Thursday, June 2, 2011

Eyes Wide Open Exhibit Revisited

Five years ago, I wrote an editorial for a university newspaper expressing my disapproval for the "Eyes Wide Open" exhibit sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).

Have you ever seen it?


Basically, the American Friends Service Committee is a Quaker organization that works to promote social justice, peace, and humanitarian service.  They have done many important things since their inception in 1917 including establishing economic development programs in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, providing support to the U.S Civil Rights Movement, and providing aid in both World Wars and Vietnam.  In 1947, along with the British Quakers, they received a Nobel Peace Prize for their work.

The American Friends Service Committee is fundamentally opposed to conflict and has been against every war since its inception in 1917.  They have consistently vocalized their disapproval of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and have called for immediate withdrawal since they began.

Here is what I wrote about their exhibit (Eyes Wide Open):


As I walked towards the Tisch Library last Wednesday, I passed by a group of individuals handing out flyers about the war in Iraq. They had signs up proclaiming that too much money has been wasted and too many lives have been lost overseas because of the war. I was continuing to make my way up the steps when I noticed a large number of combat boots lined up in a seeming attempt at a "memorial" for fallen soldiers. The sign underneath read, "Eyes Wide Open: An Exhibition on the Human Cost of the Iraq War." 

As a girlfriend of an Iraq war veteran, I was curious. Upon closer inspection, I realized that attached to the boots were tags containing the names and towns of several fallen soldiers from New England. 

My heart sank. 

At first, I thought that it would be best not to voice my opinion, and I attempted to walk by; but as I passed, I was solicited to take a flyer. My polite "no thank you," however, was received with a sarcastic sneer. I took a few steps further and decided that this was not a time to remain silent. 

There are ways to be against the war in Iraq and continue to support our troops, and unfortunately, this exhibit was not an example of this behavior. Instead, the group took the names of soldiers and placed them in their exhibit without first obtaining consent to do so. 

This was clearly an anti-war protest masquerading as a memorial for those who had lost their lives. It put on the show of honoring the fallen soldiers by placing their boots in a row and listing their names. 

However, these soldiers were brave and honorable men and women who traveled across the world from their loved ones and sacrificed their lives for a cause that they felt was just and for reasons that are inalienably personal. It is disrespectful to use their names - especially in the context of their deaths - to propagate a viewpoint that may not have been their own. 

To use their names as an argument for troop withdrawal and to support the idea that the war is wrong only serves to say that they died for nothing. This behavior does not honor the troops, but in fact dishonors what they stood for, fought for and for which they ultimately lost their lives. Regardless of your opinion on the war, it is not right to use another person's name to further your cause without his or her expressed consent. The fact that an individual is dead does not give free reign on their identity. 

When I approached the individual at the "memorial" and asked whether they had gotten consent from every family member to allow the names to appear in their exhibit, I felt I was received with a less-than-friendly attitude. As I expressed my concerns and the offense that I had taken, the individual stared off into space and said, "Well, I stand by it, because it humanizes the exhibit." 

Yes, of course it humanizes the exhibit - I will not argue with that. But then maybe we should include the brutal stories of their deaths, because that would humanize the exhibit even more. Or perhaps we should show videotapes of their funerals or, better yet, maybe we should just put up pictures of their bodies. That would make for an especially humanized effect. 

The protestors used the soldiers, through the combat boots, as mere props and all but admitted that they were dramatizing their exhibit to express their views. When I asked the individual how he felt about the fact that many of the fallen soldiers would explicitly disagree with his views and may not appreciate their deaths being used as an argument for them, his response was that, "I'm pretty sure a lot of families of these soldiers would agree with me at this point." 

I was not aware that one opinion of the war could be extended to represent the opinion of another person and voicing it for them. Apparently, these individuals felt that they had the right to do that.

The "Eyes Wide Open" exhibit is a national traveling group that visits areas across the country. It is run by an organization called the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), which promotes the philosophy that there should be an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Interestingly, the "Contributors" page on the Web site for the exhibit makes no mention of the fallen soldiers - the very people that they are using to express their views. The Web site also claims that the exhibit "features a pair of boots honoring each U.S. casualty … This traveling exhibit is a memorial to those who have fallen and a witness to our belief that no war can justify its human cost." 

I called the AFSC, and they confirmed for me that they do not ask permission of families before displaying names in their exhibit. They also admitted that some families have expressed disapproval about the nametags. However, the AFSC representative said, if family members are opposed to the naming of their loved one, they can file paperwork and have it removed. 

This is not an acceptable solution. Everybody deserves the right to control where his or her name is placed before it appears alongside a political message. Relying on families to hear about the exhibit, visit and file paperwork to remove the name is the wrong way to obtain consent. 

The organization asserts that it is not a protest, but instead, it is a place for "people to come and mourn those who have been lost." This exhibit was far from a memorial for the casualties of the war. 

A war memorial is a time to honor the individuals who sacrificed their lives. It is a time to stand up and applaud their efforts and remember how much they cared and how much they gave. It is not a time to list names as statistics to further a personal agenda, and it is certainly not a time to assert that their sacrifices were not worth anything - to say that their deaths were not justified. 

If you do not believe that their acts were brave or that their efforts are worthy of applause, then do not demean their deaths by using their names without their permission. I am not arguing for or against the political messages of this group, but am instead arguing against their acts of personal infringement. This is not an issue of the situation in Iraq and what actions need to be taken regarding this matter: It is an issue of respecting others for their opinions and their actions. 

An unpopular war is not an excuse to disrespect the lives it has claimed. It is time to truly honor the fallen. 

Take the names off the boots. 


Do you agree with what I wrote five years ago?  
Do you think writing the names is disrespectful or do you think it is acceptable and within their right? 
Is this a memorial, a protest, or both?  

I would love to hear your thoughts.  Opposing views are welcome just please keep it friendly.


  1. I had no idea that even existed. And, of course, I completely agree with you. I can't believe an organization would care so little about the soldiers who died that they would use their names and sacrifices to benefit their agendas. Absolutely disgusting. I'm really glad you posted this.

  2. I also agree with you. My "eyes wide open" moment was when the hubs (then boyfriend) was about to deploy to Iraq back in '07. I was not supportive of our efforts in Iraq and was vocalizing my sympathies with his lot in life that he had to go back for tour #3. He quickly let me know that although deployment was not going to be "fun", he wanted to go. This is his job. He likes his job. He trains for this job. If he never deployed "it would be like going to practice every day and never getting to pitch in the big game." He may have not fully supported the politics behind invading Iraq, but he was 100% behind the mission and seeing it to completion. He strove to be a part of the solution in a sticky situation.
    This groups assumes the fallen are victims. The fallen are indeed fatalities of war, but they aren't necessarily victims unless a person or group victimizes them. What a huge disservice.

  3. I can't help but agree with you. I wrote a senior thesis on art being used to provide social awareness to war, but I found so many "eye opening" exhibits created by veterans. I think you are so right that they are using these fallen soldiers names as a way to sensationalize their exhibit. Luckily, I feel the great thing about art is that every viewer can take something different from it. Hopefully, this will remind people of all those who sacrifice for us. *but I still believe the proper way to go about this would have been to seek permission from the families first. {it would have made their argument much stronger too, so maybe I'm glad that they left such a topic of contention}

  4. Kendra/the Queen of Brussels SproutsJune 3, 2011 at 1:53 PM

    When I am approaced by people of that opinion, I say, "My husband willingly does his job as a soldier so that you have the right to complain about it. Without soldiers, you wouldn't be allowed to have an opinion."

  5. I agree with you! Thank you for sharing this post and your editorial. I agree with Kendra's comment ...and have said the same about "...without the brave men and women in uniform and the duties that they are hold responsible for...those protesting would not even have the freedoms!"
    Thanking all those that are serving!

    Blessings & Aloha!
    ...catching up on some blog reading and visiting those on this week's Mil Spouse Weekly Roundup...last week was busy, so didnt even manage to get my "one post a week" post up last week. ...Happy to be here and to meet you!

    My hubby is retired Army pilot (but was also an Air Force firefighter/EMT/space shuttle rescueman), dad is retired Air Force, brother is active duty Navy...and we have many more other family in the military.

    Also read that you and your hubby are in the medical field :o) Our daughter is a dentist, her hubby is a physician, other daughter is a dental student...our son is an undergrad, and has not decided 100%, but is interested also in the military or working with underprivileged children.

  6. Totally agree with you! Great article that you wrote. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Thanks for posting this. I am in absolute agreement with you. It's extremely disrespectful to use those soldiers' names without permission- especially when it's not a memorial but merely a guise, a tool by which they can spread their anti-war message. Fine if you want to be anti-war, but don't cheapen those soldiers' lives by using them like puppets.

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