As a novelist, it is my job-my sacred duty, really--to slip inside the shoes, inside the skins, of my characters. The most beautiful thing about a story, whether fictional or true--at least in my mind--is how it allows us to see the world through other eyes and discover that the Other is not so other after all. This can't help but increase our capacity for compassion, for connection. A character in my forthcoming novel, Self Storage, wears a burqa; I am hoping her presence in the story will help humanize women from Afghanistan who choose to remain veiled. In this time of increasing intolerance, of an overriding Us against Them mentality, I think it's important to remember that we're all Us; we all share a common humanity, whether we live in Washington, DC or Baghdad or anywhere else on the globe.
This is why I am so moved by "Walk in Their Shoes", the latest campaign from CODEPINK: Women for Peace (full disclosure-I am on the staff of CODEPINK, but did not help organize Walk in Their Shoes.) This national campaign was inspired by the actions of CODEPINK New York, who set over one hundred pairs of children's shoes, each standing for a particular Iraqi child killed during the current war, in front of Hillary Clinton's Manhattan office. This powerful visual display-which of course represents only a tiny percentage of actual civilian deaths in Iraq-forced passers-by (and hopefully Hillary
herself) to confront the true human cost of war.
Since then, CODEPINK has staged Walk in Their Shoes actions outside a fundraiser for George Allen, presided over by George W. Bush, in Richmond, VA, and on the doorstep of the senatorial debate between Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont in New London, CT. Passers-by in both places were moved to donate hundreds of pairs of shoes, to label each pair with the name and age of a woman or child killed in Iraq, to bear witness to the unspeakable pain this war has unleashed on the Iraqi people.
It is easy for politicians and media outlets to portray Iraqi causalities as numbers on a page, as faceless, nameless "collateral damage", far removed from any true suffering. But when you see a worn pair of shoes, you can't help but think of the feet that once pulsed inside. The body connected to those feet. The heart and mind and voice connected to that body. The person's whole rich and complicated life, now silenced. You wonder if that person had blisters, or chipped nail polish, or pinched toes; you wonder if their soles ached, if they danced, if they ran through grass barefoot. If their feet were ever clasped in a gesture of love. You wonder about the fear they must have felt when the bombs started to fall. You wonder if they tried to outrun the destruction. You wonder about the pain that ripped through them when their flesh was pierced by shrapnel, when the walls began to fall. You wonder about the unbearable grief the surviving family members grapple with still. You wonder how we ever could have started such a tragic and unnecessary war.
We need to keep the human cost of war visible; we can't give our elected officials the luxury of looking away. Walk in Their Shoes displays are now being planned across the country. To find out more about the campaign, and to organize a Walk in the Shoes action in your own community, please visit http://www.codepink4peace.org.
Gayle Brandeis is the author of The Book of Dead Birds: A Novel, which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change. Her latest novel, Self Storage, will be published January, 2007.