Tuesday, August 09, 2005

A Mother's Tears

I never met my uncle Walter. He died more than a decade before I was born, during the invasion of Peleliu during World War II. My grandparents learned of their youngest son's death in a short, cryptic telegram from the War Department, informing them that he had been killed in combat. Later, they received a letter from one of Walter's fellow Marines who informed them that he had died instantly, after being blown apart by a Japanese mortar shell.

To this day, I'm not really sure how my grandparents or my mother (Walter's younger sister) dealt with his death. In World War II, grief was something expressed in private. There were no support groups, visits by military notification teams, or private meetings with senior government officials. From what I could tell (as a young child), my grandparents and Walter's surviving siblings grieved over his loss, then tried to get on with life, as best they could. Until her death, my grandmother continued to fly a small, gold star flag in her living room window, signifying the family's sacrifice during World War II.

Contrast the behavior of my grandparents--and other World War II families--with the actions of Cindy Sheehan, the newest poster girl for the anti-war crowd. Ms. Sheehan's son, Army Specialist Casey Sheehan, was killed in Iraq in April 2004. Ms. Sheehan is currently staging a protest outside President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, vowing to remain there until the Commander-in-Chief agrees to meet with her and the families of other soldiers killed in Iraq.

In recent press interviews, Ms. Sheehan has accused President Bush of "killing her son." But, thanks to Matt Drudge, we know that Ms. Sheehan has changed her tune over the past year. Drudge unearthed a report in a Vacaville, CA newspaper from last year, describing a meeting between Bush and the families of dead soldiers at Fort Lewis, Washington, a session that Ms. Sheehan was invited to and willingly participated in. Ms. Sheehan told the California paper that the President was supportive and compassionate during that meeting; more recently, she has described the President's conduct as cavalier and callous.

What changed? Has Ms. Sheehan's grief morphed into righteous anger? Perhaps, but I believe there's another explanation for her dramatic change-of-heart. Quite simply, I believe Ms. Sheehan has filled the sudden emptiness in her life with the siren call of celebrity. Suddenly, she's being beseiged with requests for interviews, and seeing her name and picture in the newspaper. It can be heady stuff. Consider the example of Marc Klass, the California father whose young daughter, Polly, was brutally murdured more than 10 years ago. That ordeal elevated Mr. Klass to celebrity status, and he's alwasy on TV whenever there's a high-profile kidnapping or murder case involving a child. I might be reading him wrong, but Mr. Klass strikes me as someone in love with the sound of his own voice. I see a similar quality in Ms. Sheehan, who appears willing to trade on personal tragedy in pursuit of the public spotlight.

I have no doubt that the grief Ms. Sheehan feels is genuine. As the father of four children, I can only imagine the shock and horror that accompanies the death of a son or daughter. But I also know that there are more productive ways to deal with a combat death than staging a media event outside the President's ranch. Ms. Sheehan might consider working with the families of other dead service members, or raising money for the surviving sons and daughters of military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But such work takes time, effort and (besides) it attracts little publicity.

There is also a personal danger in Ms. Sheehan's approach. In some respects, she reminds me of Norma Jean McCorvey, the "Jane Roe" of the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion case. As Ms. McCorvey noted years later, she was essentially "used" by abortion advocates, seeking to overturn Texas' anti-abortion law. After the Supreme Court decision, Ms. McCorvey was dumped by her feminist supporters, leaving her alone to cope with the consequences of the ruling, and her personal decision to have an abortion.

Listening to a radio interview between Ms. Sheehan and Tony Snow, I heard a woman who had been coached in the talking points of the anti-war movement. But when the questions got tougher, Ms. Sheehan became flustered and eventually hung up, suggesting someone who's being manipulated by others in her movement. It doesn't take a spin doctor to realize that Sheehan may well become the Norma Jean McCorvey of the anti-war movement; Once the Iraq War ends--or they simply find a more coherent spokesman, Ms. Sheehan will find herself on the ash heap of celebrity, alone to mourn the loss of a son, and her brief media career. No one deserves to lose a son or daughter in combat, but I'll be glad to see Cindy Sheehan disappear from the public eye.

No comments: