What Can You Do With 8,000 Plastic Soldiers? 

Sallie Gratch hopes she can make people talk about the war.

Sallie Gratch was on a mission. She walked into Flowers Flowers, a floral shop in Evanston, gave a quick wave to the cashier, and made her way over to the tulips sitting in the storefront window. As she leaned in for a closer look she dipped into her purse and pulled out a two-inch green toy soldier, gun raised and at the ready, and planted it beside a flowerpot. She wandered around the store for a few more minutes, nonchalantly poking at the other plants, then sauntered back over to the window and quickly placed another soldier on the ledge.

Gratch, a 70-year-old retired social worker, leaves her house in Evanston each day with four or five Ziploc bags full of the little green men. On the base of each one is a label printed with the words bring me home. She leaves them wherever she goes--supermarkets, bookstores, coffee shops--and even gives away bags to friendly looking strangers. Gratch has gone through more than 8,000 of the toys since she started passing them out in September.

"These soldiers are an incredible bonding tool," she says. "In this world of ours where we all keep so closed to others, this provides an opening for people to begin to talk." One time, for example, she left a soldier in a restaurant in Coal City, Illinois. "The waitress picked it up," she says. "And I heard her go back and talk to some other people. She said, 'Will you look at this? What do you suppose they're talking about?' And they were figuring the whole thing out, and it really prompted a conversation. They weren't sure if this was the Iraq war--'Is there another war going on that we don't know about?' So it is about people stopping. It doesn't matter how they understand what it means."

The project was started in early 2005 by Merry Conway and Katt Lissard, members of a New York-based political action collective called Mouths Wide Open. "Lots of men have had a really strong response when they see [the soldiers], because it reminds them of being kids," says Conway. "It reminds them of when they loved soldiering, when they had all sorts of romantic notions about it. And you can see in their eyes this kind of shuddering, of flashes of the past meeting the present." The phrase "bring me home" is intended to be similarly resonant. "There could have been much more strong or literal messages," says Conway. "But we went for the one that was the most evocative, because we really thought that it opened conversation and would engage a relationship, rather than just 'I'm telling you what I think.'"

Gratch overheard Conway talking about the idea during a performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last March, and struck up a conversation with her to find out more. Back home she went to the collective's Web site, mouthswideopen.org, to order soldiers and download labels, but felt nervous about providing her credit card information online. She sent an e-mail saying she'd send a check instead but didn't hear back until the summer, when she got an apologetic reply from Conway, who promised to ship as many soldiers as she wanted, free of charge. Gratch asked for four gross--that's 576--and soon began leaving them everywhere.

Political activism was nothing new to Gratch. She'd been involved in the nuclear disarmament movement in the 80s, participating in cross-country marches in both the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and was arrested twice for trespassing on government property while demonstrating against nuclear testing in Mercury, Nevada. She's also the founder of Project Kesher, a nonprofit devoted to issues like domestic violence, sex trafficking, and women's political involvement in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, and Georgia. But the soldiers had a more immediate appeal. "Sometimes these global things make you feel like you're just all about ideas, and not about really doing," she says. "And these little soldiers gave me something to really do."

When she'd run through that initial shipment Gratch took matters into her own hands. "I thought, this is crazy, I can get them here," she says. "So I went around to all the toy stores and I said, 'Who supplies your toy soldiers? Let me get in touch with them.' And here I am, a social worker. What am I getting obsessed with these toy soldiers for?" Toys Etc. in Evanston put her in touch with their supplier, Best Toys in Lisle, and she called them to ask for a free sample. "I didn't want to get a bunch of strange-looking soldiers," she says. "Merry's group had a soldier lying down, and there was no place to put the label. Such detail! That's when you know you're going a little crazy." Gratch eventually ordered 12 gross, then another 40--nearly 7,500 toy soldiers altogether, at a total cost of $90.

Hoping to get the new shipment ready for the High Holidays, Gratch went to her synagogue, the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, and asked for help with the labeling and bagging. By Rosh Hashanah she and a team of 40 had put together about 600 bags. "Wshht--they all went like that," says Gratch. "It was amazing, just amazing." A man at the synagogue told his wife, an editor at WBEZ, about the project, and in November Gratch was profiled by Chicago Public Radio reporter Catrin Einhorn. Later that month she was featured on NPR's Day to Day. After the broadcast, she says, her e-mail in-box was flooded with sympathetic messages from across the country. "Some of the e-mails drove me to tears," she says, "because it was people expressing how they finally could do something." Some had even begun constructing their own versions of the soldiers. "They were making their own labels, my god!" she exclaims. "Handwriting them. They didn't think of the sticky stuff. And they were stapling them to little soldiers. But what it demonstrated was the determination people had out there to bring the troops home, to stop this craziness."

Gratch has just ordered another 40 gross for "An Afternoon to Wage Peace," which will be held Sunday at her synagogue in Evanston and is sponsored by the North Shore Antiwar Coalition. She plans to fill a tin bucket with 2,500 unlabeled soldiers as a symbol of the number of coalition troops who've died in Iraq. She did have to go through a new supplier, Oriental Trading Company, for this batch because she and Conway had both been told their previous outlets had run out. At one point they began to suspect that some cabal was sabotaging their efforts. "We actually got a little paranoid for a while there," Gratch says.

Handing out soldiers is "the gentlest kind of peace activism" Gratch says she's ever done, but she thinks that's the key to its effectiveness. One of her friends, Happie Datt, says she thought going to war was the wrong choice, but doesn't consider herself the type to "get up on rooftops and shout out how you feel about things." So Gratch encouraged her to take a bag and try leaving a soldier someplace. Soon after, while out shopping with her daughter, Datt decided to do just that. "We were at Banana Republic or J. Crew or one of those stores," she says. "So when it came time to sign out, I took a soldier and I put it on the counter. I felt very brave doing it."

"Probably two weeks later I got an e-mail from her," says Gratch. "She was excited. She felt like she had broken down this wall, and she was now able to say, 'I've done my first antiwar action.' And she was empowered."

An Afternoon to Wage Peace

When: Sun 1/29, 2-5 PM

Where: Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, 303 Dodge, Evanston

Info: nsawc.org

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Stephen J. Serio.


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