Images of the war in Iraq - firefights, ruined buildings, burning cars - are an almost constant presence on American TV, but images of the human cost of the war are harder to find. So the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization dedicated to service, social justice, and peace, is bringing a stark reminder to American communities.
The exhibit's centerpiece consists of more than 900 pairs of black combat boots, laid in long straight lines on the grass, each tagged with the name, age and home of an American soldier who has died in Iraq. As more soldiers die, the exhibit organizers add more boots. And next to those boots, is a circular display of 1,000 pairs of regular street shoes, each one representing 10 Iraqi civilians who have died since U.S.-led forces entered the country last year.
"It's a visual part of the statistics we're hearing in the media," says Abby Jinx, who is with Sage, a local social justice group co-sponsoring the exhibit here in Amherst, Massachusetts with the American Friends Service Committee. "We hear numbers. We hear 908 soldiers have died in the war, we hear thousands of Iraqi civilians have died. But to see the boots laid out makes it very personal, it makes it much more real. When you see the shoes representing the civilians, you see babies' shoes, you see sneakers for a child who's three years old, you see color, you see laces and buckles and slip-ons."
The boots and shoes are traveling the country in a large van, and at each exhibit site, volunteers spend several hours setting up the display according to a blueprint. Sage member Susan Theberge was one of about 30 people who helped lay out the shoes on the Amherst Common. She calls the exhibit less of an anti-war protest than a community event. "There are so many horrendous things happening in the world right now and I think it's easy to feel overwhelmed. I feel an exhibit like this makes it very real, makes it very concrete and it gives us something we can do. It links the community up. We have members of every peace and justice group in the area. It's a sense of community, so instead of staying home and being really depressed, we're out here together, creating something and talking with folks in the community," she says.
During the day it was displayed on the Amherst Common, the exhibit drew a wide variety of visitors. Many spectators weaved quietly among the footwear, several taking photographs. Jennifer Alonzo was in town for a theater festival when she noticed the exhibit from her hotel. "I saw it outside my window this morning and said, 'I didn't know there was a graveyard over there.' And I looked and saw what it was and so I guess it is a graveyard," she says. "I'm crying, in some ways, this is more informative emotionally, than a louder demonstration with more people, because you can count and see how many people could be standing here and aren't."
The young woman says she took part in anti-war protests before the war began, but since people started dying, she's felt a more somber response was in order. "For me, it was politics before, and letting my voice be heard. But I've not been personally affected by any of these deaths so it is quieter. And just remembering and seeing all these people who are ten years younger than I am, who didn't even get the chance to go to grad school, or have their life or pursue their education that's terrible," she says.
Recent Hampshire College graduate Em Doren says a quiet, thoughtful exhibit might actually be more effective than loud protests in reaching a broad range of people. "Something like this [draws] people who generally wouldn't come to a protest they can't help but stop and say, 'What is that?' So I think this in some ways is a lot more effective because it reaches people who wouldn't stop to think about those issues otherwise."
Lloyda Adamis is a Cuban immigrant who served in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War. She says her 17-year-old son wants to join the military when he graduates from high school next year and she's worried he could be sent to Iraq. "As a matter of fact, I'm waiting here for him, because I really want him to see this. I know it's gonna be hard for him? the reality, but there's got to be a way for us to wake up, and our children need to wake up and see that this is not the way," she says.
Before the exhibit was packed up last week to travel on to Vermont, the American Friends Service Committee added another pair of boots to the display - they represented Jeff Lucey, a soldier from neighboring Belchertown, Massachusetts, who committed suicide last month after returning from Iraq. His family says he was traumatized by his tour of duty and terrified of being sent back. Eyes Wide Open also includes an indoor, multi-media display about the war. The exhibit began touring the country in January, starting out in Chicago, and it will continue traveling - and growing - through the end of the year.