Every generation has its moment where an older politician brings the fire and brimstone and plays cultural Moses....
I will never, ever forget the night of April 4, 2004, when I found out my son Casey had been killed in Iraq,” Cindy Sheehan recalls. “I will also never forget the day when we buried my sweet boy, my oldest son. If I live to be a very old lady and forget everything else, I will never forget when the general handed me the folded flag that had lain on his coffin, as his brother and sisters, standing behind me, sobbed.”
The first thing that strikes you about Cindy Sheehan is she is genuine. There is no artifice, power play, or lexical wizardry. She is without affectation. And that has enabled her to make an impact. She has reached beyond intellectual formulations to get to the heart of the matter.
Her August vigil at Bush’s Texas ranch rejuvenated a somewhat moribund peace movement. People in the thousands drove to Crawford in solidarity. Hundreds of Camp Caseys sprang up all over the country.
Evoking Gandhi, she says, “In 2005, we learned that we have the power. We learned that we can’t rely on the propaganda media or the empty promises of most of our elected leadership. We learned that we need to be the change that we desire to be.”
She has no faith in some of the leading Democrats. “We are holding such Republicans in Democratic clothing like Hillary Clinton, Joe Lieberman, Joe Biden, and Dianne Feinstein accountable for their support of what George is doing in Iraq,” she says, as her voice rises. “When we as Democrats elect our leaders we expect them to reject and loudly repudiate the murderous and corrupt policies of the Administration—not support and defend them.” She is considering a run for the Senate against Feinstein.
The right wing has tried to pillory her with the perfunctory anti-American, anti-Israel charges.
And in her case they have taken it a bit further. Bill O’Reilly said, “She’s run by far-left elements who are using her, and she’s dumb enough to allow it to happen.”
But she is very much her own woman, and she feels deeply and personally about the Iraq War. Sheehan speaks at protests around the country (she was arrested in front of the White House on September 26) and around the world (she was a keynote speaker at the World Social Forum in Caracas in January). At Bush’s State of the Union address, she was arrested merely for having a T-shirt on that said “2,245 Dead. How Many More?” She’s the author of two books: Dear President Bush and Not One More Mother’s Child.
Sheehan has joined Alice Walker, Susan Sarandon, Barbara Lee, Eve Ensler, and international activists to launch a global Women Say No to War campaign. They have planned major actions for International Women’s Day on March 8. “The pain this war has caused people all over the world is unimaginable,” Sheehan says. “I’ve met women from so many different countries who are ready to stand together to make our leaders end this madness, and it doesn’t matter that we speak different languages—our hearts understand the pain and needless loss that have been caused by this war.”
I talked with her in Venice, California, on December 28. A few weeks later, as I was driving through Colorado Springs, a center of the military-fundamentalist complex, I noticed even there a Camp Casey.
Question: Your daughter Carly wrote a poem called “A Nation Rocked to Sleep.” She gave this to you just a few weeks after Casey’s death.
Cindy Sheehan: Yes, she did, and here’s the first and last verse of the poem:
Have you ever heard the sound of a mother screaming
for her son?
The torrential weeping of a mother will never be
They call him a hero, you should be glad he’s one,
But have you ever heard the sound of a mother
weeping for her son?
Have you ever heard the sound of a nation being
rocked to sleep?
The leaders want to keep you numb so the pain won’t
be so deep.
But if we the people let them continue, another mother
Have you ever heard the sound of a nation being
rocked to sleep?
Q: What did this poem do for you?
Sheehan: It actually gave me a reason to live. It gave me my motivation to get up in the morning. I didn’t do anything to protest the war, to try and stop the war, before Casey went. And I thought, now that I know the truth, now that I know how much it hurts to have a child killed in that illegal and immoral war, I can’t just sit on the couch, wallowing in my own grief. I have to get up and do something. I have to try to stop it from happening to another mother.
Q: What were the first couple of steps you took?
Sheehan: The first thing I did was connect with the Mitchell family, in Paso Robles, California. Bill Mitchell is the father. His son Michael was killed the same day as Casey, in the same incident. Bill had founded Military Families Speak Out, and he sent me the link. I signed up for Military Families Speak Out. I also sent them Carly’s poem, which they posted on the website. They started sending me requests for speaking engagements.
I didn’t feel comfortable with speaking until July 4, 2004. I was just going to support another Gold Star Mom who was speaking in Berkeley, California. But when I got there, I decided that I wanted to speak. I spoke that day, and I really haven’t shut up since.
Q: You’ve said, “We get up every morning, and every morning we see this enormous mountain in front of us. We can’t go through it, we can’t go under it, so we have to go over it.” Talk about overcoming obstacles.
Sheehan: Just waking up and getting out of bed after you’ve buried a child is almost too much to ask one person to do. I realize that bringing the troops home and having somebody held accountable for Casey’s needless death is an immense undertaking, but we can’t go back. As much as we’d like to go back to before Casey was killed, we can’t. So we have to go forward and we have to go up. Every day is an uphill battle. Sometimes you make progress, sometimes you slide back. But it’s the only way to go.
Q: Talk about the support you’ve received from other military families.
Sheehan: It’s so important. I know in my own organization, Gold Star Families for Peace, not only do we advocate for an immediate withdrawal of the troops, we’re also a support group. We all have lost a loved one in war. I say lost, but I don’t like that euphemism because Casey wasn’t lost; he was killed by George Bush’s murderous policies in the Middle East.
Q: You’ve been called the Rosa Parks of the anti-war movement. How do you feel about that comparison?
Sheehan: To be compared to Rosa Parks, I don’t think I’m worthy of that. I just did what I thought needed to be done and what I thought was right. August 3 is when I thought of the idea to go to Crawford. August 6 is when I went down there. And that’s when I sat down in the ditch and said, I’m not moving until George Bush comes out and talks to me. It was just me and my sister. We didn’t have any other groups with us at the time. Then they joined in.
Q: Rosa Parks once said, “I wasn’t tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. The only tired I was, was the tired of giving in.”
Sheehan: I was also tired. I was tired of the lies, I was tired of the media not asking George Bush the right questions, I was tired of Congress not holding him accountable. And I just thought, you know what, if these people who are in power won’t do something, I’m going to try and go down and get the answers.
Q: Why do you think Bush went to war in Iraq?
Sheehan: I really think you would have to look at where these billions of dollars are going. They’re going to the Halliburtons, the Bechtels, the Blackwaters. If you read something like War Is a Racket by General Smedley Butler, then you know why our country goes to war. A hundred percent of the time it’s to feed the war machine, it’s to make the war profiteers richer.
Q: There has been, as you suggest, an endless series of rationales to justify the invasion and occupation. One of the latest is Bush saying, “Our objective is a democratic Iraq.” If electoral trends continue as they have, it may be a theocratic one rather than a democratic one.
Sheehan: That’s what’s happening. Moqtada Al-Sadr apparently was a big winner in the December election, which the Sunnis are disputing. He’s a Shia, and his followers are responsible for my son’s death. He led an uprising against the Americans. I hate to tell George Bush this, but a theocracy is not a democracy. And that’s not why he said we were going to invade Iraq.
Q: What do you think about the uses of faith and the invocation of God to justify war?
Sheehan: George Bush has made the Christian faith an obscenity. To rationalize what he’s doing in Iraq because God told him to do it or to make Jesus some kind of a warmonger is another immorality. And for people in America to buy that? I had somebody e-mail me who said, “You know what, Jesus wants me to slap the crap out of you, because he wants me to slap some sense into you to realize that what we’re doing in Iraq is a good thing.” That is just so hypocritical and wrong beyond anything.
I was a Catholic youth minister for eight years. I am a follower of the teachings of Jesus Christ. And I know that the Jesus that I studied about in the Gospels would not approve of what George Bush is doing. I believe that religious extremism, whether it’s Jewish, Muslim, or Christian, has caused a lot of problems in the world for centuries. Leaders misuse religion to have the masses follow them. You can’t invoke your religion to do things that you know the founder or the prophet of that religion would be against.
Q: Bush infamously announced “Mission Accomplished” on May 1, 2003. Had it been accomplished, of course, Casey and many tens of thousands of others would be alive today. What would a real Mission Accomplished be?
Sheehan: We need to just get our military presence out of Iraq. And I don’t think that’s going to happen while George Bush is President, so we have to get George Bush out of office. We have to get our troops home. A Mission Accomplished would be for the Iraqi people to rebuild their government and have whatever system of government they want. Because—you know what?—it’s their country. It’s not the fifty-first state of America. I’ve talked to many Iraqis who say, “We didn’t need your military presence here, we don’t want it here.” I think 85 percent, 87 percent, of the country wants the occupation to end. And if George Bush believes in democracy then he should do what the Iraqi people want and get the troops out of there.
We’ve made a horrible mess of that country. The people there want peace, they want their electricity back, they want their water back, they want their jobs. They want America out.
Q: What are your views on Israel and Palestine?
Sheehan: I believe that a lot of our problems with Muslim terrorists center on the conflict between Israel and Palestine. I believe that these are two separate peoples that can solve their differences without violence, that they can peacefully coexist if both sides are willing to work together. I believe Israel has a right to exist and I believe the Palestinian people have a right to exist. I just believe that killing and occupying another country’s land is wrong, no matter who does it. If it’s America, if it’s Israel, or whatever, I believe that it’s wrong. And I believe that we have to work together to solve things without violence and without killing, on any side. I don’t like Palestinians killing Israelis, Israelis killing Palestinians. I don’t like the insurgents killing Americans. My son was killed by an insurgent. I don’t like Americans killing innocent Iraqis either.
We have to force our leaders to solve problems. Just because I’m against the policies of the Israeli government toward Palestine does not mean I’m anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. Just because I’m against George Bush and his policies doesn’t mean I’m anti-American. I just believe that we have to force our leaders to work for peace and not for killing.
Q: When Representative John Murtha, who is close to the military, issued a statement in favor of withdrawal, did that create some daylight for dissent?
Sheehan: It did, and I think it was a good thing for him to do. Although I am against the strategic redeployment plan of the DLC that he is in favor of, it would at least start bringing our troops out of Iraq. But the way he came out against it, with so much emotion and so much information, for him to be a combat veteran himself and to come out and say that did carry a lot of weight with a lot of people. They tried to Swift-Boat him, and he just said, “You’re calling me a coward when you’ve got five deferments? Please.”
What we should do is admit that we made a mistake and start pulling our troops out, then put in an army of diplomats. But there is going to be a point where some Administration is going to say enough is enough, and they’re going to bring the troops home. Why don’t we do it now, before any more innocent Iraqis are killed and any more of our soldiers are killed? I’ve heard people say, “Let’s declare victory and get out of there.” Our soldiers have completed every single benchmark that this Administration has set for them. Why don’t we say that we are victorious, they had their elections, and let’s get our troops out of there and let the Iraqi people with a multinational face on it, especially an Arab face, solve the problems without killing?
Q: Why do you think it’s impossible for the U.S. military to win in Iraq?
Sheehan: You can’t be successful in Iraq. The generals on the ground have said that. There is not a military solution. What would happen if we put more troops in? Would that effectively kill more Iraqi people so we could get out of there? It’s insane. Are we fighting terrorism or are we creating terrorism? Obviously, we’re creating terrorism and an insurgency by our military presence there.
Q: Your son volunteered for the military. What do you think of calls for reinstituting the draft?
Sheehan: No. I don’t want to put any more of our children in the hands of the warmongers and the war machine and the war profiteers. I think that would be a terrible idea. If there is a draft, I would just tell everybody with draft-age children and draft-age children to resist, resist, resist. Do not put yourself in the hands of people who would kill you to line their pockets with your blood.
Q: The No Child Left Behind law had a provision that permitted schools to provide information to the Pentagon for military recruitment. What about efforts to keep military recruiters out of high schools?
Sheehan: Actually, No Child Left Behind didn’t permit high schools to give recruiters directory information, it forced them to. If they wanted to get any federal funding, they had to give the directory information to recruiters. And every organization that we work with does counter-recruitment, which is one of the keys to shutting down the war machine. If the human cannon fodder dries up, they won’t be able to fight wars. It is very important for peace advocates to go to high schools and hand out flyers or do whatever you can do to stop the children from joining the military.
If every peace person just stops one kid from joining the military, that’s one potential American life saved. And how many “enemy” lives are we saving if we prevent one child each from joining the military?
Q: In September, you met with Hillary Clinton and Harry Reid. Your comments on Senator Clinton were widely quoted, but what did Harry Reid have to say?
Sheehan: Harry Reid basically just listened to us the entire time we were there. He had to leave before Hillary because there was a debate going on in the Senate. But before he left, I asked, “So, Senator Reid, are you ready to lead our country out of Iraq?” And he said, “I don’t think I have any choice.” That was about the only thing he said. And then not too long after that, he closed the Senate to debate on the intelligence question that was never fully investigated before the elections last year.
And you know what Hillary said? She said we have to stay the course so my son’s death will not be in vain. I think that was a slap in my face, because I had been calling for months for them to quit saying that, not to justify more killing on the basis that Casey is dead.
Q: You had said you’d love to support her for President.
Sheehan: I think it’s too late. She has come out saying that it’s not time to withdraw our troops. And if she comes out now and says, “This war is wrong, we need to bring the troops home,” I would think it was her politically expedient time to do it. When I talked to her in September, I said, “The longer you wait, the more of our children are dying for no reason.” She is waiting for the time when it will make more sense for her career. To me, to base our children’s flesh and blood on a political career is not moral. If she came out now, it would be because it was the politically expedient thing to do. We have to support our elected officials who have been calling for an end to the occupation of Iraq for many months now. But since Camp Casey I see a lot more of our elected leaders coming out against the war. I think it’s because they see the grassroots movement. They’re worried about their jobs.
Q: In 2004, there were two pro-war candidates. Do you see that happening again in 2008?
Sheehan: It probably will happen, and if it does, we’ll have to support a third-party candidate if they’re for peace. We have to show our elected officials that we are a nation that wants to support peace and not killing.
Q: What steps can people take?
Sheehan: People need to start putting pressure on their elected officials for an investigation into the war crimes. They need to support John Conyers and his call for censure of this administration, and they need to support Gold Star Families for Peace and all our actions that we have coming up. We’re going to go back to Camp Casey during Easter week. And we’re going to have an action at Barbara Bush’s home in Houston called “For God’s Sake, Can’t You Make Him Stop?” You just need to use your voice and use your presence and go out of your comfort zone, because the longer we let this Administration continue with its war crimes and trampling on our Constitution and our civil rights, the more harm it’s doing to humanity.
Q: You say, “I’m a catalyst for change, but I don’t want to be the focus of change.”
Sheehan: I just try and keep my focus on my goal, and that’s bringing the troops home. If that’s my focus, then hopefully that will be the focus of anybody who sees an interview with me or hears a speech I may give. That’s what I want. I don’t want the focus to be on me. I want the focus to be on every person who’s been killed in this war, whether they’re Iraqi or American or Coalition troops, and to energize people to work for change. And if people do look at me, I hope they’ll say, “Wow, one person can make a difference. So what can I do to try and make the world a better place?”
David Barsamian is the director of Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado. He interviewed Robert Fisk in the June 2005 issue. His latest book is “Imperial Ambitions: Conversations on the Post-9/11 World with Noam Chomsky.”