More than 200 combat boots bearing the names of dead Virginia soldiers were lined up along the gravel paths crossing each other on the west end of Monroe Park last Wednesday afternoon.
The exhibit on display throughout the afternoon, Eyes Wide Open, is meant to represent the human cost of war, a testimony to a large fraction of the price paid in American conflicts that have been taking place abroad.
Specifically focused on the fatalities that have occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, the Richmond Peace Education Center – a local nonprofit dedicated to conflict resolution and peace-building – and the Richmond Friends Meeting – a religious society based on Quaker principles – have collaborated to honor fallen servicemen and women in our most involved global conflicts today.
“The intention of this exhibit is to have people confront the reality of the tragic nature of war,” said RPEC Executive Director Adria Scharf. “We’ve basically been at war as a country continually since the terrorist attacks of 9/11.”
Because the logistics of global conflict have changed dramatically in the decades before 9/11, most notably an active draft of young people into the armed services, Scharf said many people no longer think of America’s involvement in foreign conflicts the same way.
“If you don’t have a family member or a loved one actually serving or deployed in the military, it’s so easy to go about your life and forget about the casualties and sacrifices being made,” Scharf said. ”[The exhibit] promotes somber reflection” for those who volunteered and lost their lives serving in the armed services.
Presenting the first exhibit in 2006 in Charlottesville, RPEC has been responsible for bringing the exhibit to more than 20 different locations throughout Virginia. The concept itself is adopted from a national model invented by the American Friends Service Committee, an organization founded in 1917 originally meant to serve civilian victims of World War I. Since the original exhibition was unveiled in 2006, other states and cities have adopted the concept and tailored it to reflect what has been lost from each respective locality.
At this Wednesday’s exhibit, 206 boots representing the lives of each Virginian who has died were displayed. The number of casualties – 72 in Afghanistan and 134 in Iraq – are accounted for and cited by independent website icasulaites.org, according to Scharf.
Names and hometowns of soldiers are placed in laminated placards tied to the boots. Several include notes, mementos and pictures placed inside and along them. According to Scharf, the RPEC attempts to contact families of the fallen soldiers so they can see the exhibit and include pieces they see fitting to add to the boots representing their former loved ones.
Throughout the afternoon, hundreds of students, faculty and city residents passed through the park. Nick Calhoun was one of the few people who stopped and discussed the exhibit with a friend after encountering it.
Calhoun, a VCU junior studying Archaeology and Religious Studies, said the exhibit struck a chord with him. During the summer, Calhoun participated in a study abroad program in Tel Lachish, Israel doing work related to biblical archaeology with religious studies professor Jon Waybright. During the course of their three week stay, the latest salvos in the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict were exchanged, cutting the trip short as anxiety over student safety became overwhelming.
“It was really terrifying seeing missiles go over my head,” Calhoun said. “But then I realized I was in Israel, I’m protected. From where I was staying, you could see the Gaza skyline. From there, fear turned to sadness – I realized I wasn’t in so much danger.”
The day after witnessing missile and rocket fired exchanged, Calhoun said he learned that the trajectory of weapons he believed were headed towards him were actually Israeli defense system – The Iron Dome– intercepting Hamas’ rockets.
“The Iron Dome defense system takes [Hamas’] rockets out, but over [In Gaza], the bombs fall, they explode and people die,” Calhoun said. “It saddened my heart. It changed my perspective about being an American and living here.”
Alongside the combat boots and mementos, civilian footwear – women, children and mens’ shoes – representing civilian casualties is meant to remind voyeurs of the collateral damage and loss of innocent lives experienced by native families in these conflicts.
With political challenges violently rising with the emergence of ISIS, the terrorist-state organization committing acts of terror in northern Iraq and Syria, a prolonged continuation of the conflict seems imminent. Earlier this month, the Obama administration approved aerial bombing campaigns in the region. While there is a promise of “No Boots on the Ground,” political debate and conflicting public opinion casts doubt that that claim will be upheld, according to Scharf.
“One lesson we’ve learned from the last 13 years of foreign policy is that our military involvements are so unpredictable,” Scharf said. While acknowledging ISIS’ brutality and the non-political nature of the Eyes Wide Open exhibit, Scharf believes, “Another bombing campaign is not the answer.”
“It has the potential to be a slippery slope which inflames instead of soothes the sectarian violence,” Scharf said. “If we’ve learned anything from our recent forays in Afghanistan and Iraq, our military involvement tends to fuel rage and insurgencies against our presence and activities.”