Monday, August 29, 2005

These boots on the ground are made for stompin'

Interviewed by Hugh Hewitt last Friday, The Beltway Boys, (Mort Kondracke and Fred Barnes) joined the chorus many of us have been singing ever since the looting broke out in Baghdad (April 2003) : the number of troops in Iraq is too small to do the job.

The President says that the generals will have everything they need, if they ask for it, and they haven't asked for it. Our military are "make do" people. They work on the needs of the next minute, with no whining about hearts’ desires (especially if they detect insufficient will up the chain of command to deliver the goods). When Secretary Rumsfeld (who was asked for 250,000 troops to invade Iraq, and counter-offered 100,000) is the man who has the President’s ear, the generals hunker down with resources at hand. They know that Rumsfeld is focused on a weapons-based “transformation” of the military, and they’re too busy to go begging.

But we can read between the lines.

Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Michael W. Hagee, in July’s Leatherneck magazine: "Although we are getting weapons systems, the focus is on the Marine. We want the individual Marine to be properly educated, trained and also fully equipped, not just with large platforms... In many ways, education is more transformational than some of the new equipment... In the last two years, we have sent 4,000 Marines to foreign language courses... we are putting Marines through a series of classes in Arabic culture and Islamic religion before they rotate... something we have never seen before.”

Smart guys in big boots—the more the better. This is not some “theory of 21st-century warfare”—this is reality. Rummy and Bush need to get with the program.
Flag-draped coffins -- full or empty, what's the diff?

Ann Scott Tyson reported in The Washington Post of August 5 that a lawsuit had forced the Pentagon to release more new pictures of flag-draped coffins being unloaded at Dover Air Force Base, under provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. The suit was dropped when the Pentagon caved, and released hundreds of photographs of identical boxes covered by identical flags for publication. The original suit had been filed in October 2004 by University of Delaware Professor Ralph Begleiter. (The professor is, in fact, a former CNN correspondent, age 71, now enjoying a comfortable retirement posting as a media egghead.)

"The decision was called a victory for open government by the National Security Archive, a nongovernmental research group that helped the litigation," writes Tyson. The National Security Archive describes itself as "an independent non-governmental research institute and library located at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C." ( Sounds all very intellectual and respectable, I'm sure, but the donor list is revealing: a number of the usual suspects (Ford, Rockefeller, Hewlett, Carnegie, Time, New York Times, Washington Post), joined by such illustrious philanthropists as Mike Farrell, the Streisand Foundation, and George Soros's Open Society Institute.

Can anyone explain exactly what about the sight of identical coffins with identical flags constitutes "information"? When every single mainstream media outfit has nothing, absolutely nothing to report about what is going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, beyond the numbers of military personnel killed or wounded on any given day, what information is revealed by an image of anonymous coffins which we could not obtain by adding together the anonymous numbers repeated and republished at every opportunity?

Pictures of coffins convey no information -- zero -- about the conduct of the war on terrorism. One of the reasons we can be sure of this is that anti-war protestors often carry fake (but accurate!) coffins when they march, sometimes dozens of them stretching down most of a city block, and the effect is very much the same as the Dover pictures: we think, in the abstract, about numbers of our youth whose lives have been ended prematurely and violently. We confront the reality of numbers. We are shaken by the image. But we reduce the individuals-- their lives, their deeds, their dreams and ambitions-- to symbols. The sight of an airplane-bellyfull of filled coffins and a block-long parade of empty coffins is equally chilling. IT IS TECHNICALLY IMPOSSIBLE FOR THE OUTSIDE OBSERVER TO KNOW WHETHER THERE IS ANYONE INSIDE THE BOX OR NOT-- THERE IS NO "INFORMATION" HERE. NONE.

This also has NOTHING whatever to do with "open government." If the government of the United States were not open regarding the human cost of war, our military cemeteries would not be open to the public, where we can read every name on every marker, the place that he or she died, and at what age (now that's information).

Nor would our military hospitals welcome visitors who are not relatives of a patient-- whereas, in fact, people of good will who come to talk to wounded veterans, help them write letters, and deliver care packages of books, snacks, or grooming needs are active and much-appreciated hospital volunteers.

Nor would our military academies celebrate their students with annual gala dinners where decorated, even wounded veterans are welcome to mingle with fresh-faced collegians-- like the young Marine Lance Corporal who came to the Christmas ball in Houston, where we could all see him dance with one arm around his girlfriend and the other hanging limply at his side, and the shrapnel wounds around his head still visible as he complied with the mandatory removal of his cover. Nobody told him to stay away and not break the illusion. And the 180 service academy students of the Houston area every year bring with them a thousand family members. Likewise, those 140,000 troops in Iraq represent at least a million people whose hearts are in their mouths with every news report. You can't hide this, and nobody's trying to. Just because Professor Begleiter is short on information doesn't mean the rest of the country is so ill-informed. Nor will any of us, including the professor, be better informed for having seen hundreds of identical coffins draped with identical flags.

I tried to explain this on talk radio once. I figured a radio host in Toronto was not likely to have too many parents of American military in his listening audience, as he opined effusively about the outrage of the Pentagon wishing to deny public viewing of the Dover coffin delivery. My call was put through to him, and as a Marine mom I tried to provide the perspective of one with a special interest in the respectful treatment of military casualties. It was, and remains, my opinion that the desire to see and photograph these massed coffins is ghoulish-- that there could be nothing more dehumanizing or anonymous or sanitized than identical boxes of the dead.

My host took precisely the opposite view: that seeing all those coffins somehow made the humanity of the dead more obvious. (Someone 'splain that to me...) He launched into a diatribe to this effect and cut me off without any opportunity to respond. When I turned up the volume on the radio he was mocking me by name, as if I were some kind of mindless sentimentalist. I burst into tears, turned the radio off, and have never listened to this man again. It's too bad-- on the whole he's fairly sane, as these people go (for Canada, anyway). But I would never have imagined that someone speaking from my perspective could be so publicly abused. [Let's not let him off the hook-- his name is Bill Carroll, and he works for CFRB 1010 in Toronto.]

We have recently learned of another outrage involving the mock coffin, being enacted on the street in front of Walter Reed Hospital by a mob called "Code Pink"-- some sort of deeply loopy female anti-war organization (anti-everything-- read their website Actually, "deeply loopy" doesn't cover it. We now know they are vicious, callous vipers who parade themselves before our wounded soldiers and their families, with the clear message that their sacrifices have been worthless-- that they are stupid suckers who have suffered for nothing. The soldiers, of course, are not stupid, which is why they know that the CodePinkies are ignorant and deranged. But their wounds are salted and riven deeper to think that any of their fellow-citizens hold them in such contempt, and they must grieve to wonder just how widespread this contempt may be.

The carriers of empty symbol coffins, and the ghouls who compel the Pentagon's assistance in satiating their prurient desire to gape at boxes of nameless dead people, are brethren of the same tribe. They possess a sublime arrogance by which they deem themselves the only people capable of perceiving the reality of our war dead-- the rest of us are too dense, we cannot conceive of anything not graphically illustrated, we cannot do the math on the cost of war without a red-white-and-blue workbook sheet and a big yellow pencil to cross out the markers one by one. It is the classic pose of the left which makes itself evident again and again every day: we are stupid; they are not.

Of course, it isn't about math. It's about families-- hundreds of people gathered around one single coffin, with a photograph of a real human being on top of it as he is sung to sleep by a church choir or offered Kaddish by his rabbi; remembered by her friends; mirrored in his children. That is real information, and it is not the property of strangers.

So to those who see in images of our fallen heroes "information" or parade props, I have a very few words: go to hell.

If the information you seek is a number-- the answer to the question "how many have died?"-- you can find it elsewhere. In fact, you can hardly escape it. If you sincerely want to illustrate the human cost of war, you would do better to mount a show of pictures of our soldiers' ravaged corpses, limbs broken, bloodied bandages—that at least is a picture of real human life. Deeply humane war photographers like Matthew Brady began this tradition, where pictures tell about truth. But our modern journalist/statisticians haven’t the guts to tell that story, the one that makes the dead man an identifiable human being, an individual who made a conscious choice to put himself in the enemy's gunsites. The desire to see massed identical coffins, and to have them be seen, is sick and hateful. So take your abacus, and go to hell.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Another Vietnam? In one respect (only), not such a bad thing.

"Iraq could be......," breathed Senator Chuck Hagel (R, France, as one National Review wag put it) another VIETNAM!"

In one little tiny way, I hope so.

I live in Toronto, Ontario (Canada), not the easiest place for an American to live. I've lived in Canada more or less steadily for 34 years, the first few on the west coast where my college friends were laid-back British Columbians, with a few down-to-earth Saskatchewan prairie folk and Manitoba farm boys. (There was only one from Ontario, and he'd been to Woodstock!) They had a few doubts and mythologies about Americans, but the full blast of Canadian anti-Americanism makes itself felt only when you cross into Ontario-- southern Ontario, to be specific (where enough Canadians live to tilt all elections their way).

Like the United States, Canada is an immigrant nation, but the immigrant in-flow of the last 40 years can be readily compared to that of the United States between, say, 1880 and 1930. This makes for a very colourful life, especially in cities like Toronto, where being cosmopolitan was quite enjoyable before it became a government-grant project called Official Multiculturalism... but I digress.

One of the sizeable immigrant waves which touched all major centres across Canada was from Vietnam, during the years of the "boat people." I've heard harrowing stories from teenagers, delicate and unassuming young girls in a high school where I was practice-teaching, about their encounters with pirates as they sailed on over-loaded boats towards a better life. What I've really enjoyed about the Vietnamese presence here, though, is the kind of unexpected places they turn up.

One of these was World Youth Day 2002, the final such venture by Pope John Paul II to meet the young Catholics of the world. That world included a large group of Vietnamese camped out on the field near my group at Downsview airport. They caught my eye because they had set up a low, flat awning in the scorching sun, and were seated under it on the ground, wearing their squat-conical straw hats and chattering away in twos and threes, as their yellow and red flag flapped above them. Out there with the hundreds of thousands from all over the world they would not necessarily have caught my eye, except for the fact that the sight of them was like a snapshot I had seen a hundred, maybe a thousand, times over the long years of the war that came into our living rooms.

The picture made me catch my breath, and I was seized with the thought of what a very long journey it has been-- from the days when many were convinced that a land, a people, and culture had been pounded into permanent oblivion. Yet here they were, people too young to remember the bombs and shootings, picnicking on the grass and celebrating, in peace and freedom, the faith that had come to them from French conquerors, survived Communist persecution, and sustained them through a nightmare. It was much more a Catholic moment for me, but there was a sense in which it was an American one too, in the sense that even after such a disaster, there is resolution, there is forgetting, and there is hope.

Any doubts I may have had about whether it was appropriate to have nurtured little American "warmies" at the sight of my Vietnamese co-religionists in 2002, were put to rest some 8 months later. It was a miserable April, 2003. Canada had declined (and agreed, and declined, and supported, and deplored, and sidestepped, and refused) to join the Coalition which invaded Iraq-- we'll leave those arguments to the historians who have the daunting task of sorting out the Chrétien regime. But the political decision had not been enough to satisfy a number of high-profile members of government and the media. So Americans, especially their President, had been subjected to a series of public taunts and insults worthy of 8-year-olds in a sand-box spat, in addition to the usual bloviated outpourings of anti-American condescension and hostility in the press.

Some Friends of America had had enough. They formed a group of that name, and decided it was time for a rally-- one with no political agenda, no position on the war, just a way of demonstrating publicly that, for better or for worse, America has steadfast friends north of the border.

One of the most active organizers of this rally was Erica Basnicki, sister of a classmate and football teammate of my youngest son, and daughter of a man who had gone to a business meeting on the top floor of one of the World Trade Center towers on the morning of September 11. (I had met her and her mother at the American Consulate July 4th party the previous summer, and learned a number of interesting things which could be summed up in Maureen Basnicki's comment that "the American President has taken much better care of me than my own government.")

So there we all were, thousands (the estimate is somewhere between 7 and 10) standing in the sleet and cold, wet and shivering, waving flags and expressing the belief that the long history of Canadian-American friendship could survive this "sticky patch."

There were lots of flags, mostly American, as well as Canadian and provincial. But it was nice to see some from other countries too. And then there was the real surprise-- the red and yellow flags, and a home-made yellow banner with big red letters reading "Vietnamese Friends of America."

Well, who'd 'a thunk it. It wasn't supposed to go that way. A decade of slaughter in Vietnam was supposed to have made Americans, yet again, public enemy #1, the world's pariah, the ugliest of the ugly forevermore.

There may have been no rational explanation for Vietnamese people, living in Canada, to think of themselves as particular friends of America. But something compelled them to make their banner, gather their flags, and come out, in the most miserable weather conditions urban Canada has to offer, to say "We are your friends" as the United States spearheaded the invasion of another country.

Maybe the ability to forget is the only explanation. But, if nothing else, it was a powerful lesson in the unfolding of history-- that nothing is entirely predictable, nothing is absolutely inevitable. Having said that, I'll dare to make a prediction, based on a too-little known fact: for the past two and a half years thousands of American military personnel have been forging genuine friendships with thousands of ordinary Iraqis. At the end of the day (however many years long that "day" will prove to be) these friendships will prove stronger than any of the high-level or underground hostility that seems to govern events at the present moment.

At the end of the day, America will have an ally in Iraq, and we will rally for each other in a hundred different ways. Will this be permanent, will it be without strife, will it escape the forgetting? Hm-m-m-m. There's France.... But then there's also England.... This too we will leave to the historians.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Where have all the guitar-strumming Girl Scouts on the beach gone?

I guess there are some pleasures to which we must say "goodbye" forever because our adult minds just can't suppress the idiocy of them. I've been realizing this as I borrowed some of my kid's Greatest Hits of the Beatles sets to listen to in the car, and I keep finding myself unable to get past the first six bars of many of the songs without hitting the advance button and growling, "Oh, SHUT UP!"

It's been a very long time since I even thought about sitting around singing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," as I once did by many an Oregon beach campfire in my teen years. The last time I even considered it, my sister (only son a Navy submariner) and I (eldest son a Marine helicopter pilot) looked at each other and knew we could never get through it without falling apart.

Now at least I can close the book on this song with less nostalgia, knowing that (a) Joan Baez is still flogging it as she plays the center ring in the Great Crawford Bash-America Cirque de Cindy, and (b) Norm Geras at Normblog has used the lyrics to illustrate once and for all the difference between actual fascism and the fascism of fascionable left-wing rhetorical fantasy.
Check this out (recommended for over 14 years of age).

Monday, August 22, 2005

Media Myopia

CNN's Kelli Arena has made a documentary about the enhanced training regimen of the FBI. Previewing the piece on Sunday morning, she was asked by an audience member what she found most surprising about what she observed at the FBI academy while making her documentary.

She hesitated briefly and then said, "There's a lot of patriotism out there..."

As Gomer Pyle, USMC, might have put it, "SURPRA-A-HZE!, SURPRA-A-HZE!,

CNN-- the most trusted name in yesterday's news.
President Bush and the Virtue of Loyalty

On Saturday, August 20 CNBC’s Tim Russert hosted an hour-long interview with David McCullough, author of 1776, a history of America’s most formative year (which sits languishing on my bookshelf waiting to be read). There are lots of messages in the study of our own nation-building, and McCullough is very clear about the big ones.

1) Historical ignorance among Americans, especially the young, is rampant and dangerous and tragic, and made itself particularly evident in the nation’s reaction to September 11. It was probably America’s single darkest day, says McCullough, but by no means did it plunge us into America’s darkest period—that happened in 1776 and the years following, in which we slogged through a Revolution against a vastly superior military power in a largely unpopular war run by people with no military experience whatsoever.

There are many reasons why the “American cause” (which was not independence initially, but simply a sense that there was an extraordinary venture in danger of being squandered) eventually triumphed—some of them had to do with the character of great leaders, and followers, but many of them can only be put down to divine Providence. (A couple of centuries’ perspective makes us feel safe in saying that—we should probably not jump on it too quickly as being the guiding force behind any current administration.)

2) One of the major reasons that the American Revolution succeeded is simply because the people who fought it were tough. Life was tough. According to McCullough, residents of the American colonies probably had the highest standard of living in the entire world at that time (as was recognized by the British soldiers landing there, confirming for them that these upstart colonists were totally out of line in complaining about their treatment). But it was still one damned exhausting way to live day to day.

There were no simpering wimps among the ranks. They could put up with hauling and grinding and shivering in the cold or sweating in the heat (still keeping their waistcoats and petticoats on, as propriety demanded). They walked miles without thinking about it, spun their cloth if they couldn’t afford the imported stuff, made their own candles and collected the stubs to be recycled, lived with the smell of garbage and sewage that would knock us all dead. And they buried their dead, regularly, in coffins sized from six feet to one foot long, year in and year out as a matter of course, when the remedies ran out for coughs, fevers, headaches, and ill-mended bones. When it came time to form an army, and to form a plan of battle, leaders rose to the occasion equipped with nothing more than a cause and a vision, and enough honor to persevere under the worst conditions and criticism.

Asked to name his favorite from among the cast of “characters” of the events of 1776, David McCullough unhesitatingly chose Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island. He was probably Washington’s most trusted general, who kept his command despite one disastrous decision which brought about the surrender of two forts. Washington recognized Greene as a gifted strategist in “unconventional” (guerrilla) warfare, and did not let one bad judgment cost Greene his commander’s confidence and loyalty.

This characterization of the relationship between Washington and Greene made me think immediately of one common perception of the workings of the Bush administration. It is often said that the one thing President Bush has always valued above all others in the conduct of his political life is loyalty—he expects it of his associates, and they can expect it to be reciprocated by their candidate/boss.

This is a quality which is of particular importance with regards to two of Bush’s most powerful “operatives,” Donald Rumsfeld and Karl Rove. The two have certain personality traits in common which are of boundless irritation to their opponents, among which are an apparent insouciance and unflappability. Rove has more behind-the-scenes inscrutability—Rumsfeld faces down his critics (especially those in the press, but also many a grandstanding senator on the Armed Services committees) with a dry, cool, folksy rhetorical style which can deliver up refreshingly blunt facts or deceptively terse obfuscations without breaking a sweat. Both of these guys drive the political left nuts, and Bush seems to love them for it.

Karl Rove, evil genius and sorcerer, has the non-specific title of the President’s top “political advisor.” It’s not really a government job, though all politicians have one, and are free to decide the qualifications for the position. If Rove were capable of achieving 10% of what his enemies attribute to his machinations, he would have to be getting help from either a monumental Satanic power (which most of his enemies don’t actually believe in) or a conspiracy of collaborators so vast that Bush’s 2004 election victory should have been by a margin comparable to that of the average dictator running unopposed (like Saddam Hussein’s regular 99.5% endorsements). For such a powerful political genius, Rove’s capture of a 3% margin for Bush in ’04 has always struck me as extremely unimpressive.

There’s no question than Rove’s strategy to mobilize volunteers for personal door-to-door campaigning was both salutary and effective. (There are those who think he simply borrowed standard operating procedure for political campaigning in parliamentary democracies like Canada—no genius involved, just use of a time-honoured technique which consistently yields better voter turnout than in the United States.) But beyond the effectiveness of his on-the-ground strategy, I wonder how Rove accounts for a mere 3% victory over an opponent who may have been the weakest and most unappealing candidate the Democratic Party has put forward in at least a century.

The plank-stiff and memory-challenged Al Gore made Bill Clinton look like a beacon of sincerity and statesmanship (quite an achievement, Mr. Vice-President!). But John Kerry—arrogant, elitist, politically undistinguished, permanently tainted by his vile and thoroughly dishonest performance as the principal voice of Vietnam Veterans Against the War in the 1970’s, and an embarrassingly obvious weather-vane candidate whose political stands whirled from one extreme to the other with every breeze exhaled by his party pollsters—made even Al Gore look stable and reliable by comparison. (At least until Gore emerged from his bearded, earth-toned professorial retirement to revive the war-cry that he was robbed in 2000—then he began to look hugely unstable, but was a marginal force, if not kiss of death, during the ’04 campaign.)

On the morning after the ’04 election, standing in Washington D.C.’s Reagan building inner court, President Bush referred to Karl Rove, with a kind of breathless awe, as “the architect.” If Rove was the architect of a campaign which allowed the opposition to frame the war on terrorism as a dishonest and misdirected “quagmire,” without bothering to brief his candidate on how to pound that characterization into dust by recounting, in detail, the sacrifice and honourable accomplishments of the troops in the field, then please let us call in the structural engineer—we need to know if this architect is capable of constructing anything we can rely on.

If Rove didn’t understand how much the American people WANTED to back this President and his offensive against terrorism, and how much they were CRAVING a chance to celebrate its successes, and make personal sacrifices for its future— (and there is no evidence from the campaign that anyone involved understood these things)— where’s the genius? I don’t see it. Bush should have beaten his hapless opponent by five to ten percentage points, at a minimum. But he never did, and still does not, deliver the message that Americans not only want to hear, but are hearing and reading from the sources that have shattered the mainstream media cone of silence, sources they now find more reliable and informative than the government they re-elected: that most of Iraq is peaceful, and that where violence continues, the war CAN be won if we don’t hold back and (as Mrs. Thatcher so aptly put it) “go all wobbly.”

The President’s consistent resort to bromides and vagaries (see my post on Cindy Sheehan) simply says to me that if Rove is his top political advisor, Rove gives lousy advice. I am grateful that John Kerry was not allowed anywhere near the chair of Commander-in-Chief, but I would have preferred to have reached that goal without all the sweating and moaning so many of us did all throughout campaign, as Bush missed almost every opportunity to make his case convincingly as to why he was on the right track. I’m pretty sure (with all due modesty) that if I’d been writing his speeches, the margin of victory would have doubled. (To anyone who doubts that, I’m for hire any time.)

But at the end of the day (November 2, 2004) Bush won, and if he thinks Rove did a great job, fine and dandy—give him a bonus and renew his contract. As for his White House team-mate, Donald Rumsfeld, underperformance is a more serious matter. Rumsfeld himself said it (although in a rather drybones comparison between non-equivalent enterprises): just like when he was in the pharmaceutical industry— when he makes a mistake, people die.

During the election campaign of 2004, I tried to assuage my frustration with the Republicans’ customary ineptitude by digging up email addresses for people I knew were involved directly in the national campaign, or who had the ear of somebody in the White House. I’d heard Ed Gillespie speak in Washington and had his business card; I hunted down Mary Matalin once she came out of retirement and became an advisor. And I scrounged addresses for a few other journalist and staffer-types, and began flinging emails toward them, and anyone else who would listen.

The gist of my letters usually came down to the same thing (once again, see my post on Cindy Sheehan.) , i.e., that the President was failing in his duty to tell the American public about the heroes of Iraq—the decorated soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines (not just dead ones but survivors too) who were giving of themselves in the cause of historic change in the Middle East, for the Iraqis immediately, but for the whole region in the long term. The situation a year ago was not nearly as grim as it looks today, but you would never know that from the way the President and his campaign organization often ceded to the opposition virtual control over the message.

Nevertheless, I was convinced that from the get-go the action in Iraq was not progressing as it should have, due in large part to its use as an arena for the playing out of Donald Rumsfeld’s theories about reforming the United States military. Over time such progress as was being made was certainly blacked out by an unsupportive press. But to anyone who was paying attention it was clear that the mainstream press was daily losing ground in its ability to manage public perceptions-- millions of Americans were getting the news, for better or for worse, which they couldn't get from the administration or the press.

[And let's just bust one little myth here, specifically the popular idea, common especially in Europe, that the press was in the pocket of the administration during the invasion of Iraq. This is a complete misunderstanding of the situation. The embedding of reporters with active units was a very effective way of bringing the reality of war directly to the folks at home, even as it robbed the reporters of their self-appointed role as armchair quarterbacks-- which is, I'm sure, exactly what DoD had in mind by placing them there. If most of the embeds appeared thrilled and impressed by the view from within, it is not because they were mindlessly pro-American or shilling for the administration-- it's because (a) they were actually seeing the truth about the skill and dedication of the American soldier, of which they otherwise knew nothing, and (b) when push comes to shove, most journalists are mindlessly pro-themselves. They believe they are more perceptive, intelligent, and courageous than most ordinary people, and they will naturally respond favourably to conditions that fulfill their image of themselves.]

Still, progress was halting, politics was interfering in the prosecution of the war and the peace (in ways we had thought would never happen again after the disastrous example of politicized defense policy in Vietnam—but then we saw the pull-back in Fallujah and it was deja-vuja all over again), and certain things were becoming patently obvious: there were not enough troops on the ground, and the wrong kind of troops were being deployed in the most dangerous places.

The buck, for all of these problems, stopped at Mr. Rumsfeld’s stand-up desk—it still does. In 2004 I was writing to my involuntary correspondents that if voters could mark their ballots to read “Bush but not Rumsfeld,” the President would get more votes than he would on his name alone, and I am still convinced of that. I suggested that a cabinet-shuffle would be in order, some of it announced prior to the election, and that Rumsfeld still might be usable in a newly created post overseeing weapons R & D (for he is truly correct that these areas always lag behind in every conflict), but that someone with a better sense of the new realities of soldier-to-civilian relations, which are personnel heavy and to a great extent non-military, should be in charge of the transformation of Iraq. Colin Powell’s concepts of “overwhelming force” were borderline absurd in the first Gulf War, and even then were under-used (allowing Saddam to reign on and compound his atrocities). But Rumsfeld’s “underwhelming force” was/is costing lives and prolonging the inevitable disorder. It’s long past time for him to go.

When President Bush stood on the smoldering pile of the World Trade Center with a bull-horn, and roused the exhausted emergency workers, as well as the shell-shocked American public, with the cry that the perpetrators of this atrocity would soon "hear from all of us," he was the perfect man for the job. He was Everyman, the kind of ordinary citizen whose heart and determination were in exactly the right place when the call for revolution came in 1776. But it has become clear in the interim that he does not have the discernment of character, the richness of culture, or the personal toughness that would have put him in the saddle of George Washington, citizen general, or even at Washington's flank like Nathaneal Greene. It may be that standing on the debris pile in New York was the premier moment of George W. Bush's Presidency, and he has been to some degree struggling to find his footing ever since.

Mr. Bush’s recognizes loyalty as a virtue, and that’s a good thing. But I fear that he mistakenly identifies loyalty to himself as the virtue’s highest form within the arena of politics. He needs to be reminded that he has a higher loyalty than to his friends, colleagues, supporters, advisors, and staff. His first loyalty, politically, is to the American people, with a special regard for those who have shown their own loyalty by putting on the uniform. Removing talented people from positions where they are no longer effective is not even an act of personal disloyalty, much less a violation of the larger ideal—it is a simple matter of realism, honesty, and workplace efficiency. It is a question of the higher loyalty which should direct all decisions within the office of the Presidency. In the case of the Secretary of Defense, it is also a matter of life and death.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Where Cindy Sheehan and I meet, and where we part

[Get a snack and put your feet up-- this is a long one.]

I’m a Marine mom. That automatically means several different things, but chief among them is that it privileges me to say to anyone not in a similar position, “Don’t pretend to know how this feels. Expressions of encouragement are welcome, but sympathy, in the literal sense, is quite impossible—don’t attempt it.”

[Lest I be accused of trolling for sympathy anyway, let me say up front that my Marine, on active duty for two years and a lieutenant, is still training as a helicopter pilot and not yet deployed.]

On the other hand, sympathy in the modern, bathotic sense—as in “feeling awash in pity for”—might be wholeheartedly welcomed by a small fraction of military families, but for most of us it will be considered inappropriate, even irritating. Even for those whose children are among the fallen, most families will be far more appreciative of admiration and endorsement of the one lost, and of the comrades he (occasionally she) left behind, than they will be of anger, regret, or inconsolable sorrow.

Cindy Sheehan (mother of Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, killed in Iraq on April 4, 2004) is one of that fraction who is herself inconsolable, despite her best efforts to be otherwise. As has been widely reported, just a few months after Casey’s death, Mrs. Sheehan and her family were sounding more positive notes. They had been invited to meet with President Bush, as one of 17 families each given private time with him to exchange greetings and condolences. They readily accepted.

At the time some members of the Sheehan family questioned the purpose and efficacy of the war, and were not all that well-disposed towards the President. But they made the decision together that their meeting would focus on Casey’s life and accomplishments, “deferring to how they believed Casey would have wanted them to act."
That’s a key point. It seemed important to Cindy Sheehan in June of 2004 to honour her son by honouring his choice and belief in his cause. It is difficult to see how she can square that with the course of action she has now embarked upon, planting herself outside Bush’s Texas ranch, ostensibly in an attempt to force a second meeting with him.

In the aftermath of the 2004 meeting, Cindy Sheehan had this to say about her son’s Commander-in-Chief: “I now know he's sincere about wanting freedom for the Iraqis. I know he's sorry and feels some pain for our loss. And I know he's a man of faith." She also expressed her appreciation for the opportunity to spend time with the other families who had suffered the same loss. "That was the gift the president gave us, the gift of happiness, of being together."

That was less than three months after they had buried Casey. Anyone who believes that the family’s perspective could have settled into a definitive state by then has one foot in an alternate reality. It is arguable that Mrs. Sheehan’s point of view has not, in fact, undergone a substantial evolution—what we are seeing and hearing now may simply be what came sharply into focus when her head had finally cleared.

By her own account Mrs. Sheehan held left-leaning political views prior to her son’s death. It should not be surprising, nor is it evidence of an about-face, that by July 18 of 2004 she and her daughter had signed on to a press release from Military Families Speak Out (which concluded with a paraphrase from John Kerry’s infamous testimony before the Senate in April 1971), in which they agreed to be available for media interviews. They had something to say, and volunteered to sound off to whoever was interested. They don’t seem to have been prodded or cued to do this.

I don’t think that, in principle, Cindy Sheehan should be so reviled for supposedly “changing her story” about the original meeting with President Bush—much of her story was never a ringing endorsement in the first place. She would probably not admit it now, but I suspect that back then she was swept up by the prestige of meeting the President, searching for something uplifting amid the tragedy, and I have no trouble believing that she was still reeling from her son’s death. We can speculate that she put the best face on the experience at the time—or that she even fabricated for the camera what seemed to be expected of her.

None of this is unreasonable or particularly criminal. That she is prone to flights of fibbing fancy is certainly plausible, considering her later version of the 2004 event, as delivered last July--
a tale so ridiculously at variance with the first story that you begin to wonder whether you are witnessing a mind cracking in half.
( )

On the other hand, I also don’t believe she should be regarded as the mere victim of exploitation by radicals—there is too long a record of her own radical positions to treat her as if she has no responsibility for them.

But as she sits today in her Prairie Chapel redoubt, using the most extreme avenues ( and to communicate her increasingly extreme views (she now refers to her mission as a “Holy War”), I am convinced that her personal pain and anger are being unconscionably stoked by the political camp-followers who have attached themselves to her. It is clear that she invited like-minded activists to join her, but I suspect many of them are too obsessed with their own parallel agendas to have given much thought to Mrs. Sheehan’s vulnerability, nor to the abundance of evidence that she is deeply troubled and in need of something more satisfying than rage.

Commentators are lately pointing to a number of aspects of this “Camp Casey” spectacle which fall neatly into the list of warning signs by which one identifies a cult, and the argument is not without merit. Among the signs is the alienation of family (which at present includes not only the family-in-law who have rejected Mrs. Sheehan’s entire campaign, but also the husband who has filed for divorce and the surviving son who has pleaded for her to just come home), as well as the escalating rhetoric of holy war, and the emergence of a self-styled role as prophet (“The 56,000,000 plus citizens who voted against you [Bush] and your agenda have given me a mandate to move forward with my agenda”).

Cindy Sheehan now plays the pied piper to a phalanx of free-floating Deaniac-types (why do these people still not have jobs to go to?!), and this heady experience has seduced her into believing the myth of her own relevance, despite the fact that she is a herald of discarded off-the-wall clichés.

As these markers have surfaced, Mrs. Sheehan has apparently abandoned her specific reality (the goal of speaking to the President) in favour of an abstract and undirected “momentum.” Consider this exchange with a journalist friendly to her cause, Keith Olbermann of MSNBC (August 11, Countdown):

Olbermann: “…from the perspective of your protest there, in a way, isn‘t it really better if President Bush doesn‘t meet with you?

Sheehan: I would think so, yes… And if he would come out right now, it would really diffuse the momentum…”

The elipses in Sheehan’s reply above are my own editorial clean-up, masking only her characteristic inarticulateness. On the path from grieving mom to rally rabble-rouser, she has collected issues and causes like burrs on a winter fleece, to the point where her public speeches and published statements can only be described as ravings that violate logic, contort words until they have no meaning, and interweave selectively culled facts with paranoid fantasies about mass starvation in Iraq and “secret army bases the size of Sacramento.”

see: --speech to the Veterans for Peace group before she went to Crawford
--open letter to George Bush
--interview August 15 CNN Anderson Cooper 360,01.html

Like a one-woman anti-globalization riot, she also rails against Ford SUV’s, support for Israel
( -- former KKK wizard David Duke is now firmly in her corner) and not one but two “stolen Presidential elections.” Regrettably, somewhere along the way Mrs. Sheehan lost a wheel. Various commentators have used the word “trainwreck” to describe her, and it is indeed painful to witness the fallout of her collision with history.

The chronically simple of the anti-war left, especially those who are more bleeding-heart than bloody-minded, clutch at Cindy Sheehan as an icon of true compassion and peace. But her moments of soft-spoken ordinariness belie the inferno within, which seems destined to immolate her, even as the anti-everything rent-a-mob splashes gasoline in her direction.

I don’t agree with a single one of Cindy Sheehan’s characterizations of the war in Iraq or her criticisms of the President—I find them little short of deranged. But I have my own criticisms of the President, and I think he is to a very great extent responsible for the type of confusion and outrage that fuels the angry fraction of bereaved military parents.

There are clear, specific answers to their questions, “What was the cause? What has been accomplished?”—answers that would satisfy many, if not all of them. But President Bush never gives them. And I grow ever more convinced it’s because he doesn’t know them. Members of his loyal team report to him that, on the whole, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and he takes their word for it. They are right, but a few details would be in order.

When the mainstream media choose not to report anything positive, and refuse to educate their audience/readership (and themselves) about the broad picture across a vast and distant geography, preferring rather to “shock and awe” their customers with pyrotechnics and melodrama, the President is still in a position to do an end-run around their blockers and get the message out. This President chooses a venue, commands the attention of the world, and then delivers bromides and abstractions that wouldn’t serve a junior high coach at half-time.

One could infer that his speech-writers and advisors convince him that the foggy stuff will work, and there’s no need to knock himself out elaborating on the myriad facts he has at hand. That might apply to the big speeches in giant halls and airplane hangars. But his sad and sorry performance at the foreign policy debate during the 2004 election argues that he does not have those facts at hand—if he did, he could have blown Senator Kerry off the stage, and nothing could have held him back.

Any one of us who follows the news, especially from cyber-sources, could have blown the Senator off the stage. The only way this President could have done as badly as he did is if he genuinely didn’t know anything specific about where the very considerable successes in Iraq have taken place, and how to distinguish them and contrast them to areas of escalating conflict. Mr. Bush is heinously under-informed about the “Good News From Iraq” ( ), and if he doesn’t have the answers, how the hell can Cindy Sheehan be expected to have them?

Should he meet with Cindy Sheehan? The short answer is “no,” if only for the reason that she has already met with him, and had her chance to speak her mind, as has been done by some of the hundreds of bereaved families Mr. Bush has met. We can’t know if they had more courage than the Sheehans or just worse manners, but Mr. Bush has been told off to his face a number of times and he is reported to have accepted it with grace— “reported” because these sessions are never allowed to become photo-ops for anybody, and that is as it should be. (It is also reported that the President is often moved to tears by these meetings, and tells everyone how sorry he is. Maybe if he were better informed about what’s been working in Iraq he could figure out a way to give these people more assurance that their sacrifice was worth it. Just a thought.)

Mr. Bush has apparently met hundreds of the families who have lost a son or daughter in the war, but the remainder have not had that privilege. Why should Cindy Sheehan get two chances just because she blew her first one? (-- if indeed her family’s decision to opt for grace and self-control in the face of tragedy can be described as “blowing it”).

Still, early on Bush could have made no published response but then quietly sent a car for Mrs. Sheehan (and perhaps one companion as a witness) to accept her challenge, bring her to his house, listen politely even if she wasn’t polite, say to her directly pretty much the same thing he has already said about her, and send her on her way. But having stalled on it, he has now allowed her to inflame the situation to the point where accommodating her would make it appear that incoherent agitators get an audience with the President by bullying him within camera range.

All this having been said, there are circumstances under which I could see myself doing something very much along the lines of Cindy Sheehan’s quest. Like I said, I’m a Marine mom. My son may not yet be deployed abroad, but since the year 2000 he has spent two summers and two solid years putting his body and mind through punishing tests of strength and acuity with enough elements of genuine danger to keep me worrying, praying, and periodically weeping, even as he confounds and inspires me. Yes, it’s just training so far. But sometimes that alone can be fatal. As things unfolded back in 2000, I did have reason to worry and to decide that, if the situation warranted it, I’d be pitching my tent and demanding answers very much as Cindy Sheehan is doing.

The story goes like this.

In August of 1999 we took our first-born to college orientation, and at the extra-curricular activity session he made a bee-line to the ROTC table. We were prepared for this, but we put our foot down and said that his job at college was to enjoy the full campus life and to keep his scholarship, which the time-demands of ROTC could put at risk. We had some leverage with him, but only that low-grade kind based on purse-strings. Other than that we both knew that, once they go off to college, they make their own way and your opportunity to shape them is pretty much over.

The next time he came home he announced what he was going to do the following summer: Officer Candidate School for the United States Marine Corps. He would be paid, there was no permanent commitment, it didn’t interfere with his studies, and there was no better to way to find out if this was what he wanted. It was a fait accompli, and we accepted it. There are plenty of chancy things a kid could decide to do in his first college summer—back-pack around Europe, serve refugees in Africa, audition for movies in Hollywood—any of which might cause adult eye-rolling and nail-biting. But we make judgments based upon our knowledge of their character and, if we’re smart (barring any truly foolhardy risks) we try to set them free.

I had no particular fear or reluctance to see our son join the military—on the contrary, I consider it an honourable choice. The question was, did I see him in that role? He was in many ways a dreamer, head lodged in the timeless universe of Star Wars, the X-Files, and dinosaur bones. He had no great athletic gifts and never followed any favourite team. He spent most of his spare time writing or reading fiction and history, and drawing fantasy machinery and maps. That’s who he was, and we liked him that way. I saw him more as Indiana than John Paul Jones. What I hadn’t fully appreciated was that he saw himself (hold on to your Brego, Viggo) as Lord Aragorn.

My biggest concern at the time was that I didn’t want to see him become someone whom I did not recognize—a “type” I had identified from a few encounters with career military people. But six weeks at Quantico would tell us how he fit into it and whether he could hack it. And he still had another three years to go of that blissful la-la life of a small New England college, during which some other fascination might overtake him. After all, he was working away at his Latin and ancient history, and was poised to do a specialist certificate in Classics! And his favourite professor was… a retired Marine. What can you do.

He did the “pre-ship” weekend that all the candidates do (sometimes that’s enough to discourage the least promising ones), and later set off for six weeks of boot camp. Upon arrival he sent us the standard form letter giving us his company address, telling us that all was well and that he could not communicate or have visitors for the next two weeks.

At about the three-week mark, in a gesture of legendary military efficiency, we received a letter from the base chaplain asking if we were doing okay with our new circumstances, and inviting us to share any separation or other anxieties we might have about our Marine Officer Candidate. I laughed when I read it, since our son was halfway through the course by the time it arrived (admittedly it had to get to Canada in our case, but it still seemed absurdly tardy), and when later I did reply to the chaplain I let him know how foolish the effort had looked. My reason for contacting the chaplain had nothing to do with separation anxiety, however. It was something much more serious—and I really let him have it. The substance of the letter went as follows:

...Not long before my son was accepted into the course, I heard, along with all of North America, about the case of the young Marine recruits overcome by heatstroke during a hike and left behind while the hike proceeded. Several were stricken, vomiting and collapsing, and one 18-year-old lost his life. I was horrified to learn that it happened; I was angry to learn that the officer in charge had violated specific standard procedures by pushing the group too long and too fast and resting them too little; and I was disgusted to learn that the officer was merely reprimanded and fined for his deeds. Being busted to Private [sic], in my opinion, would have been insufficient. He should have been charged with criminal negligence and dereliction of duty. Had the dead soldier been my child, I would not rest until that officer was jailed.

Despite the Corps’ claim that the incident was an aberration, the sentence seemed to me to reflect a failure to grasp the enormity of this profligate waste of a young life. Even merely as a military consideration, it strikes me as the height of stupidity to lose a soldier through neglect where there is no enemy on the field.

As much as the incident frightened me, I sent* my son off in the hopes that, if nothing else, the Corps would at least be sufficiently concerned about its image to ensure that it was a very long time before such a public embarrassment happened again. Yet within a week or so [of my son’s arrival at Quantico], it seems that an officer candidate was allowed to finish a hike with heatstroke so severe that he collapsed and was hospitalized with a temperature in excess of 105º. I presume he lived—I have not heard otherwise—and if he did so without brain damage or other impairments he will be lucky.

If we parents were sending you mature adults who already knew how to assess reasonable limitations and protect themselves under extreme conditions, the like of which they have never known, then they wouldn’t need training, or officers, or regulations to govern their activities. I have a very bright and disciplined kid, who seems to be thriving on everything the Corps can throw at him—but he is not qualified to diagnose life-threatening physical distress, and I would hate to think that the fate of any other parent’s child would be left in his hands while his superior marched ahead with his back to the “grunts”.

It is my son’s impression that the main thrust of this training course is teamwork, loyalty, and leadership. “Teamwork” and “loyalty” allowed a glassy-eyed and white-faced young candidate to be dragged to the end of the hike by his comrades. Did they do him a favor? Was it the Corps’ idea of “leadership” for him to be permitted to continue?...

…It’s not as if [the instructor] is in charge of people who have been proven capable of living up to minimum standards of fitness. The proving is in progress, and some of them will fail. Is it not better for a recruit to fail a test and live to try again?

I support [my son’s] interest in the military and am proud that he is meeting its challenges with such success. And, while his interests are paramount in my mind, I also have the interests of the American military somewhat at heart, living as I have in Canada for more than half my life and acutely aware of how America looks to the outside observer…

Earlier this summer I had several conversations with a Navy JAG, who confided that the Marines were still considered the most disciplined and traditional of the armed forces, which was encouraging. He had no explanation for the recent hiking death, except to say that deaths during training are not unheard of and are usually attributable to the breaking of regulations—not usually on the part of officers, however.

For the moment, I just want [my son] and all his comrades to survive the weeding out process—a reasonable expectation, I think, but one I do not hold with complete confidence. I hope you will receive my remarks as proffered with good will and intentions.

The chaplain never replied to my letter, which I find inexcusable but not surprising. It couldn't be easier in our era of mass communication to extend the courtesy of acknowledgement and contact, but since we also live in an era of unprecedented self-absorption and lack of manners, too many people –- college administrators, politicians, corporate desk-jockeys— find it just as easy to behave as if their constituents don’t count for much.

However, I am given to understand that action was taken. Medical monitoring of the hike had been under the authority of another trainee, a Navy corpsman, age 18, with a reputation for being a slacker. My son reported that an inquiry had quietly begun and numerous Officer Candidates were summoned to answer questions about the corpsman’s performance, at a time just following the receipt of my letter.

This was encouraging news, but the incident only reinforced my conviction that military life, including training, is dangerous enough without bottom-feeder negligence factoring into the death toll. I resolved to keep my eyes open and ear to the ground, knowing that if my son were to suffer such an easily avoidable fatality, the authorities at Quantico, the Pentagon, the White House would have found me in their face for as long as it took to see that something resembling justice was meted out to those responsible, and that others would be protected against such negligence in the future. I would have no trouble assuming the role of stalking lioness or mother grizzly bear under this type of provocation, and would make no apologies for it.

That is where Cindy Sheehan and I meet. Where we part is on two fronts: first, there is no ambiguity whatsoever in the negligence and stupidity which brought about the death of a recruit on a training hike, and the death is all the more tragic because of it. But the purpose and conduct of the war in Iraq is nothing so clear cut as that, and rational people on all sides of the debate know this. I suspect Mrs. Sheehan does not permit herself to know that there are any sane arguments in favor of this war—one of the benefits of perfecting a rant is that you are no longer troubled by the voices of others. But beyond doubt, Mrs. Sheehan represents a radical fringe point of view, not just among military parents but among pundits, strategists, and the public in general.

Second, on a practical level, were I to embark on a quest for justice under the circumstances described to the Quantico chaplain, I would go about it in a way which was actually designed to achieve something. I would seek out the individuals with specific responsibilities throughout the chain of command, and pursue reality-based solutions with the tools that work: reason, persuasion, poise, self-mastery, focus.

It is not inconceivable that a methodical and rational pilgrimage through the wilderness of “proper procedure” could be exhausted without yielding any results, at which point some kind of public demonstration and employment of the media would be entirely appropriate, and I can envision throwing myself into it heart and soul. But if, like Cindy Sheehan, I demanded audience with people whom I have publicly reviled in the most venomous terms, and made known beforehand my intention not to converse at a meeting, but to lambaste in an orchestrated confrontation, mine would be an inherently pointless enterprise—just as Cindy Sheehan’s is. No solutions, compromises, reforms or restitutions are possible for her because, in fact, none are genuinely sought. Like all who construct and embrace the massive global conspiracy theory of anything, she has ensured that her complaints are too huge to be addressed.

It does not take a professional psychoanalyst to perceive that Mrs. Sheehan cannot really accept that her son is not coming back, nor can she accept the fact that nothing at either extreme of the gamut of possible responses—not a full-throttle targeted outpouring of her rage, nor a total giving over of herself and her energy to love and charity—can ever fill the permanent emptiness where her son once was. Anyone who has dealt with the bereaved, especially where death has been sudden, violent, and untimely, recognizes this as a common condition. That doesn’t mean it can’t manifest itself in ways that are profoundly unhealthy and ought to be treated, but the paralyzing sadness and the impulse to vengeance are not unexpected.

What is important to consider, though, is whether these feelings are both more common and more intense than they have been in the past, for cultural reasons. Before one agrees to lay Cindy Sheehan’s suffering entirely at the door of the alleged perpetrator of this loss, or even just at the door of the fact of Casey’s death, one must not neglect to place these events within the context of the present age—we’ll say the Zeitgeist, since most everybody says it.

Mrs. Sheehan (along with all who have lost loved ones in combat) has been put in touch with a universal human experience, but that does not mean that she is having a universal human reaction. While she shares the suffering of all parents throughout all time who have experienced the rupture of losing a child to war, Cindy Sheehan is part of only the second generation in human history for whom the death of children, small children, has not been a normal occurrence. (And this novelty is still limited to the developed world.) She is of the baby-boom generation whose parents succeeded alarmingly well in raising their children within a bubble of innocence, unprecedented prosperity, achievable self-indulgence, and postponed psychological maturity. The boomers’ parents invented the nirvana of prolonged retirement, and nudged their children forward into the pursuit of medically-generated immortality.

The corollary of this fantasy of immortality is the tsunami of tears and teddy bears that greets certain notable deaths, exemplified most dramatically in what has come to be called the “Dianafication” of the public death ritual. Nameless emotional attachments and sentimental fascinations cannot articulate the experience of loss. Some attribute our excessive sentimentality to a widespread irreligiousness which has robbed people of a ritual vocabulary for death, not to mention the peace that comes with faith in eternal life. Even within the portion of the population who practice religious observance, there has been a diminishing of the faith which delivers the promised consolation. (The passing of Pope John Paul II occasioned some astonished responses in reporters who “got it” about the near total absence of maudlin Dianafied outpourings. Happily there is still a chunk of the world that can arrive at some perspective about death, but they go about it quietly and are not so evident in the contemporary emotional landscape.)

Many of us are not programmed to accept death, anyone’s at any age. And we are too ready to postpone the maturity of the next generation. The asterisk (*) in my letter above shows that I had unthinkingly fallen into the fallacy which constantly infects the rhetoric of the anti-war faction, like Mrs. Sheehan and her blog-buddy Michael Moore. I wrote of “sending” my “child” off to train with the Corps, when I neither did, nor could do, any such thing. None of us can. Even if we did not have a volunteer military, the only compulsion about it would come from the government—parents would still have no say about their children over 18. My son made his decision at the age of 19, and is now 25. I don’t “send” him anywhere. After he came home from that first summer at Quantico we took him out to dinner, and it clobbered me over the head that a kid who had just spent six weeks crawling under barbed wire and firing an M16 was beyond being pressured to eat his vegetables. It’s over, Mom—deal with it.

If he’d decided to spend that summer auditioning in Hollywood, I’d have to deal with that too (there are much crazier things he could do). You don’t have to like everything your children do—you don’t even have to respect it, or them, if they make choices which are not respectable. But at some point you either get out of the way or they will push you. If you’ve done your job right, they will be respectable, and respecting their decisions is its own reward.

Cindy Sheehan’s own account of her relationship with Casey is puzzling.

“I begged Casey not to go. I told him I would take him to Canada. I told him I would run over him with a car, anything to get him not to go to that immoral war.”

This was her take on Casey’s re-enlistment—he had already done one tour of duty. His mother has claimed, “My son was a man who had high moral values and true courage.” But we can’t be blamed for wondering whether she really respected him, or was prepared walk with him on the path to maturity. “Please – teach your babies,” she pleaded to the gathering crowd a few days ago in Texas. “Teach your babies better than I taught my babies.”

(I expect her other children do not find this a compliment.)

There’s a sentimental sense in which children will always be our “babies,” especially for mothers, but this is not nearly so gratifying as watching them become great individuals, ready to make the world they live in better for their being in it. Never, at the cutest moments of my children’s infancy, did I wish to hold back time, or cease to feel excited to find out who they would turn out to be.

Christopher Hitchens (an infuriating man whom I’m torn between wanting to kick or kiss on any given day) turns in a memorable phrase when he suggests that Cindy Sheehan’s ownership of her son’s demise has crossed over an acceptable limit. () He writes, “I think one must deny to anyone the right to ventriloquize the dead.” Oddly enough, I think he overstates Mrs. Sheehan’s mistaking her own voice for that of her son—a close reading of all that has issued from her campaign gives the clearer impression that Casey’s own voice figures very little in the discourse. Hitchens calls Sheehan’s campaign “sinister piffle” and he is right on both counts. By embracing the most delusional formulations of the feral left she is a sinister presence in the public forum, but she is herself so foolish and marginal –- a pastel balloon who will deflate in short order at some point (if Bush met with her it would be over in a flash) –- that history, if it mentions her at all, will brand the whole episode as piffle.

Finally, there are a few ingredients of modern culture which have probably had tremendous influence on the drama being played out on the margins of Crawford, Texas these days. First are the decidedly unhealthy widespread appetites for voyeurism and exhibitionism. These two inclinations were once considered to be perversions, with distinct sexual implications, but they are now the everyday ingredients of both our public entertainment and our domestic relationship with proliferating technology. We have lost a sense that anything is real, that an event actually happened, unless it has been witnessed by others and preserved on tape.

The most persistent, raw, and bizarre example of this is the appetite, of both celebrities and anonymous folk, to videotape themselves having sex. These pathetic performances are the subject of an opinion piece by Karen Heller
( )
but her comments have a broader application which easily includes the strange amalgam of Cindy Sheehan’s public and private grievances:

Nobody's content with a primary experience. We're all into secondary and tertiary moments, and seeming busy when we're doing little. When people look back on this moment of time, it will be a wonder that there will be any memory of it all, only videotapes and Webcasts… There's no there there, only people furiously cataloguing for the future.

Many of us who want to feel sympathy for Mrs. Sheehan’s loss, and that of her fellow gold-star mothers and fathers— who wish, as I do, that we could discount the near-madness of most of her rhetoric as arising from an excess of grief— cannot escape the distaste we feel for her version of the exhibitionism which has infected so much of what was once private life. It has inevitably contributed to the transformation of individuals into symbols, because individuals can't really be observed and understood if they're doing their living in front of an audience, floodlit and splashed across a massive technicolour canvas. What begins in sincerity is too often corrupted into theatricality once it is being observed and preserved by countless millions of persons unknown.

Another ingredient is the therapeutic impulse. This consists in our notion that endless talk and self-examination is a way to get through all conflicts and difficulties. Part of the package is the belief that all emotions must be retrieved and indulged and volcanically expressed to the last syllable of recorded time, or something like that. Any attempt to control them risks permanent damage. This wallowing strategy has for some decades been regarded as the a path to mental health, whereas it may actually put suffering people in danger of falling deeper into depression and self-absorption.

Cindy Sheehan’s crisis cannot be divorced from the times she lives in. If she thinks there is something unprecedented about her opinion of a sitting president or a costly war, she is quite mistaken. What’s new is that she’s perceiving the situation with the eyes of a mid-twentieth-century boomer, and the odds of having clear vision are not in her favour. The more clinging political barnacles and zebra-mussels she attracts to her campsite, the more she will lose sight of the shape of her platform and the purpose of her voyage.

Speaking of Viggo (that was back on page 4), it was only a matter of time before things got dark enough for the stars to come out. The star of Lord of the Rings, whose political reputation is decidedly way-leftist but who is only rarely a grandstander about it, dropped in on Cindy Sheehan on August 11, to express his solidarity with her… opinions? grief? movement? –- whatever aspect of her “happening” appealed to him. Mortensen blew in unannounced, spoke with the mater dolorosa, and blew out without fanfare. A few pictures were snapped by other campers during the “summit” and it was all over in about 20 minutes. Since Mortensen is a friend of Jodie Evans, one of Camp Casey’s top organizers, there is a whiff of arranged star-power attention-seeking about the drive-by visit, but it would appear not to have been choreographed for major network exposure-- it garnered a few lines in longer newspaper articles, and bounced around the blogosphere, and that was about it. (“Mortensen is no Sean Penn,” opines the writer of and aren’t we grateful, on so many levels.)

Mortensen’s visit was an odd blip in the whole Sheehan happening, which is now drawing deep on the oxygen of publicity. His only remark designed to go on record was a shot at Bush in which he mentioned that he (Viggo) wasn’t “on vacation” but he had managed to get out there to talk with Mrs. Sheehan. So there, Mr. President. (This meme about the Bush vacations is getting SO tiresome, since basically everyone who brings it up knows perfectly well that in the information age the White House is wherever the President is. And the steady stream of official visitors combined with numerous official engagements means that Bush is taking nothing like five weeks of pure vacation—yawn, yawn.)

Anyway, unfurl the Mission Accomplished banner— the Viggo glow illumined the Texas desert and Camp Casey for one brief shining moment.

Who knows? Maybe he genuinely feels a world of pain for poor Cindy Sheehan, and maybe she deserves it. But I for one deeply resent (and I am certain that I do have tens of millions behind me on this point) the hovering implication that Cindy Sheehan is enduring a more heightened suffering than other people—more than her son’s father, siblings and paternal grandparents, more than the other 1850 families of those killed in action in Iraq, whose pain is, by the way, no worse than that of families of KIA’s in Afghanistan, whose pain is no worse than that of the families of perhaps 30,000 [not, by any stretch of the fevered imagination, 100,000] civilians killed in both theatres of war since 2001, whose pain is no worse than the families of at least 500,000 “disappeareds” in Iraq under Saddam, and we could go on and on. There’s enough pain to go around.

President Bush is said to have met with about 900 family members of deceased soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. Viggo’s done 1— 899 to go. And should he, or any other celebrity, choose to lend their glow to the suffering of those hundreds of families, they will find most of them opposed to the mission of Cindy Sheehan. Would their bereavement be less valid or less interesting for that?

Viggo, by the way, is a sometime designer of anti-war T-shirts, some of which are now being sported by Team Cindy. The most recent design, for sale through his Perceval Press, is the tired old “Support the Troops: Bring Them Home” chestnut. Lt. David Lucas, Bronze Star winner who single-handedly saved the lives of two Egyptian hostages held in a car trunk in February 2005, has this to say about that particular slogan:

"Let's support our troops. Bring them home." Please don't ever say those words again. Nothing is so disheartening to our troops who are in harm's way than to hear our own citizens say things like that. I know that the war my men and I fought is a totally different war than the one I see being reported by almost the entire media. …You are entitled to your beliefs, and you should believe in whatever you want, but don't pretend to know what you are talking about just because you have watched 30 minutes of CNN the night before. Go and talk to the people who have been there — not the people who make assumptions from a TV studio — and then form your opinion based on facts.

Had Mortensen’s plan to visit Iraq a couple of years ago ever materialized he could check this out for himself. If he’s looking for transport, he might hitch a ride with CSI: New York’s Gary Sinise, whose Operation Iraqi Children makes regular trips to deliver school kits and other goods. It’s a dangerous mission, though—one risks meeting Iraqis who love American soldiers, and going places where nothing is on fire.

Maureen Dowd wrote in the New York Times that “the moral authority of parents who bury children killed in Iraq is absolute.”
Of course, she herself doesn’t believe that for one minute, because she has unceasingly made the case that anyone who supports George W. Bush has no authority whatever. The majority of parents of fallen military personnel strongly support the President and the war effort, but the folded flag in their living room wouldn’t qualify them for a micro-particle of moral authority in Dowd’s view. The singularity of the experience of being a military parent is the thing that’s absolute— but it doesn’t mean we all think or feel the same within that template, and Dowd’s righteous bender on behalf of grieving parents is transparently insincere.

Hardly anybody is in a position to talk about relative levels of pain. But one voice from Baghdad may be considered something of an authority on them, and he has this to say to Cindy Sheehan:

I know how you feel Cindy, I lived among the same pains for 35 years but worse than that was the fear from losing our loved ones at any moment. Even while I'm writing these words to you there are feelings of fear, stress, and sadness that interrupt our lives all the time, but in spite of all that I'm sticking hard to hope which if I didn't have I would have died years ago.

Ma'am, we asked for your nation's help and we asked you to stand with us in our war and your nation's act was (and still is) an act of ultimate courage and unmatched sense of humanity.

Our request is justified, death was our daily bread and a million Iraqi mothers were expecting death to knock on their doors at any second to claim someone from their families.

Your face doesn't look strange to me at all; I see it everyday on endless numbers of Iraqi women who were struck by losses like yours.

Our fellow country men and women were buried alive, cut to pieces and thrown in acid pools and some were fed to the wild dogs while those who were lucky enough ran away to live like strangers, and the Iraqi mother was left to grieve one son buried in an unfound grave and another one living far away who she might not get to see again.

We did nothing to deserve all that suffering, well except for a dream we had; a dream of living like normal people do.

We cried out of joy the day your son and his comrades freed us from the hands of the devil and we went to the streets not believing that the nightmare is over.

The mothers went to break the bars of cells looking for the ones they lost 5, 12 or 20 years ago and other women went to dig the land with their bare hand searching for a few bones they can hold in their arms after they couldn't hold them when they belonged to a living person.

You are free to go and leave us alone but what am I going to tell your million sisters in Iraq? Should I ask them to leave Iraq too? Should I leave too? And what about the eight millions who walked through bombs to practice their freedom and vote? Should they leave this land too? Is it a cursed land that no one should live in? Why is it that we were chosen to live in all this pain, why me, why my people, why you?

Take a look at our enemy Cindy, look closely at the hooded man holding the sword and if you think he's right then I will back off and support your call.

We live in pain and grief everyday, every hour, every minute; all the horrors of the powers of darkness have been directed at us and I don't know exactly when am I going to feel safe again, maybe in a year, maybe two or even ten; I frankly don't know but I don't want to lose hope and faith.

We are in need for every hand that can offer some help. Please pray for us, I know that God listens to mothers' prayers…

[from Open letter to Cindy Sheehan, August 15, 2005
posted by Mohammed at ]