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The Fallout from One Mom's Voice
By Ellen Goodman
The headline this morning labels her ''peace mom." It's a moniker that simultaneously personalizes and trivializes the lanky woman with the high-pitched voice who has been camping out in Crawford, Texas. It's a shorthand that both grants and diminishes her authority to speak out against the war, a moral authority won the hardest way possible, through the loss of her child.
We are now ending Week Two at Camp Casey. The August phenomenon of 2005 is not shark bites or missing women, but a mother who showed up at the president's vacation doorstep. Cindy Sheehan came impulsively, intemperately to ask the president of the United States why he ''killed" the ''sweet boy" whose brief life span is tattooed on her left ankle: ''Casey '79-'04."
If Week One was the Making of a Celebrity with dawn-to-dusk coverage, Week Two brought the backlash and the bloggers. Conservative cable kings like Bill O'Reilly proved that not even the death of a child grants you immunity from attack. Iconoclast Christopher Hitchens took her on with a glee he once reserved for Mother Teresa.
In Week One, antiwar groups found a face for their cause and promoted Cindy dot-orgs and meet-ups and vigils. In Week Two, prowar supporters have tried to make the war protest all about Cindy. She was dubbed the ''Poster Child for Surrender" and ''America's Most Embarrassing Mother." But, in fact, this woman with a reckless courage born of grief and anger -- ''I'm not afraid of anything since my son was killed" -- directs her challenge to the ''swing voters" of this war. She presents a different image to those uneasy Americans who have so far held their tongues and their doubts out of respect to the war dead and their families.
The activism of ''peace mom" has not made peace in her family. She and her husband grieved in different ways until the announcement: ''Husband of 'Peace Mom' Sues for Divorce." Aunts and uncles on the prowar side of the family criticized her for ''promoting her own personal agenda and notoriety at the expense of her son's good name and reputation."
Indeed, there's no way to know what Casey Sheehan would say about peace or mom. An altar boy who wanted to be a military chaplain's assistant, he ended up a Humvee mechanic and died rescuing injured soldiers. But the split in his family now echoes a split in the American family over how you pay homage to the fallen. Like the mom of fallen Army Spc. Wilfredo Urbina who wants success ''so all this pain will be worth it"? Or like Cindy Sheehan, who tells the president not ''to use my son's name or my name to justify any more killings"?
This war was sold to the public as a matter of self-defense against weapons of mass destruction. But the WMDs never appeared.
Next we were told that Iraq was the front line in the war against terrorists: ''better there than here." But evidence shows that the vast majority of the foreign fighters are not relocated terrorists but new recruits radicalized by the war itself. More recently, we were told to ''stay the course" to ensure democracy in Iraq. But as Iraqis wrangle over a constitution that may not look anything like ours, the list of rationales gets shorter and the support for the war gets weaker.
Taken altogether, the polls show a majority of Americans now believe that it was a mistake to send troops to war, that the results are not worth the loss of American life, and that the war has not made us safer.
The most powerful argument left is the one the president repeats again and again: ''And the best way to honor the lives that have been given in this struggle is to complete the mission."
Enter Cindy Sheehan.
Until now, the rallying cry ''Support Our Troops" meant ''Support the War." One seemed inseparable from another. Criticizing the war felt like criticizing the troops. But on a dusty, hot road in Texas, Sheehan worked to sever this link.
So the question is not whether the president will talk with her. He won't. It's not whether she speaks for her son. We'll never know. It's not whether she is ''just a mom" or an anti-Bush agitator. She's both. It's whether nearly 1,900 Americans died in a war of choice and how painful that is to acknowledge. It's whether we go on quietly honoring those deaths with more deaths.
No wonder ''peace mom" has become a target of the war over the war. If she succeeds, the White House has lost perhaps the final and most powerful justification they offer a disheartened American public. At that point, there's no way out of the Iraq muddle. Except out.