On Native Ground
BOOTS AND FLAGS
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Driving down Avenue A, the main drag in the Massachusetts village of Turners Falls, it's hard to miss the flags.
Fanned out behind the village's war memorial are more than 900 flags, one for each soldier who has been killed in Iraq. Right beside the plaques honoring those who served in World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam is a sign keeping a running total of the number of killed and wounded in Iraq.
Each morning, Turners Falls Veterans Affairs agent Leo Parent checks the latest casualty figures, goes down to the memorial and updates the numbers on the sign.
Parent told The Boston Globe last month that it was the Pentagon's policy of censoring pictures of the dead returning from Iraq that prompted him to set up this memorial - not as a protest, but a graphic reminder of the human cost of the war.
Another powerful graphic reminder of the war is the "Eyes Wide Open" exhibit sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). It has traveled the country showing perhaps the starkest symbol of the hundreds of Americans and thousands of Iraqis that have died in the past 18 months - rows of empty combat boots, representing all the dead soldiers, and piles of empty sneakers and shoes, representing the Iraqi civilians who have been killed.
The AFSC display was in Turners Falls on Aug. 4, and Parent helped to bring it there. The following week, it was set up in Brattleboro, Vt. This week, it is on the lawn of the Statehouse in Montpelier, Vt. It was at the Democratic National Convention in Boston last month and will be in New York at the end of this month for the Republican National Convention.
Each of the combat boots has the name of an American soldier killed in Iraq. Some of the boots belonged to those who died, donated to the exhibit by their families.
"It hits me hardest when I'm putting the boots back in the plastic containers that they travel in," Joseph Gainza, a member of the Vermont chapter of the AFSC, told the Brattleboro Reformer. "I look at their names and ages as I put them in and it feels like I am burying them."
Every week, more flags are put up in Turners Falls and more boots are added to the "Eyes Wide Open" exhibit. Every week, the toll of dead and wounded keeps rising. Every week, we are no closer to the end of a nightmarish war that didn't have to happen and doesn't need to continue.
The blood of the dead and wounded stand as an emphatic rebuke to every politician that signed off on the invasion of Iraq. The arguments for the war have been exposed as lies. The arguments for continuing the occupation of Iraq ring hollow. And every day that U.S. forces remain in Iraq is a day too long.
I am sick of hearing President Bush try to justify the Iraq war. I am sick of hearing John Kerry try to nuance his way around his support of the war. And most of all, I am sick of seeing the list of the dead grow longer.
The Bush administration has worked hard to hide the true cost of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The Pentagon flies the dead and maimed home in secret, under cover of darkness. No one is supposed to know their names and their faces.
But in the little towns around America, the places where most of the dead soldiers grew up, they know. All the spin in the world can't change the reality that wars have costs and that the architects of the wars rarely pay them.
That's why we need exhibits like "Eyes Wide Open" to remind us. That's why we need memorials like the ever-growing rows of flags on Avenue A in Turners Falls. We need to know.
And even more important than knowing, we need to act and hold accountable everyone associated with this needless and obscene war. The print and broadcast media outlets that parroted the multitude of lies told by the Bush administration but were too lazy or afraid to challenge those statements until well after the fact. The senators and congressmen who were too worried about being re-elected to stop President Bush's mindless rush to war. The scheming men in the White House who avoided combat when it was their turn to fight, but blithely sent off the sons and daughters of the unconnected and unprivileged to die in battle. The war profiteers getting rich off the occupation of Iraq.
Every last person connected with this obscene war needs to pay for the mistakes that have been made and the lives that have been lost.
It's time to stop adding boots and flags to memorials.
It's time to get our troops out of Iraq.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.