Before night falls on Oct. 5, a truck filled with gray bins containing black boots will roll in to Ithaca. The truck – a 26-foot rental – will not be making any stops at area shoe stores. The boots will not be bought or sold or given away or even worn. Their very significance lies in the fact that they are – and will remain – empty, for each pair represents an American soldier lost to the Iraq war. The boots – combat boots supplied by an army-navy surplus wholesaler – are a key part of the traveling memorial, Eyes Wide Open, an exhibition on the human cost of the Iraq war, on view Thursday on Cornell University’s Arts Quad and Friday through Sunday at Dewitt Park in downtown Ithaca.
Initiated by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the Quaker organization, Eyes Wide Open has journeyed to more than 60 cities since its debut in Chicago in January 2004, including Seattle, Dallas, Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., and New York City. The Chicago exhibition consisted of 504 pairs of boots. In Ithaca, one of the smallest cities on the tour thus far, the number of boots will exceed 1,900.
Civilian shoes representing Iraqi casualties and a "wall of remembrance" in the form of display panels inscribed with more than 3,000 Iraqi names are also key components of the installation. Names of American and Iraqi dead will be read aloud, in English and Arabic, by volunteers – a task that currently takes more than four hours, said Marq Anderson, AFSC national tour manager.
Volunteers also will update flip numbers announcing the sum of American dead in the likely event that new casualties are incurred mid-exhibit. As of Oct. 3 the death toll numbered 1,935 for an average of more than two deaths per day since the war began in March 2003. Ninety-two of these are from New York State. For its casualty count, the AFSC relies on the Web site www.icasualties.org, whose primary source for compiling its statistics is the U.S. government.
A multitude of related events will take place throughout the weekend, including speeches and an open mic, interfaith gatherings, candlelight vigils in DeWitt Park, and an event featuring Kathy Kelly of "Voices in the Wilderness," a group founded in 1996 to challenge U.S. foreign policy in Iraq.
Like the AIDS Memorial Quilt, another display that grew larger with each stop on its cross-country travels, Eyes Wide Open is a "living" memorial that attempts to humanize and give visual form to the statistics. Michael McConnell, director of the AFSC Great Lakes Regional Office in Chicago and one of the creators of the project, explained to PW-Philadelphia Weekly: "Most of the memorials we have in this country to commemorate wars are stationary, granite structures (and) statues, constructed many years after a war has ended. This is a living memorial that commemorates each death as it happens and is memorializing a war while we still have the opportunity to stop it."
Eyes Wide Open "should make a powerful visual statement installed in the Arts Quad," said Buzz Spector, head of Cornell University’s Department of Art and a conceptual artist who has incorporated images from documentary photographs of peace demonstrations in his artwork.
"(There is) a historical precedent in the use of footwear to ‘stand in’ for absent bodies," he said, citing a series by conceptual/installation artist Eleanor Antin called "100 Boots" (1971-73), in which black rubber army-navy surplus boots were staged in various settings – facing the sea, arrayed in a field, on the way to church – and photographed. Some of the images, he said, "are evocative of standing guard or silent vigil."
In many of Antin’s images, however, it’s "as if the footwear were capable of independent motion," as Spector put it. What makes Eyes Wide Open so poignant to many people is the boots’ slumped stillness; though a writer for the Chicago Tribune managed to simultaneously evoke movement and stasis by describing it as a "a field of black boots, marching to nowhere and to eternity at exactly the same time."
The blueprint for Eyes Wide Open varies according to the demands of the site, as determined by Anderson, who travels with the exhibit. He endeavors to make each installation "feel and look unique," he said, though the mood is always solemn. The layout for the Arts Quad is likely to be a grid, with approximately four feet between boot pairs, for a total of about 27,500 square feet for the boots alone. Dewitt Park’s layout will be more tightly packed, using every available square inch.
The boots, each pair tagged with a soldier’s name, age, rank and home state, will be arranged alphabetically, by state.
Though the boots tend to get the most media attention, Anderson labors to make sure combat boots and Iraqi civilian shoes, the latter often forming a labyrinth, are arranged in a manner that gives "equal respect to both groups." The shoes, some tagged with names, are the responsibility of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, national co-sponsors of Eyes Wide Open. The group organizes local shoe drives to supplement the exhibit and then donates the collection to local charities when the exhibit has moved on. The shoes represent a "small fraction" of Iraqi deaths, estimates of which vary widely – roughly from 25,000 to 100,000, said Anderson. The Pentagon does not keep a tally of Iraqi civilian deaths.
Many times, people have taken off their own shoes and added them to the site, walking away shoeless, Anderson said.
Photographs, flowers, flags, notes and other items are added by families, friends and other visitors to the exhibition. Except for perishables, these items stay with the boots and shoes, making the installation weightier with every new stop and more time-consuming to set up and dismantle.
The AFSC calls for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. "We are convinced that the presence of U.S. troops is a destabilizing force in the region and contributes to the increasing loss of life," the organization states on its Web site. "We are anguished by the damage and lasting scars we are causing to another generation of American soldiers who have been asked to serve in another war in a distant place for questionable ends."
Though the Quakers are identified with pacifism, supporting Eyes Wide Open does not require subscribing to pacifist ideals, said Gerald Coles, co-chair of the Social Action Committee of Congregation Tikkun v’Or/the Ithaca Reform Temple, a sponsoring organization.
"There are times when violence and armed resistance to violence are justified," said Coles, who lost most of his family on his mother’s side to Nazi concentration camps. "The main issue that has galvanized the coalition has been to end this particular war, (for) all the justifications for this violence have been empty."
However, just as families of war dead and the rest of the American public are at odds over Cindy Sheehan’s quest to immediately end the Iraq war, there have been different reactions to Eyes Wide Open. Some boots – about 18 thus far, said Anderson – have been replaced with soldiers’ actual boots, donated by families who support the exhibit. (This number might be higher, suggested Anderson, if more families possessed the actual boots.)
But about 20 to 25 families, some of whom feel that the anti-war tenor of the memorial dishonors the soldiers who believed in their mission, have requested that the tags identifying their loved ones be removed from the boots. The AFSC has honored these families’ wishes by removing the soldiers’ names while continuing to identify their home states.
City of Ithaca Alderman Michael Taylor (D-4th Ward), the only Common Council member to vote against a resolution in support of the exhibition, said he was wary of the politics surrounding it, including the Council’s endorsement, given that deliberation over "artistic events" isn’t normally on its agenda.
"Common Council doesn’t represent the people on this. The soldiers’ sacrifice deserves being memorialized in a way that is separate from the politics of the war, given how sacred and complete that sacrifice is," he said, adding that he nevertheless is not opposed to the exhibit and plans to attend.
Many supporters, however, say the exhibit accommodates various political beliefs. Perry O’Brien, a 23-year-old Cornell sophomore and a former army medic in Afghanistan whose unit treated casualties from all sides of that conflict, said, "It doesn’t matter what side you’re on – hawk or dove – we owe it to the fallen to remember them. How long should we have to wait until it’s OK to memorialize all the people who have lost their lives to this war? This isn’t about politics, and I hope people will come to the exhibit with an open mind. As I see it, Eyes Wide Open is about acknowledging a simple fact: while the rest of us are going about our daily lives, people are dying in Iraq." O’Brien is a member of the group Veterans for Peace.
"Within (the space of the exhibit), I know that people will deliberate over the merits of this war," said Dante Zappala, whose brother, Sgt. Sherwood Baker, was killed in a building blast in Baghdad in 2004 and was the first member of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard to die in combat since 1945. "But what is so important about this memorial is that it is a place where people of different opinions can gather to honor our fallen. The exhibit is established to show respect to these heroes and their families. It is also a place where others can absorb, if only for a moment, the pain associated with violent conflict. Eyes Wide Open, therefore, is a starting point for dialogue, one that is based in emotional honesty and a difficult reality."
Zappala, who works in Philadelphia for a public policy consulting firm on anti-poverty initiatives, is a member of Gold Star Families for Peace and Military Families Speak Out and will be one of this week’s speakers, as will O’Brien. His brother was a caseworker for mentally handicapped adults before going to Iraq.
The quest to bring Eyes Wide Open to Ithaca began when Wilma Brown, a member of Ithaca’s Society of Friends and one of the event’s chief local organizers, filed an application with the AFSC last December on behalf of a coalition of interested parties. Without waiting for approval, Brown and other supporters began to expand their network, locally and throughout the state. "We laid a lot of groundwork based on faith," said Brown, referring to their hopes that Ithaca would be a stop on the tour.
The original idea was that there would be an Upstate tour, with Ithaca being just one stop among several, said Brown. But the AFSC was impressed that a city the size of Ithaca could develop such a wide coalition, she said, and when the application was approved late last spring, Ithaca was designated the central location for the exhibit.
Sponsors include social action organizations, churches, synagogues, businesses, university groups, the City of Ithaca Common Council and regional offices of national organizations such as Catholic Charities. Many come from what Brown called "satellite communities," such as Rochester, Syracuse, Cortland, Binghamton, Elmira and Wellsboro, Pa.
"This is really Upstate New York’s exhibit," said Brown, who also stressed that, though the idea "originated with the Quakers, it is not a Quaker thing. That’s the really beautiful thing about Eyes Wide Open-Ithaca – the bringing together of people of goodwill from so many groups."
From Ithaca, the exhibit will make return trips to New York City and Boston.
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Exhibit Schedule: Thursday, Oct. 6: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., Cornell University Arts Quad; Friday-Sunday, Oct. 7-9: open continuously from 10 a.m. Friday to 4 p.m. Sunday, DeWitt Park, at the intersection of Buffalo and Cayuga Streets, downtown Ithaca. "The exhibit is really open when the first boot goes down at first daylight," said Anderson. For a complete schedule of events, visit www.afsc.org/eyes/details/ithaca/.
Nancy Geyer is a contributing writer to the Ithaca Times.