Eyes Wide Open dramatizes human cost of Iraq war

SAN FRANCISCO — It was billed as a press conference. But what really happened in Civic Center Plaza on the morning of March 25 was an hour-long, intensely moving memorial tribute to the 1,525 U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq, and to the estimated 100,000 Iraqi civilians who have died as a result of the war.

The plaza has long been a site of great peace demonstrations. Just before the U.S. invasion two years ago, some 300,000 protesters from all over northern California packed the area, demanding that the Bush administration not attack Iraq.

But this time, the scene in the grassy square was dramatically different. Lined up neatly were rank after rank of empty combat boots — organized by state, each tagged with name, age and hometown and many lovingly decorated with flowers, flags and handwritten notes. Each pair represented a U.S. soldier who died in Iraq. Flanking them on either side were row on row of tiny baby sneakers, casual beach sandals, high-fashion women’s pumps, running shoes and bedroom slippers, standing for the estimated 100,000 Iraqi war dead. Boots representing California’s 171 dead, the highest from any state, filled the City Hall steps across the street.

“Yesterday I had a wonderful son. Today I have a lot of medals, and a mission,” Nadia McCaffrey of Tracy, Calif., told the peace activists, grieving family members and visitors who gathered at the Easter weekend display of Eyes Wide Open, the American Friends Service Committee’s exhibit revealing the human cost of the war. She is a member of the newly formed group Gold Star Parents for Peace, parents whose children have been killed in the war.

McCaffrey, whose 34-year-old son Patrick was killed in Iraq in June 2004, is thinking not only about ending the war and bringing U.S. troops home safely. “Why aren’t we more conscious of the suffering of the Iraqi families who have lost loved ones?” she asked. She has expressed her concern through the founding of a nongovernmental organization to aid Iraqi families, including refugee families who have fled to Jordan.

Also making a fervent appeal for an immediate end to war and occupation on behalf of “thousands of children in Iraq and hundreds of children in the U.S. who have no father” was Fernando Suarez del Solar of San Diego, whose Marine son, Jesus, died in Iraq in March 2003.

Iraq war veteran Sean O’Neill, from San Jose, served two tours of duty there with the 1st Marine Division in 2000-2004. Four of his friends were killed in action. “Upon witnessing such an event,” he said, “I had to ask myself why are we doing this, and is it worth it? We forget about the dead and about those with amputated limbs and amputated spirits.”

San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, a former environmental scientist, told of his two visits to Iraq in the early 1990s to study the impact of depleted uranium on Iraqi civilians after the first Iraq war. He noted that the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution recognizing the Eyes Wide Open exhibit.

Standing vigil over the empty boots and shoes was San Franciscan Arla S. Ertz, one of hundreds of volunteers who made the display possible. Her mission was to talk with people, answer questions and comfort the emotionally distraught. “The visual power of the exhibit, combined with the testimony of family members, is beyond most things I’ve experienced before,” she said. Ertz said that besides evoking grief, the display moves people to want to connect with others, to talk about the exhibit and to urge friends to join them.

Eyes Wide Open has traveled to more than 40 cities since it first appeared in Chicago early in 2004 with just 504 pairs of boots. Because the government does not publicly honor the Iraq war dead, many families have adopted the display as their way to do so.