on the Iraq war at the Statehouse Convention Center. They signify American lives lost, some so recently that all we know of them is that they no longer live and breathe.
The American Friends exhibit, which had only 500 boots when it began its nationwide tour in 2003, was not attracting crowds during workday hours Wednesday. But those who did come said they were deeply affected — “it’s overwhelming,” one visitor said — as they walked among row after row of boots. People walked quietly, head down examining boots, to the strains of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.” With a small exhibit of shoes representing just a small portion of Iraqi civilian deaths, the shoes cover much of the floor of the 25,000-square-foot hall.
One visitor, reading the exhibit’s fact panels — on the cost of the war ($151 billion); civilian deaths (more than 100,000); the windfall for Halliburton and benefits for the vice president; the false claims of weapons of mass destruction; the U.S. Patriot Act’s intrusions on privacy — wondered how it is that people, faced with those facts, could still support the war in Iraq.
People believe what they want to believe. They may dispute the exhibit’s economic and political claims. But the boots of “Eyes Wide Open” are indisputable evidence of the cost to America in human life.
Alison Hall, a member of exhibit co-sponsor Women’s Action for New Directions, was instrumental in bringing “Eyes” to Little Rock and installed. As instructed by AFS exhibit managers, she brought several boxes of Kleenex to place around the room. Little did she know, she said, that she would be the first to tear into one. Unloading a box of boots from California, her home state, she burst into tears when she saw in it a picture of a young man, a young man like Hall’s own 19-year-old boyfriend who was killed in Vietnam.
Hall calls the exhibit “bridge building,” offering a way for military families to honor their dead and opponents of the war to experience those families’ losses.
Tokens have been placed or tied to the boots as the exhibit has marched through 40-plus cities. Boots signifying the 23 Arkansas war dead form the second row, after the unnamed war dead. Some are pinned with peace buttons that merge the yellow ribbon with the peace symbol. Down the row, Staff Sgt. Hesley Box of Nashvile, Pvt. First Class Jonathan Cheatham of Camden, Thomas Chad Rosenbaum of Hope, Sgt. First Class Miranda, Sgt. Collier, Chief Warrant Officer Kordsmeier, Lance Cpl. Hopper, Specialist Buie, Cpl. Clairday and so on. Most pairs are stuffed with a poem written by a mother of one of the soldiers; at an earlier exhibit, she crawled on hands and knees along the formation to place the poem in the boots. The boots are hung with soldiers’ photographs — in uniform, with new babies, hugging their shaggy dogs. Michigan Pvt. First Class Richard Rosas’ own baby picture is here, accompanied by a note from his mother, Apolonia Rosas: “Wherever this boots (sic) may travel my broken heart will follow. God Bless America.” A newspaper article attached to the pair signifying the sacrifice of Staff Sgt. Aaron Reese, who drowned in the Tigris River, quotes an Army officer as saying his Ohio National Guard unit received life vests three days after Reese’s drowning. They replaced a shipment that had been intercepted and sold on the black market by Iraqi police.
A pair of well-worn canvas and leather boots sits among the sponsor booths facing the exhibit. They were worn by Arkansan Norman “Bill” Williams during the Vietnam war.
In a statement Williams gave the Friends, he wrote, “After coming home I joined the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Vietnam Veterans Organizing Committee, the Governor’s Task Force on Veterans and finally Veterans for Peace. When I heard this exhibit was coming to Arkansas, I knew there was one more job to do.” He donated the boots on behalf of Veterans for Peace “as a reminder from those of us who have been to war, that the only real answers, the only true resolution, the only real future, is in peace.”
An interfaith service will be held in the exhibit, at the base of the Convention Center escalator, at 6 p.m. Thursday.
The Arkansas Coalition for Peace and Justice and the Quaker Friends of Central Arkansas also worked to bring “Eyes” to Little Rock.