Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The cost of war

On Friday, Only Son and I volunteered at the Eyes Wide Open exhibit that was at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul. The exhibit, created and sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee displays a pair of combat boots for each American military death in Iraq. They are organized by state. Each is labeled with the name, rank, home state, and age of the person killed. There is an accompanying exhibit of civilian shoes, of uncertain number, symbolically depicting Iraqis killed in the conflict.

We had witnessed it at Friends General Conference Gathering at Virginia Tech University earlier this summer when the number of combat boots was a little more than 1550. There were more than 1900 pair this past Friday, a mere three months later.

In Virginia, the boots were displayed in the mess hall of the corps of cadets, a large, sterile, featureless room except for the military ball banners that were displayed high on the walls on two sides. The room was too small for the display which completely filled it wall-to-wall, and the boots for those from Virginia and West Virginia had to be moved outside in front of the building, as well as those for the half dozen or so alumni of Virginia Tech who had been killed to make room.

At St. Kate's, though, the boots were set out on a broad, spacious expanse of lawn which made it feel a little like a cemetery. The day was as glorious as an autumn day gets in Minnesota -- bright sun, blue sky, cooling breeze from the west. There was a steady attendance on the Friday we worked.

I was assigned to work at the booth selling t-shirts, books, and other exhibit-related merchandise; Only Son handed out programs to those who came to visit. I must admit mixed feelings about the t-shirt deal -- it felt a bit commercial and degrading with $20 changing hands in exchange for a shirt, even though it was for the good cause of supporting the exhibit as it travels through the country. However, it was an honor to meet and talk with some of those who came to the booth -- parents of active duty soldiers now in Iraq; El Salvador, Gulf War I, and Vietnam veterans; hard of hearing or deaf students with their teachers who had to interrupt the flow of their sign language with dabs of the tissue to wipe away the tears.

Given the disappointment I have expressed over most mass peace demonstrations I've seen or participated in, I was pleased that this one that had a gravity to it, a clear message that needed no interpretation. It was a genuine demonstration of the cost of war to which we are asked to view with eyes wide open; no need to open our mouth. No strident speeches. No chanting or sign waving. Just slow strolls through the ranks, looking at the personalized photos, letters home, and other memorabilia of the person. If you view the exhibit as a glorious tribute to heroes fallen in a noble cause, so be it. At least you've come to that conclusion with some measure of appreciation of the cost. This is the kind of thing that Quakers, uniquely, can do to help make peace, and I am proud (if that's the word) that they (we) have done so.

My most haunting memory from the exhibit: A letter from a soldier to his parents explaining that he was enlisting in the army because America needed more Christian soldiers. What blasphemy. Who is responsible for the false doctrine that was taught to that now dead teenager?

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