The April 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Murder of Mary Katherine King

Eyes Wide Open

California Lifts Food Stamp Ban

The Ordeal of Ramona Choyce

Republicans Shred Disabled Housing

Art and Activism of Jos Sances

The Paintings of Jos Sances

Gambling with Social Security

Billionaires Grow Richer, Poverty Worsens

Existence Itself Is Banned for the Homeless Poor

Bush Policy Errs on Chronic Homelessness

Sankofa House: A Rainbow for Homeless Women

Student Summit Against Hunger

A Lifetime at the Bus Stop

Working for Transit Justice

Poor Leonard's Almanack

BOSS Community Organizing

The Anguish of Classism





May 2005

February 2005






Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

Eyes Wide Open: The Human Cost of War

by Lydia Gans

A vast field of empty combat boots at San Francisco City Hall offers an unforgettable image of the human costs of the war in Iraq. Photo by Lydia Gans

"It's never glorious when a person dies in battle. It's quite obscene and usually long and disgusting; and if you have to sit there with someone as they die, it's never pleasant. " -- Sean O'Neill, Iraq war veteran

On March 26, 2005, 1525 pairs of empty boots were arranged in orderly lines on the lawn at San Francisco's Civic Center Plaza and up the steps of City Hall. Each pair of boots bore the name of an American killed in the war in Iraq. Along the sides, a memorial wall and countless pairs of shoes represented Iraqis of all ages who have died in the war.

The exhibit, "Eyes Wide Open: The Human Cost of War," has been set up in more than 50 other U.S. cities. "Eyes Wide Open" is a project of the American Friends Service Committee, publisher of Street Spirit, and an organization committed to peace and community service.

A number of eloquent speakers who have experienced deep, painful losses due to the war spoke at the exhibit's opening. As they spoke, with lines of empty boots behind them, many listeners were profoundly moved -- to sadness, anger and a resolve to take action to end the war.

Sean O'Neill, a veteran of two tours of duty in Iraq, spoke of his friend who was killed in the war. "This is my chance to say something on behalf of these people who can no longer speak for themselves," said O'Neill. "These men and women are not martyrs. I'm sure the last words on their lips were not 'Iraqi freedom.' I'm sure with their last breath they didn't say 'America.' They just happened to be caught in circumstances beyond their control....

"It's never glorious when a person dies in battle. It's quite obscene and usually long and disgusting; and if you have to sit there with someone as they die, it's never pleasant. Upon witnessing such an event, I had to ask myself why: Why are we doing this? Is it worth it? Is it worth it for Fernando's son, who I served with, to bleed out on a road and we sit there and can't do anything about it?"

O'Neill spoke with bitterness. "It always seems that the death never resolves anything.... We forget about the dead. We forget about those with amputated limbs and amputated spirits. We forget our humanity."

Then he talked about his friend. "His name was Jeremy Bowman; he left a wife behind. He'd been married just a short time. But he'd be incredibly pissed off with me if I didn't try to end this on some kind of positive note. I think that they would want us to know that they didn't die in vain, that their sacrifice just wasn't completely pointless. Because, and I speak pretty much now for myself, because it taught me a lesson in clarity and humanity. It taught me not to forget, not to turn away."

Fernando Suarez lost his son in the war. He spoke with tightly controlled anger, as he described the loss of human life displayed for all to see at City Hall. As if reciting a litany, he said: "1525 empty boots, 1525 dreams destroyed here, 1525 fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers destroyed here, and thousands and thousands of children in Iraq lost to families.

"My grandson (does) not have a father today and hundreds and hundreds of children here in America don't have a father today because the war killed them. I demand your help, not for my son, not for these boys and girls. These boys and girls lost the opportunity. I demand your help for the other boys in Iraq today (to) come back home right now. End the occupation and bring them home right now." His voice was full of passion as he said: "It's immoral this war. It's criminal this war. Please, stop the war."

Nooshin Razani's brother was killed in Iraq. He was the first, but not the only, Iranian American to die in the war, she told the crowd. "He died a couple of weeks after we were told that he would be home," Razani said. "He'd completed two years of service in Korea; but, because of the stop loss law, his service was extended. My family was angry and confused that he was forced to stay in the army.

"He wanted to be with his buddies wherever and whenever they went. I admire and am very proud of him for his dedication and his loyalty; but I'm not proud of our society for its carelessness and how and why it sent him to die. I find no solace in the rhetoric that has been used to try to justify this war. I find the government used the purity and idealism that 9/11 created in my young brother to do exactly what it had planned to do before that event. I feel that our actions in the Middle East have strengthened extremism in the Middle East."

Razani told the gathering that it is now a political act just to remember clearly how and why the Iraq war was originally justified by the Bush administration.

She said, "I do believe in remembering what now, in and of itself, has become a political act. I remember that this war was justified with lies. I remember that there were no weapons of mass destruction and that Iraq was not involved in 9/11 -- despite new movies, new blockbusters, new videos diverting my memory away every moment. And I remember the hundred thousand Iraqis that have been killed despite the smiling pictures they show us on TV. I also remember that our country had a choice before getting involved in this conflict and I hold the people who made those choices responsible for that.

"And mostly I remember and I really miss the courage of a 19-year-old, my brother and the 1,524 others who stood next to him. It is in honor and respect of his courage that I demand of all of us and of our leaders the courage and creativity to seek peace and moderation as an alternative. I stand in front of you, someone who was born a Muslim, and I'm not an extremist. I want you to know there is Muslim blood on both sides of this war and the lines are not as clear as they would like you to believe."

Bill Mitchell's son Mike died in Iraq. We sat and talked after he made his formal speech at the City Hall event. Since his son died, Bill said, "The whole world has changed. There's not one day in my life that's the same. It's been a cosmic shift. I'm on a path."

He has taken the path of action, speaking out, even committing civil disobedience. Two years ago, he marched in opposition to the war, carrying a sign saying: "Bring my son home now." He has a picture of himself taken at that demonstration. "I had a black cloud over my head that day," Mitchell said. "Someone told me there was a cloud hanging over me. Two weeks later my son came home dead. He'd been in Iraq for 11 months."

Mitchell would have liked his son to go to college. But, he says, "A friend of his joined the military, and he went and talked to them and they sold him the adventure package. There's different spiels they give. They get most of the people with 'get your education,' or 'get you out of the barrio.' My son got the E-ticket ride (referring to the Disneyland adventure ride), the adventure package.

"I was in the army, spent three years, hated it. My son did well in the army. I was proud, and watched (my) son grow into a man. I had big plans for him coming home. Being married to Bianca. August 27 was (to be) their wedding day."

Since the death of his son, he has been out speaking whenever he can. It's hard, but it is important for him to keep doing it. "I've been out heavy the last two to three months," Mitchell said. "I crash and burn every few months; the crash and burns are shorter now. I feel better being out, talking to people, speaking about my son, speaking about what the real cost of this war is -- 200 million dollars. And 200 million dollars wouldn't bring Mike back. All the problems in America, the homeless, our educational system -- what the hell are we doing? My son didn't die to make a safer America. The sad thing is that I think we're breeding more terrorists."

People came to the exhibit for all sorts of reasons, and were touched in different ways. A group of 8th grade students from Marin County were there as part of a school assignment. Their English teacher, Jeff Mead, told me that they had been reading the book, All Quiet on the Western Front, about World War I.

"There is a part where one of the dying men doesn't want to give up his boots," Mead said. "I thought this would be a good opportunity to bring the literature to life with something that's really happening.... I brought the kids here so they could understand the human cost of war."
Mead had given the students a set of questions to answer. Francisco, one of the students, explained: "Questions about what the boots symbolize, what the men probably felt. Under the surface questions."

Allison, another student, said, "It's kind of depressing. You realize these boots used to have life in them. You realize how young the people are, like 19 and 20. You think about how their parents feel for them to have to live with it every day."

At the start of the event, there were a couple of hecklers, but they were quickly silenced. After the speeches, people walked around the massive field of empty boots, often bending down to touch a pair of boots, to read the name or description of the soldier they represented. Sometimes they left flowers or a token of remembrance on a particular pair of boots.

Parents with children sat on the grass and tried to explain what it all meant. They walked among the shoes placed for the Iraqi dead: sturdy work shoes, fancy dress shoes and tiny shoes for babies and children. They studied the panels of pictures of Americans and Iraqis, many unnamed, many just silhouettes.

Later they gathered for an interfaith service. Christian, Muslim, Jew, Quaker, Buddhist, they all spoke to the need for peace in this troubled world. The names of the American dead were read. As each name was spoken, a gong was struck. It took almost four hours to say them all.
As it grew dark, a lighted candle was placed next to each pair of boots on the City Hall steps. Candles to remember those lost in the war. Candles to be seen by Eyes Wide Open. Candles to light the way Beyond Fear -- Towards Hope.

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