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."
(http://www.thereporter.com/republished)
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.
(http://www.uruknet.info/?p=m13397&l=i&size+1&hd=0 )

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 (Moveon.org and Michaelmoore.com) 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
http://www/veteransforpeace.org/convention05/sheehan_transcript.htm
--open letter to George Bush
http://www.angelfire.com/sk3/spkhntrca/Casey.html
--interview August 15 CNN Anderson Cooper 360
http://transcripts.caa.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0508/15/acd,01.html

Like a one-woman anti-globalization riot, she also rails against Ford SUV’s, support for Israel
(http://wwwdavidduke.com/index.php?p=350 -- 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” (http://chrenkoff.blogspot.com/ ), 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
(http://jewishworldreview.com/0805/kheller08905.php3 )
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 http://www.soundbitten.com/ 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.”
(http://www.nytimes.com/top/opinion/editorialsandopedoped/columnists)
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 http://iraqthemodel.blogspot.com/ ]

9 comments:

Kathy K said...

Good grief. Doesn't anyone have on topic comments here? I thought Blogger didn't get spammers.

Excellent article. And I'm very glad you mentioned Iraq the Model's open letter.

Ian said...

Incidentally, the officer candidate who went down with heat stroke on that hike apparently recovered fully and completed OCS, as he is now a fellow student pilot at my helicopter training squadron.

CJH said...

Wow! This is the most insightful commentary I've read to date on the Sheehan situation... Keep the Wisdom flowing.
Oh, very cool blog name--how about some more St. Winefred pics??
CJ

Dr. Dawg said...

Interesting comments. I don't agree, in the main, but you were reaching deep, and I respect that.

I have a sightly different take on all this over at my place:

http://drdawgsblawg.blogspot.com/2005/08/sheehans-public-service-angry-in-great.html

Keep writing.

Best,
Dr.Dawg

Colleen said...

I am speechless with admiration for this wonderful and beautifully written essay. I don't know what more need or can be said about Ms. Sheehan.

Basilides said...

This is a wonderfully written and well-balanced entry. In particular I think your comments about American's lack of understanding and acceptance of death are important and need to be read by many people.

I've linked to your article at my blog, which is geared toward military Christians (www.militarychristiansworldwide.blogspot.com).

God bless you.

Anonymous said...

Wonderfully moving, thoughtful and intelligent piece. Deserves a very wide readership.

Anonymous said...

Do you make a habit of deleting comments that don't agree with you?

What a pathetic piece of drivel.

Onward christian soldiers!

Destroy all that does not agree with your views.

CSB said...

As you are clearly unaware (despite your confident attack on me),it is my habit to delete fake "comments" which are indiscriminately auto-spammed and consist of badly disguised advertising (for drugs, dating services, etc.). This post got flooded with them.

The only comments I have ever deleted for content were a series of diatribes by an apparently unstable opponent of Pennsylvania congressional candidate Diana Irey (none of them abusive or offensive to me, but to Irey and her supporters).

I do not delete posts because I disagree with them, or find them insulting. But I do answer them as far as is necessary-- like the one that called me "retarded." It remains in place, to the everlasting shame of the fool who used that word.