October 27, 2005

My Meeting With Cindy Sheehan

"WASHINGTON -- In a shift of emphasis, President Bush on Friday termed the war against Iraq 'a noble purpose' . . . ."
--Edward Chen, "Bush shifts emphasis, calls war 'a noble cause,'" Los Angeles Times, March 29, 2003

Today I had a meeting in downtown Washington DC. At the meeting, I was told that there was no need for me to find something "compelling" about the particular case we were discussing. I was disappointed to hear that comment, since I find that when things are compelling, life becomes much more exciting. In fact, after the meeting, I wandered a few blocks down to the White House. I had found going to the White House compelling because I had read that Cindy Sheehan was holding a vigil there. For the few of you who may be not have been paying attention, Cindy Sheehan is the mother of U.S. Army Specialist Casey Sheehan, who was killed in Iraq in April 2004. Last August, Cindy Sheehan attained worlwide notoriety by camping out at makeshift "Camp Casey" near President Bush's ranch in Crawford, TX while Bush was on one of his 5-week vacations, and demanding to meet with Bush to ask what was the specific "noble cause" for which Casey Sheehan had died. Bush refused to meet with her, and, coincidentally, his presidency has been spiraling downward ever since.

Walking through Lafayette Park toward the Pennsylvania Avenue side of the White house is now intimidating. A row of black iron barriers crosses the park, turning this once tranquil spot into DC's version of Omaha Beach. Across from a guardhouse, a black SUV with U.S. Government plates sits on the side street, its occupants scoping the area. Armed, uniformed officers patrol the street, which is now a pedestrian mall. Where I used to rollerblade, it feels like a fortress under siege. In the middle of the mall were about a half dozen folks, one of them holding a banner that read "Bring the Troops Home Now." A few tourists drifted by. At the edge of the park facing the White House, about a half dozen additional folks milled about, one with a sign that read "2,000 is Too Many." Another man with a Middle Eastern sounding accent had a large sign hanging around his neck like an albatross, with a photo of a soldier and a caption indicating that his son, the boy in the photo, had been killed in Iraq. One man held a skinny sign aloft indicating repeatedly that "Bush Lied." In the middle of this small gathering, behind a table, a short dark-haired woman in a blue parka shook hands and spoke to a tall woman with starkly cut golden hair, a long black wool overcoat and sneakers. She looked like a soccer mom, or perhaps a librarian. It was Cindy Sheehan.

When the short woman stepped away, I approached Cindy and introduced myself, telling her first that I was very sorry for her loss. Cindy shook my hand and held it much longer than the usual handshake. She stands almost six feet tall and appears American in a Midwestern kind of way. I looked into her pale blue deep-set eyes, and saw pain. Her tanned face was creased, and I guessed her to be in her fifties. When I looked up her biography later today, I was startled to find out that she is only 48. I have a feeling that she has aged those extra years in the past two.

I told Cindy that I am a moderate Democrat, and that I know some thoughtful, moderate Republicans who concede that the U.S. had invaded Iraq for the wrong reasons, but now that our soldiers are there, we couldn't simply pull them out, that to do so would be a sign of weakness and a loss of prestige, which would hurt us geopolitically. I asked Cindy how I could respond to this argument. She said, in a high, quavery and strangely young-sounding voice, that many Democrats also have this view, but that our military presence in Iraq is the problem, not the solution, and the sooner everyone realized that, the better. Sheehan said that she had taught her children "to solve problems with words, not violence." I asked her whether she then believed that all U.S. troops should be pulled out of Iraq immediately, or whether there should be a phased withdrawal. Sheehan said there should be a phased withdrawal. However, she said that John Kerry's proposal, announced in his speech at Georgetown University yesterday, that 20,000 troops should be brought home by this Christmas, was inadequate -- I think Cindy used the term "f___ing bull____" -- because, according to her, 20,000 extra U.S. troops were recently sent to Iraq for the elections.

I asked Cindy what she thought about Democratic senators, such as John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, several of whom were running for president, who had voted to give President Bush the authority to use military force against Iraq, and how it seemed like they were voting against their principles out of fear that otherwise they would be branded as weak on security and defense. Sheehan had nothing but contempt for these Democrats, especially John Kerry, with his seeming inability during the 2004 campaign to take a clear stand on the Iraq War and stick with it. Sheehan also told me that she met with Howard Dean yesterday and pleaded with him to rally Democrats around the issue of bringing the troops home from Iraq. She said she told Dean that Democrats needed a cause to unite them, and this was the natural one, the issue of our time. But, Sheehan said rather disappointedly, Dean merely told her this was a very hard issue. She said she told him, "you know what, it is a hard issue. What I do is get up in the morning and do the hard things first, then the rest of the day is easy." Sheehan told me that she had been arrested last night, and expected to be arrested again tonight. I had read that she was planning to chain herself to the White House fence. I thought that telling Cindy Sheehan that something is hard is probably not the best approach.

As I began to wrap up our discussion, Cindy bent down toward the table and pointed to a book by Adam Shapiro et al., entitled "Neocon Middle East Policy: the Clean Break Plan Damage Assessment." The book's cover contains a photo of about 18 flag-draped coffins in three rows, as well as photos of Richard Perle and a couple of bespectacled men I did not recognize but whom I assume are noted neoconservatives. Cindy pointed to the photo and said that her son was in one of those flag-draped coffins in the photo, and added sarcastically, "isn't that great?"

I thanked Cindy for taking the lead on this issue, and told her that many people are afraid to lead on this, but are following her example. She told me that she never wanted to be a leader. I took that as having two meanings -- first, the literal meaning that she didn't want to be a leader of the anti-war movement, and second, that she never wanted to be thrust into the movement by having her son killed in the first place. As I turned to leave, I noticed that a cameraman was a couple of feet away, and had been filming us, apparently for some time. I don't know whether he was with the press, or perhaps the White House attack squad.

Whether or not you agree with Cindy Sheehan's tactics, or think that she is a clown or a buffoon, put yourself in Cindy's sneakers for one day. Try to imagine your child being killed in a war, and then coming to the conclusion that the war was begun, and is still being fought, for imaginary or even fraudulent reasons. I felt privileged to have met a woman of such strength and character. I wondered how Casey Sheehan had felt upon joining the Army, how he must have found the noble cause of serving his country very compelling. I wondered what it was like now for Cindy Sheehan, who must find it so compelling to honor her son and to try to save other mothers from having to honor their dead sons and daughters for a fictitious war. I wondered how empty life must be for people who do not find anything compelling.


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