This past Saturday, starting at 6 a.m., I began placing pairs of empty combat boots on the Ellipse within signt of the White House. I worked alongside members of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Military Families Speak Out (MFSO), Veterans for Peace, and Iraq Veterans Against the War to install one set of boots for each US soldier killed in Afghanistan. By the time we finished, six hours after we began, we learned that we had to add three more. The names of three additional US soldiers killed in Afghanistan had been announced while we worked.
Next to this improvised cemetery of loss and mournful rage, of commemoration and protest, we set up another: a small spiral of civilian shoes to recognize the untold thousands of Afghan civilians killed in the ongoing cycle of violence that has engulfed the country for the last 30 years, and in particular, the last eight.
Laying out the boots and shoes was a contemplative, sad, slow process. As we unpacked each pair of boots and positioned them into the grid, flecks of the bootblack rubbed off on our hands, leaving them indelibly stained with the ashes of unknown memories. Some boots were dried and twisted. Some were still spit-polished, gleaming in the sun, evoking the lost soldier so sharply I imagined passing my hand in the heat-shimmering air over the boots, trying to re-conjure the vibrancy of a human life severed by the terror of politics.
I met people who were taken aback by the field of grief. One Marine dropped by as we were still setting up, and told me, almost inaudibly, "Some of my buddies are out in that field." They had fought in HelmandProvince, and he was scheduled to redeploy there in March. I told him about www.girightshotline.org if he had second thoughts or needed information about his rights in the military. I told him we wanted to mobilize enough political protest to convince the politicians not to send him and his unit back. He looked at me skeptically. I acknowledged that it would be tough; too many politicians seemed fixated on continued military escalation. He nodded and said, "I'm grateful that you guys are doing this," and left.
In the afternoon, two soldiers from FortCarson dropped by. One was a military intelligence interrogator in Iraq; the other's military occupational specialty was in maintenance. They eagerly took down information about the GI Rights Hotline and told us about buddies who had been killed in Iraq. One said that while her mother wouldn't be the "speaking out" type, she might want the emotional support of other families opposed to the war. She took down contact information for MFSO.
Offering leaflets to hundreds of tourists and DC residents who chanced across our protest, I met only one person who voiced anger at us for mounting the display. He said to me, "I think it's shameful what you're doing, shameful." I asked, "What do you think is shameful?" but he had turned away. I'm not sure he even heard me. If he did, I hope he considers where the shame should lie. I do.
Part of my guilt lies in not doing more to resist the wars being waged by the government that claims to represent me. I think the exhibit is an effective challenge, asking us, asking Congress, asking the President, to confront our guilt as a country, demanding that we stop piling reasons for guilt on top of the still-growing piles of the dead. A Presidential motorcade roared by the Ellipse at 5:45 p.m. on Saturday. Did the President, or the President's advisors see the boots, a visual counterpoint to General McChrystal's lobbying Obama, earlier that day, for 45,000 more US troops? We don't know, but we do know a White House cook stopped by. His brother was killed in Iraq. He, too, thanked us for commemorating the dead.
The exhibit seems to open many people's eyes to the horror of war, and it's a way of reaching far beyond the peace movement's usual constituencies. Additionally, Peter Lems from AFSC told me that Aziz, an Afghan who works for AFSC in Kabul, was surprised and pleased we were focusing this protest on ending the killing in his land. We don't know precisely how many Afghan civilians have been killed during this war, but if the exhibit contained a pair of shoes for each of them, it would no longer fit on the Ellipse.
We owe it to the people of Afghanistan, to the military personnel already deployed and waiting to be deployed, and to all those who love them, to speak out for an end to the bloodshed.
As dusk loomed, we lit hundreds of candles amid the shoes and boots. The candles glowed red in the deepening twilight, flickering memories of lives snuffed out. They're crying out to us, "Remember us. Stop the killing."
Saturday was Sam Diener's first day on the job as the National Organizer for Military Families Speak Out (www.mfso.org). He is the outgoing co-editor of Peacework Magazine (www.peaceworkmagazine.org).