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Published: September 8th 2004
Private Kyle C. Gilbert, age 20, of Vermont, an American casualty in Iraq.
Thursday, September 2nd was supposed to be the last, big day for protests in the street, but with a thousand or more people still sitting in police detention at Pier 57, there seemed to be less outright animosity. Instead, the scene at Union Square was one of learning and dialogue, prompted in no small part by the efforts of Veterans for Peace, 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows and the American Friends Service Committee's (AFSC) project entitled "Eyes Wide Open."
The southern end of Union Square was the spot for a day-long vigil by numerous chapters of Veterans for Peace. Their witness was marked by a black banner with the caption, "How Can You Ask A Soldier To Be The Last Person To Die For A Lie?" It was a variation on John Kerry's famous rhetorical question during his congressional testimony, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
It was far more difficult to write off the peacenik objections of Veterans for Peace than it was to dismiss the pacifist tendencies of college students who had never been to war. And perhaps for that very reason the "Protest Warriors" showed up in Union Square, too. This was not the first time I had seen the Protest Warriors counter-protesting at a peace protest. And as they often do they brought along rhetorical, asinine signs with slogans such as, "Besides ending slavery, fascism and communism, what's war good for?" or "Communism has already killed 100 million people, let's give it another try!" (Neither of those two statements acknowledges that the evils of slavery, fascism and communism are still with us, nor do such statements allow for the possibility that war might not be the best tool for solving such problems.)
So when I walked into Union Square and saw people talking (talking!) about question of war and peace, good and evil, violence and pacifism, the philosophy major in me was overjoyed. Admittedly, the doves decidedly outnumbered the hawks, and the dialogues often devolved into diatribes, but there was an undercurrent of a common search for truth that is too often absent from talk radio shows or cable news programs.
Such a quest was in no small part inspired by the presence of just a fraction of the AFSC's display entitled "Eyes Wide Open." In neat rows along the southern edge of Union Square, with nametags attached, stood a pair of combat boots for each American combat death in Iraq. People moved through the empty rows, contemplating the names of the fallen. Someone had come through and decorated each pair of boots with a red poppy, an echo of the remembrances of the Great War battles fought in the poppy fields of France, illustrating that the deaths of American soldiers were not part of a new war on terror, but were rather the most current incarnation of the conflict that has raged since Cain slew Abel out of jealousy and greed.
One person was determined to counter the "dangers" of the Eyes Wide Open exhibit by displaying 20 or 30 pounds of rice on a blanket to symbolize the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died under Saddam Hussein's rule. He wouldn't say why Eyes Wide Open was dangerous, but apparently viewers were supposed to draw the conclusion that combat boot deaths were good when they were for the sake of grain of rice deaths, which were bad.
I had expected to see quite a few photographers gathered around Eyes Wide Open, but the vast majority of them were not professionals. These were ordinary people who had rushed home for their cameras or called their loved One on their cell phones and said, "You need to come see this." These amateur photographers wanted to harvest a seed of catharsis. Apparently intentionally, the American government has provided few opportunities for public mourning. We are not allowed to see the flag-draped coffins of the repatriated dead. The president does not venture farther than the Oval Office when expressing his condolences to the families of the fallen. Eyes Wide Open was for thousands of people an opportunity to mourn those who died for their nation, regardless of whether or not the mourners concurred with the professed motives (or veracity thereof) for which the dead had fought.
With the afternoon sun hanging just above the rooftops, a bell pealed across the field of empty black boots and I stood looking at the name of a boy who may very well have followed me through high school in Vermont, Private Kyle C. Gilbert, age 20. Sure, there were plenty of soldiers from Georgia, New York and California, but Vermont! ...Vermont was too small! I stared at my boots next to Kyle's and thought that even in my years of Navy service, I had not even come close to walking a mile in his shoes.
With more than a few cracks in his voice a Veteran for Peace intoned the names of the dead, punctuated by the toll of a small brass bell, and a New York minute became almost as expensive as the cost of war.
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