Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News February 20, 2005
by Susan Ives
There were hiking boots next to tennis shoes, fuzzy bedroom slippers alongside down-at-the-heel oxfords and at least one pair of those hideous dyed-to-match silk pumps that bridesmaids abandon on the closet floor the day after their best friend’s wedding.
Shoes are surprisingly intimate. The woman who wore those stiletto heels must have longed for a glamorous life. The man with the oxfords: I bet he had an office job. You learn more about a person from their shoes than you would by looking at their underwear.
I knew that the shoes were really American, bought at thrift shops to represent the Iraqis killed in this war, part of the American Friends Service Committee’s “Eyes Wide Open” memorial and exhibit that was on display at St. Mary’s University last weekend.
I’ve been to Iraq. Iraqis wear shoes just like this. Just like ours.
It was a tiny pair of red patent leather Mary Janes that finally made me cry. A thousand pairs of civilian shoes to represent who knows how many Iraqis. Some say 15,000. Others say 100,000. But even a thousand pairs of empty shoes leave you with an immense sense of loss.
There were 206 black baseball caps, representing contractors who have died. Sanjay Kumar Thakur, a Nepalese cook. How did this Sanjay from Katmandu end up cooking and dying in Iraq? I want to know.
I saved the boots for last. It was drizzling on the Friday of the exhibit, so only the 140 pairs of boots representing the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines from Texas who died were on display.
I read every name.
By Sunday the weather had cleared, and all 1,460 pairs of boots were arranged in precise formation on Chaminade Field. I walked past every pair. Goodbye, dear friend. I’m sorry, goodbye.
I helped with the publicity for the event and was puzzled by the reaction to the civilian shoes. Many people got huffy when they realized that Iraqi shoes would be on display with the military boots.
“I won’t come if those shoes are there!”
I asked Marq Anderson, who is shepherding the exhibit on its cross-country tour, why the boots upset some folks.
On Long Island, he said, an angry woman showed up asking that her family member’s name be removed from the boot. This has happened a few times since the exhibit opened with 534 pairs of boots a year ago. The organizers always comply.
In San Antonio, one distraught woman demanded that her son’s name tag be removed; three other families donated their sons’ boots for the memorial.
The New York woman was escorted by a bunch of big guys on motorcycles. While she was talking to Anderson, the biker dudes walked over to the section where the civilian shoes were displayed and stomped all over them.
I still don’t understand.
Having abandoned its weapons of mass destruction excuse, the Bush administration now maintains that we went to war to liberate the Iraqi people, to release them from the rule of a brutal dictator, to give them the blessings of freedom.
The implication of this revised scenario is that we care about the Iraqi people. We care that they are free, sovereign and democratic. We care whether they live or die.
The implication of this scenario is that we care enough about the Iraqi people to have willingly sacrificed 1,460 young Americans to secure their freedom. We care enough about the Iraqi people that we have spent, so far, about $155 billion to free them and are poised to allocate another $82 billion to cover the costs of continuing military operations there.
So, if we care so damn much about the Iraqi people, why do we stomp on their shoes?
I suspect that in their hearts these shoe-stompers, these self-professed ultra-patriots who can’t bear the sight of a dead Iraqi civilian’s empty shoe, know full well that this war isn’t a war of liberation. It’s a war of domination. And in a war of domination the Iraqis do not count.
If it was a war of liberation, we would be willing to walk a mile in an Iraqi’s shoes. Or, at least, be able to look at them.