"Confusion, Concern, and Commitment"
When Brad first asked me to speak at this vigil, I felt profound confusion on several levels. The more my head searched for words suitable for the meditative and respectful tone of this occasion, the more the old words obsessed and confused me: "Mission Accomplished!" "Slam-Dunk evidence" - "We do not torture" - "We don’t cut and run!" - "United we stand!"
Patriotic sound-bites like these are often hot, heroic chants that would simplify everything, constraining us not to think too carefully about war’s complexities and consequences. Perhaps the old words that try to justify war have worn ruts in your brain as they have in mine, and perhaps you are similarly confused by their contradictions, confused about where the words that promote war have taken us, and confused about what you – personally - can do about it.
My confusion quickly dropped from my head into my guts. I recalled that coffins returning from war zones still cannot be legally photographed. I recalled that "the Decider" has yet to attend a single funeral or memorial service for those his orders have brought to death. Nor have I seen tears on the cheeks of any of those who engineered this chaos: Tears, rather, pour from persons who knew and loved the real-life women and men whom these ghostly boots represent.
Knowing that, at the very least, I had to open my eyes and look - even though it was acutely painful to do so - I finally turned my focus toward the boots themselves. Again, the rising and press of uncomfortable feelings: Looking at them, I feel like a voyeur staring at something unspeakably personal. I feel ashamed, humbled, guilty, and awed. The ferocity of these feelings now drives my focus further inward.
How appropriate, that the image that confronts us here is of boots: the closest-to-the-earth piece of clothing that anyone wears. Not belts, not military uniforms, not badges, war medals, or helmets – but boots: silent and empty, still in formation, waiting here for you and me to open our eyes -- indeed, to open our souls -- wide enough to see them.
How desperately I wished I could distance myself from this image! I wanted to walk on the other side of the street. – My soul wanted to distance itself from the image of these boots and everything their silence is shouting! But something about the boots compels us to move closer yet. So, I visited an Internet gallery that features military casualties of the wars.
You can do this too: there are lots of easily accessible websites dedicated to this. We are not allowed to see pictures of their flag-draped coffins arriving from overseas, but one can see their individual photos, read their obituaries from their hometown newspapers, and learn details about how they lived and how they died. So, I did that for every one of these 179 men and women.
One of the four Ohio women was a twenty-year-old diabetic serving in Afghanistan. Her diabetes flared up, so she was moved to a hospital in Germany, and there she died of her disease. Two more Ohio soldiers drowned in the Tigris River in Baghdad. Another presumably drowned in the bay at Guantanamo. He had been a prison guard there before the invasion of Iraq. In 2002 he took off his guard’s uniform and laid all of his military effects on the beach. Then he disappeared - perhaps he walked off into the ocean - no one knows. The Pentagon declared him dead a month later, still missing. Makeshift bombs and small-arms fire killed the vast majority of the others. Over half were under twenty-five years of age. There are three times as many twenty-one year olds as there are soldiers in any other age group. The youngest was eighteen; the oldest, fifty-four.
The image of the boots invites us, and points us, and gives us a way of going into a soul-space that I found almost unbearably painful to visit. The boots enable us to enter an awareness of what’s actually happening without altogether losing ourselves in the confusion and the pain of it all. The boots hold things in suspension for us - long enough for us to take a good long look at ourselves, and at what the administration is doing in our names, with our money, and to the lives of our loved ones and neighbors – As ethical beings and responsible citizens, we must now ask ourselves the same questions that the boots ask: "Where is all of this going?" "How will it all end?" "What are you doing about it?"
Your answers to those questions - when you find them within yourself - will differ from my answers and most likely differ somewhat from everyone else’s answers. It is not the function of this talk, nor the purpose of this exhibit, to give you answers or to promote some tidy, clear-cut, and uniform response. We only want to open your eyes. What you - specifically and individually - must do, will be made known to you from the inside out. If, in the days and weeks ahead, you hold the image of these boots in your soul, I believe that image will change your life.
As for myself, I am compelled by conscience to oppose war; I have been a pacifist since I registered for the draft almost fifty years ago. I also protest the war in Iraq on a regular basis – on the first Friday of every month, right here on this sidewalk. I also withhold taxes that would assist this administration’s military aggression. Wherever people feel that violence is the only answer, I try to persuade them to consider peaceful alternatives. Wherever I can, I put my body between the warriors to give them a chance - a little time, a little space - to find a better way to resolve the conflict.
I began by saying that I was confused - and to a large extent I still am confused. Frankly, I feel that confusion can be a good thing if it causes us to pause awhile, step out of our regular routines, and ponder things more carefully. I feel that it is both arrogant and foolish to rush into war with slam-dunk certainty. But my methods are not your methods. That is democracy’s genius: We do not all march in one direction to the orders of the king. We open our eyes individually, try to inform ourselves about what’s going on, make our individual choices and commitments, and take action. Thus do well-functioning democracies correct and improve themselves: from the inside out and from the bottom up.
During these confusing times when extremists of Certainty -- whatever their nation or religion -- would have us marching in lock step, it is good to recall the immeasurable value of each unique person and the blessings that diversity brings. It is good to keep our eyes wide open, our minds well informed, and our souls free and receptive to change.
The boots remind us of the goodness of such things.
Tom Kirdas, October 27, 2007
Pickaway County Courthouse, Circleville, Ohio