Metropolis: Wednesday, August 17, 2005
Fighting War with Grief

Cindy Sheehan has a simple message, a support network — and timing.


Showing skin will get you media coverage in some circumstances. Outrageous behavior will get you noticed on the tv talk shows. But in today’s war protest arena, a denim skort, an every-Mom demeanor, and public grief and outrage are what seem to get the cameras rolling.

It’s worked for Cindy Sheehan in Crawford. With her t-shirt and plastic wristbands and her refusal to go away, she has managed in the last two weeks to attract more attention to the current anti-war movement than all the books, diplomats, ex-White House officials, and organized protest groups in the country.

Sheehan is the Vacaville, Calif., mother who has been trying since Aug. 6 to coax President George W. Bush off his 1,600-acre Crawford ranch to talk with her about the Iraq war that cost her a son. Specialist Casey Sheehan, a 24-year-old Army mechanic who volunteered to help rescue wounded soldiers, was killed on April 4, 2004, when his convoy was ambushed. Cindy Sheehan says her son didn’t believe in the war and joined up because his friends did. “I had to face the fact that my son died in vain,” she said.

Camp Casey, as they’re calling it, has grown from a haphazard assortment of lawn chairs, pup tents, and colorful anti-war signs to a mile-long parade of people spilling into a dusty roadway. Hundreds of small white crosses honoring the war dead have been placed nearby, and beyond them the wide-open space is dotted with modest to affluent rural homes. This normally quiet, August-parched ranchland four miles outside Crawford has been drawing hundreds of war protesters — and, recently, several busloads of war supporters from the Fort Worth-Dallas area. The plan is to camp outside Bush’s gate for the month of August — or until he agrees to visit.

That plan has grabbed more ink and air time with each passing day. Earlier this week, the news reports were of a cranky rancher who fired shots in the air to protest the protest. After that, a Crawford man was arrested for mowing down a swath of the crosses. He was caught by authorities while fixing a flat tire, part of a cross still caught beneath his truck. County commissioners started talking about closing the road to the ranch for safety reasons — but a sympathetic land owner then offered to let protesters use his land, which would be a little closer to the president’s ranch and would remove the need to use the roadside.

“People are getting upset and fighting and shooting, and I don’t want someone gettin’ hurt,” said McLennan County Commissioner Ray Meadows.

Sheehan’s sad and grieving maternal image has drawn some heavy-hitting supporters. Groups like the national help her map out strategy and get the word out A small army of women from the anti-war group Code Pink help schedule, take phone messages, answer e-mails, and surround Sheehan with umbrellas when it rains — or when troopers arrive. There’s even a former diplomat and ex-Army colonel fielding phone calls.

The encampment is being compared to a Vietnam-era protest — but not just because of the occasional tie-dyed shirt or the graying hippies who’ve become fixtures there. Sheehan’s PR effort has made national and international news at a time when troop deaths have soared to new highs and approval ratings in the White House have settled into unprecedented lows.

The message — that soldiers are not dying for a noble cause but rather for an unjust and deceptively marketed one — isn’t novel. Organizations like have been saying it for years. The presidential primary race offered up candidates who said the same, as have well-known figures from filmmaker Michael Moore to Sen. Ted Kennedy to talk show host Al Franken. Two high-ranking administration officials who left the White House wrote books that were similarly critical.

Sheehan’s timing — and her credibility — make her efforts unique, says one observer. “There is a convergence of factors that has led to her becoming very compelling,” said Amy Jasperson, associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “More Marines are dying, gas prices are up, more time has gone by without Iraq being solved. The public has reached a fatigue point.”

Last weekend, Ann Wright, the former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Mongolia who resigned in 2003 to protest the war, helped field the 20 or so calls Sheehan was getting every five minutes. Wright, a retired Army colonel who holds advanced degrees in law and national security studies, said Sheehan’s approach works because people can relate to her and she’s telling the truth.

“People really want someone to rally around,” said Wright, who traveled to Crawford from Honolulu. “Cindy is that person.”

Sheehan also comes armed with the facts — her suitcase on wheels is her “traveling office,” she jokes. And she appears to be comfortable with confrontation. She knows the 9/11 commission’s report like the back of her hand and can tick off for reporters the conclusions drawn by U.S. Senate hearings and the Downing Street memo.

“I am a very informed grieving mother,” she said. “Because I am a grieving mother, [that] becomes a way to dismiss me, to marginalize me. But they can’t marginalize me because I know the truth.”

Even Crawford residents who disagree with her anti-war stand admit that she’s compelling. “Yeah, that mom is moving. And sad. But she’s not the only person who has had to deal with losing someone in the war,” said one Crawford man, who declined to give his name. “I don’t agree with her at all.”

One day last week, Sheehan was doing back-to-back interviews by cell phone and in person from the only speck of shade out on the prairie. Reporters from the Wall Street Journal, NBC, Texas papers, and People magazine waited politely to sit in the folded chair next to her while photographers, film crews, and a documentary artist circled around her.

The interviews went on until a couple of Texas state troopers who had been driving back and forth on the dusty road climbed out of their squad cars. Immediately, the rosy hues of Code Pink women, in flowing pink skirts and carrying hot pink umbrellas, gathered around Sheehan like a shield. Wright, the former foreign relations deputy-turned-vocal war critic, led the pack.

The troopers told Sheehan and the others that they had to vacate the triangular patch where they’d pitched tents and parked cars because a private landowner had complained. They could move to county land a short distance away. “You’ve got 12 minutes,” said the trooper, looking at his watch.

Sheehan grabbed her cell phone to call her lawyer. But in the end, she and her advisors decided to move and not fight.

Back in town, supporters gather at the ramshackle Peace House. Always a refuge during anti-war protests since Bush moved to his nearby ranch, it has now officially become an international tourist stop. Sheehan supporters stream in and out of the clapboard house, which is short on air conditioning and long on peace slogans. The names of those killed in Iraq cover walls and tabletops. On this particular day, a war supporter knows this is where to find the most listeners when he slows down his pickup truck long enough to yell out the window, “Go Bush! Pro-war!”

Sheehan said she’s succeeded whether or not she gets a visit from the president. In between interviews and telephone conference calls, she said she thinks she’s brought the debate closer to the truth.

“No one wants to think their loved one died in vain. But a lot of times the truth is painful,” she said, her blue-gray eyes flickering with tears. “There is resistance to this ... because there are so many people in America who supported it in the first place. If you support something, you need to take responsibility for it when it turns out to be wrong.

“Nobody wants to think that they were fooled.”

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