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August 10, 2005

Angry Mothers and Trembling Grizzlies: The Sheehan Effect


by Dr. Teresa Whitehurst

"Sheehan has been involved in protests against Bush since last year. She founded Gold Star Families for Peace...She said she decided to seek another audience with Bush when she heard his comments about the war last week, after a spike in American deaths. The fallen men and women "died in a noble cause," Bush said Wednesday. "Their families can know that we will honor their loved ones' sacrifice by completing the mission."

"Sheehan said she wants to tell Bush not to use her son's death as a reason to continue the war, and to ask "why (Bush's twin daughters) Jenna and Barbara and the other children of the architects of this disastrous war are not in harm's way, if the cause is so noble." ArmyTimes.com, August 8, 2005

For some, Cindy Sheehan's lonely journey through the shock and sorrow of her son Casey's death in Iraq is of no interest. What, they ask, is the big deal? One soldier killed, one mother grieving – so what? Mothers have no business meddling in the manly business of war, or expressing inconvenient, disloyal, unpatriotic feelings like grief or anger. Get over it, critics command, and think about "the mission" instead, a mission that "we should see through" so that other people can't make fun of us for "cutting and running."

Instead of focusing on one poor misguided woman, or on how many more Americans and innocent Iraqi families will be killed in this war, we're told to think about how great it will be when other people admire us for killing every terrorist and future terrorist in the whole wide world. Instead of thinking about the new fundamentalist Islamic "democracy" that Bush's war has ushered in for the poor girls and women of Iraq, think about "the good news" way, way down the road when they get used to wearing the burqa and live happily ever after. In short, Americans should focus on "the big picture."

But for mothers – even those who've tried valiantly to believe the president when he exclaims that the war on Iraq is a "noble cause" – there IS no big picture. For mothers of slain soldiers, there are only little pictures: their lost child smiling at 10 months in his high chair; riding his first bike without training wheels; opening Christmas presents (Hot Wheels, Transformers, or GI Joe); and making silly faces for the camera.

The little picture encompasses all those times when parents stay up all night with their sick children, or protect them from bullies, or wipe away their tears after a friend's rejection. It's not just the happy times that mothers remember, it's the multitude of little moments, little pictures in a parent's mind, of time and love invested in one's offspring. When this enormous investment is squandered by reckless military adventures that zip kids into body bags, parents are owed great compensation. And they are owed the truth.

Do George and Laura Bush ever imagine how it would feel if all they had left of their beloved child was, as Cindy Sheehan has, a few snapshots and an abyss of sorrow in their hearts? Must they suppress their natural compassion in order to convince themselves of their own administration's spin – that it's "worth it" when American kids die far away from home for reasons that have consistently turned out to be false?

Do the Bushes feel the earth tremble beneath their feet at the mere thought that thousands of parents of slain soldiers are beginning to ask questions, to see the folly for which their children died…to find their voice?

Cindy remembers the little picture, which is why George has been hiding from her. She is his worst nightmare, for she is not just Cindy Sheehan, mother of Casey. She is Every Mother. And, no matter how uncomfortable it gets, she's not going to dishonor her son by saying, "Well okay, if you say so, I guess this war was worth my boy's life."

Support Our Wars or Else

What does it really mean to "honor" a soldier's death…and life? To say that he or she willingly died "to end terrorism" (impossible), or "make Iraq a democracy" (ditto)? Unless they were suicidal when they enlisted (I know one boy who was), dying in Iraq is not the soldier's "sacrifice" because by definition, a sacrifice is something that we choose and willingly make. Most young people never imagined when they enlisted – often for reasons their recruiters understood but their parents didn't, such as finding a sense of belonging, or escaping bad neighborhoods or dead-end jobs, or finding a way to afford college some day – that they'd be dead within a matter of months.

To swallow ridiculous, ever-changing reasons for the futile war that has killed over 1800 idealistic youths with their whole lives ahead of them is to take the easy, socially acceptable way out. Pro-war pundits and politicians constantly threaten parents with social disapproval and even hatred if they dare to question those reasons – and it's worked for a long time. Parents have felt pressured to mouth the hawks' lines, lest their love for their child be called into question.

What a devilishly mean but perfect system for subduing the parents of fallen soldiers! Politicians and talk show hosts threaten: "Support our troops (the war), or we'll accuse you of dishonoring your dead child." The last thing that worried or grieving parents can bear is the suggestion that they're "dishonoring" the memory of the one they love. And so they have acquiesced. They have submitted. Archie Bunker would be pleased: Like Edith, they've learned to stifle themselves.

Until now.

Protective Fury: The Tipping Point

One day, back when Americans lived in peace and we'd never even heard of the Bush dynasty or the plotting neocons whose reckless ambitions it would serve, I was watching a nature show about grizzly bears in their natural habitat. I will never forget one particularly electrifying scene that comes to mind whenever I hear about Cindy Sheehan's vigil outside Mr. Bush's gated compound.

A large male grizzly came upon two adorable little grizzly cubs, who looked up at him with wonder and naivete; clearly, they didn't realize the danger they were in. To my great surprise, however, the male grizzly stood bolt upright as though startled, then starting running away from those harmless little cubs. Why on earth did he do that, I wondered. The narrator explained that the male knew instinctively that there's nothing more dangerous than a mother grizzly who senses that her cubs may be harmed.

As the huge male ran off into the woods, the narrator continued: "While the male grizzly is larger and could probably kill the female, he knows that in the process, her protective fury would leave him seriously, if not mortally, wounded. Mother grizzly bears will fight to the death for their young, ripping the flesh of any animal, no matter how large, that threatens their cubs. Coming upon the youngsters frightened the adult male so badly that he ran and hid because the mother, unseen but without a doubt somewhere near by, could at any moment sniff his presence and roar into action."

Human males can also sense danger, and know very well the hazards of facing protective mothers – particularly when other mothers are watching, too. This explains why the mainstream media has worked so hard to make antiwar parents of fallen soldiers look pitiful, and why George Bush is hiding inside his compound, hoping that Ms. Sheehan will lose interest and go away.

But what the president doesn't understand is this: She's not going to lose interest, and furthermore it isn't just Cindy Sheehan anymore. Parents of servicemen and women all over the country are beginning to see the little picture again. This is the tipping point, a showdown fueled by motherly devotion that will embolden other families to start questioning the integrity and fitness of this administration and this president: It's what I call the Sheehan Effect.

And that's the worst news ever for a man who can only see the "the mission," the big picture, and how noble it will look under "Bush, George W." in the history books.


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Dr. Teresa Whitehurst is a clinical psychologist, author of Jesus on Parenting(2004) and coauthor of The Nonviolent Christian Parent (2004). She offers parenting workshops, holds discussion groups on Nonviolent Christianity, and writes the column, "Democracy, Faith and Values: Because You Shouldn’t Have to Choose Just One." Visit her website.

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