In 2004, casualties from the Iraq War kept rising, but because returning coffins could not be filmed, the human toll of the war was hidden. Michael McConnell, AFSC regional director in Chicago, believed that making these losses visible would change opinions about the war.

In late January, AFSC staff and volunteers placed 504 pairs of empty combat boots on the Federal Plaza in Chicago, each pair representing a U.S. life lost. They attracted national attention and the Eyes Wide Open exhibit was born.

During the July 4th weekend that year, the boots were displayed on Independence Mall in Philadelphia, joined by 1,000 pairs of shoes to represent a tiny portion of Iraqi deaths. Nearly 20,000 people came to look, grieve, and think. For the next four years, Eyes Wide Open grew and travelled to almost every state in the country. Thousands of volunteers participated in the complex setup and breakdown. As relatives of the deceased added notes and memorabilia to the boots, the exhibit became an intensely moving memorial where people of all political outlooks could share their grief and frustration with the war.

In 2007, having grown to over 4,500 pairs of boots, Eyes Wide Open was divided into 48 individual state exhibits. These were displayed by volunteers for many more years—a dramatic reminder of the cost of war.

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  • Holding a pair of boots, a man speaks into a microphone with a banner in front of him.
    Michael McConnell, the visionary behind Eyes Wide Open, introduced the exhibit to Philadelphia in July 2004. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq had begun in March 2003 and casualties were already well over 500.
  • Woman squats next to many pairs of civilian shoes lined up outside.
    Accompanying the boots, 1,000 pairs of civilian shoes represented the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi casualties.
  • Woman comforts another woman as she speaks into a microphone in front of lines of boots.
    Family members often shared the task of reading the name, age, and hometown of each person represented by a pair of boots. Readers alternated between U.S. names and documented names of Iraqis who had perished.
  • Man wearing military uniform walks among rows of boots.
    A young serviceman surveys the exhibit in Orlando, Florida, in October 2004. Many in the military came to honor friends or colleagues who had been killed.
  • Pairs of boots with photos of servicemen, flowers, and documents.
    Some families turned the boots into highly personal memorials, adding biographies, favorite objects, flowers, medals, and flags. This allowed Eyes Wide Open to communicate both the mass impact and wrenching individual losses of war.
  • Magazine spread featuring lines of boots in front of a statue.
    Eyes Wide Open attracted not just local but also national media attention. This spread in People magazine shows the Indianapolis Soldiers and Sailors Monument on September 11, 2004, with 1,014 pairs of empty boots.
  • People work with boots and tubs to make precise rows and columns.
    Scores of volunteers unpacked, set up, watched over, and repacked the ever-expanding exhibit. They used precise measurements to create the meticulous rows of boots.
  • Man speaks into microphone at a podium outside in front of many rows of boots.
    Eyes Wide Open gave participants a constructive outlet for their sorrow and anger. Here, Fernando Suarez del Solar— whose son Jesus was one of the first U.S. servicemen killed in Iraq— tells his story.
  • Lines of boots fill the street outside the Lorraine Motel.
    In Memphis, Tennessee, Eyes Wide Open surrounded the perimeter of the Lorraine Motel, site of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and now part of the National Civil Rights Museum.
  • Lines of boots fill the steps up to a columned building.
    By the time the exhibit reached Washington, D.C., in January 2005, the boots covered the steps of the National City Christian Church and the pews inside.
  • Young adults, one in a uniform, walk past rows of boots.
    Eyes Wide Open visited Villanova University in March 2007, when U.S. casualties numbered 3,214. The strong ROTC presence on campus brought cadets in daily contact with row upon row of empty boots.
  • Person holding a bike kneels near a pair of boots to read something.
    While thousands of people planned their visits to Eyes Wide Open, many passersby were also drawn into intense contemplation.
  • People examine a display while two women embrace in front of it.
    In 2007, we added a photo and story exhibit called “Dreams and Nightmares” to the traveling display. This more fully depicted the realities of life and death in Iraq.
  • Collections of civilian shoes fill the space in front of large photos of Iraqis who had been killed in the war.
    With large images and short biographies, “Dreams and Nightmares” helped acquaint viewers with some of the 600,000 Iraqis who had been killed in the U.S.-led war and occupation.
  • Three men stand next to each other at an outside fair.
    At the last staging of Eyes Wide Open in Chicago over Memorial Day, 2007, road manager Mark Anderson (left) joins Illinois’ 7th District Representative Daniel Davis (center) and AFSC’s Michael McConnell.