As the marketing noise from the Republican National Convention dies down, I want to take a moment to remember a quieter message that was delivered during the gathering.
On the grounds of the state Capitol, rows of boots memorialized the ultimate price paid by more than 300 fighting men and women from five Midwestern states: Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, North Dakota and Illinois.
On green grass under a patchy blue sky, with the glorious golden horses of the Capitol dome as a backdrop, the display by the American Friends Service Committee was powerful and moving.
A few blocks away, downtown St. Paul was a mass of parties and protests, a gigantic exercise in political gamesmanship. But here among the ranks of polished, black boots, each bearing the name of a fallen soldier, was a reminder that the actions of our political system have real consequences. Some boots were decorated with flowers, small flags or stuffed animals; others stood alone, stark and shiny.
“A visual display sometimes speaks to people on a different level,” said Emily Knight of Minneapolis, who worked with the Friends’ Chicago office to coordinate the event. “I would say this is not a political message; it’s a silent witness for peace.”
I don’t doubt her sincerity, but I also don’t doubt that a message of peace has always been political, especially when the nation is not actually at peace.
The event also memorialized Iraqi civilian deaths with circles of ordinary shoes, again bearing names and ages of the dead. As the father of a young child, I found it especially heartbreaking to see a pair of tiny pink sneakers laid out in honor of a dead 1-year-old girl.
As the hour changed, Friends quietly read aloud the names of the fallen soldiers. Meanwhile, people filed silently past the “Gold Star boots.” Unlike the rows of boots on the grass – which were generic Army surplus items – the Gold Star boots were actually worn by fallen soldiers and donated by their families.
Battered, scuffed, caked with mud, their presence was a startling contrast to the polished, orderly display laid out in front of them. Moving as the main display was, the Gold Star boots and the personal mementos and messages accompanying them were a more searing reminder of the human cost of war.
During the convention, I saw every kind of event delivering every kind of message. But this is the one that’s stayed with me afterward.