Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Forgetting to Remember

In Chicago, Memorial Day smells like lighter fluid and charcoal. It sounds like squealing children splashing in the Crown Fountain. It feels like the weather gods’ grand apology for February.

It is not a time we like to think about dead people. But that’s how I spent part of my day.

The American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization, staged an anti-war exhibit in Grant Park yesterday. Pairs of combat boots were laid out, row after row, like so many leather headstones, one for each serviceman and woman killed in Iraq. More than 3,400 pairs of boots. In the center stood a memorial to Iraqi civilian casualties—piles of sandals and loafers, ballerina flats and high heels, and tiny shoes for toddlers. The concept was so simple, the effect was so powerful.

I went because I thought I should. I went because in the past week I have spent more time mourning the loss of Charlie on “Lost” than members of the American armed forces.

I didn’t know the people who wore these boots, but I cried for them anyway. I didn’t know any of the Iraqi civilians killed, either, but I cried for them too.

I walked among the boots, organized by state, and it reminded me of Gettysburg. All those tributes in stone to the fighting men of New York and Ohio and Illinois and Pennsylvania, and I couldn’t help but notice that in the current conflict, Kentucky appears to be shouldering a disproportionate share of the burden.

I walked among the boots and I read the tags attached to each pair—name, rank, age. I saw a lot of privates, but also a lot of sergeants and even a lieutenant colonel. And I debated which was sadder—the fallen 19-year-old, a life snuffed out before it really even started, or the fallen 55-year-old who likely left behind children and a spouse. And I decided both were equally rotten outcomes.

I walked among the boots and I was stopped by Rachel and Emily and Regina and Analaura. And I remembered that there was a time when politicians refused to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. True equality, they threatened, would mean women in combat, and once Americans started seeing women coming home in body bags, we would lose our resolve to wage war. Clearly our stomachs are made of sturdier stuff than they thought.

I walked among the boots and I wondered what 200,000 would look like—and I can scarcely imagine the tragedy of WWII or Darfur. I thought about war and wondered who came up with the concept, and why it continues to be an acceptable solution to conflict. And as much as I like to think that people are inherently good, the boots tell me otherwise.

It was a depressing experience. I guess that explains why I didn’t have much company—I counted maybe 50-100 fellow visitors to this temporary cemetery, fewer than you’d find lined up outside Garrett’s Popcorn on the city’s Magnificent Mile.

Because as much as Memorial Day is supposed to be about remembering, there are some things we would really rather forget.


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