After Cindy Sheehan

The antiwar movement was dominated by lefties and ineffective -- until a grieving mother from California became its symbol. With Middle America now asking the same angry questions she is, will the movement finally take off?

By Farhad Manjoo
August 20, 2005 2:44AM (UTC)
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The day before he was killed in a helicopter crash near Ar Rutbah in western Iraq, John House, a 28-year-old hospital corpsman in the Navy, told his wife that the worst was over and he'd be coming home in a matter of weeks. "He said, 'We've got one more thing to do, providing security for the elections,'" recalls Melanie House, who's now a 27-year-old widow and single mother living in Simi Valley, Calif. "It seemed too good to be true that he was going to be leaving Iraq." Two days later, "I got a knock on the door," House says. "It was every military wife's worst fear."

Melanie House is no radical. Both she and her husband had initially supported the war, and their attitude toward the effort shifted slowly, over the course of his deployment, as the endeavor began to look increasingly like an unwinnable mistake. Still, when John died, on Jan. 26, 2005, Melanie did not feel compelled to publicly oppose the war; her grief, she says, was too deep.


A few weeks ago, House heard about Cindy Sheehan, the 48-year-old woman who's demanding to meet with the president to discuss the death of her son Casey in Iraq. House too had questions to ask George W. Bush: "Why did my husband die? Why are we over there? Is there an end in sight? What is the plan?" So House decided to join the antiwar movement. On Tuesday, she told her story to reporters in a conference call organized by liberal advocacy groups, and on Wednesday featured House in an e-mail encouraging its members to attend candlelight vigils around the country to protest the war.

House, Sheehan and dozens of other members of military families opposed to the war represent the new face of the American antiwar movement -- a movement that has, over the past two years, managed to stage a few massive street demonstrations, but has otherwise had little success convincing Democrats, not to mention Republicans, to take up its cause. Indeed, as the war has grown increasingly unpopular in recent months, the antiwar movement has been virtually silent -- or, as its leaders insist, the movement was ignored by the media, which amounts to the same thing: Few Americans were aware of any active opposition to the war.

Sheehan's stand has changed all that. Not only are reporters now listening, but antiwar warriors are energized. Just about every antiwar group, from the farthest left to the most moderate, is moving to associate itself with Sheehan. In her, opponents of the war see an authenticity -- the symbolic value of a mother grieving for her son -- that they say resonates with the American mainstream. It's too soon to tell whether this will actually happen -- but opponents say they're confident that the antiwar ethos has reached a "tipping point." Sheehan's story -- as well as House's, and that of others who've lost loved ones in Iraq -- could prove highly effective at pushing Americans to oppose the Bush administration's policies in Iraq.


Wednesday's candlelight vigils highlighted the born again movement. According to MoveOn, tens of thousands of protesters gathered at more than 1,600 locations across the nation to support Sheehan's demand for a meeting with the president. (Sheehan left the Bush estate in Crawford on Thursday after her mother suffered a stroke, but she vowed to continue her protest as soon as possible.) If the numbers are true, that would be the largest antiwar mobilization in a year. At the vigil I attended in Oakland, Calif., more than 200 people clustered along both sides of a busy intersection under a BART train station, a few of them carrying signs -- "Stop the War" was the most popular -- but most simply cupping a candle and standing silently. The effort, said Sally Hutchinson, a middle-aged woman in the crowd, was reminiscent of the protests held during the very earliest days of the war, when people came out in droves to oppose the invasion. "After that, no one -- people sort of gave up and went home," she said. But now hundreds were out, and every second car that passed by honked loudly in support. "I really think she has made the difference," Hutchinson said of Sheehan.

But if Sheehan's protest has reinvigorated the antiwar movement, so too has it exposed the central dilemma that people opposed to the war now face: What should America do about a war in which every option looks bad. Saying that we should stop the war raises all kinds of questions about what you mean, notes Todd Gitlin, the former Vietnam activist and Columbia Journalism School professor. "If you say withdraw, then how many? What pace? Starting when?"

In the spectrum of antiwar groups, there are hard-liners who call for Americans to leave Iraq right now, and those who espouse a softer course, essentially asking the White House to outline a specific exit plan, including a timetable for eventual departure from Iraq. Sheehan is a hard-liner. Parents of soldiers in Iraq "want their kids home yesterday," Sheehan says, and waiting a few months or a year to bring troops back "is not near soon enough." Sheehan's position is echoed by a number of antiwar groups, notably United for Peace and Justice, the umbrella coalition of progressive organizations that has sponsored some of the largest street demonstrations against the war. But the three groups that organized Wednesday's vigils -- Democracy for America, MoveOn and True Majority -- do not go as far as Sheehan. Instead of calling for Bush to remove the troops now, these three support the plan outlined in the so-called Homeward Bound Act, a law proposed by some in the House that would impose a deadline of October 2006 to begin to remove troops from Iraq.


The range of opinion among war opponents over what to do in Iraq is important because it reflects a larger national uncertainty over the options. Polls show Americans to be thoroughly discontent about the effort in Iraq. But Americans are not yet settled on what we ought to do. The most recent Gallup survey shows a large group -- 33 percent -- calling for immediate pullout, but significant numbers also call for troop levels to remain constant, or to be drawn down gradually.

In the personal tragedies of Sheehan, House and other military families, the antiwar movement may have finally found what it needs to turn mainstream Americans against the war and galvanize the Bush administration to bring U.S. troops home -- either now or in the near future. The antiwar movement has shifted, for the first time, from the left to Main Street. Many of the more polarizing voices of dissent -- like Michael Moore or International ANSWER -- have been drowned out by a larger sea of opposition. Many of the criticisms of the war in Iraq that were once heard only on the far left -- that the invasion was based on lies about weapons of mass destruction, that American-style democracy could not be easily transplanted in a country historically riven by rival sects -- now echo across suburbia.


At the same time, antiwar groups are wary about endorsing Sheehan as a powerful new way to oppose the war. For one thing, they point out, Sheehan's story is not new. Sheehan has been speaking out against the war since her son was killed in April 2004; she's well acquainted with many in the movement. That Sheehan's protest has caught on with the media now is not so much a testament to the power of her story as it is to the caprice of the national media, they say, which has long ignored opposition to the war and only now -- when Americans seem finally ready to oppose the war -- is changing its tune.

The groups also worry about being accused of taking advantage of Sheehan -- a worry borne out by right-wing attacks that paint Sheehan as a naive stooge of the left. Matt Holland, the online organizer of True Majority, the liberal organization that hired the P.R. firm Fenton Communications to handle media for Sheehan, took pains to stress that his group's part in Sheehan's activism is minimal. "In summary our role is to ask her how we can be helpful and to try to be helpful," he says. "She was a private citizen who got surrounded by this media maelstrom, so we helped with that. I want to be crystal clear about this: At no point have we suggested to her what her message ought to be or what she ought to say."

Yet as they deny that they are using Sheehan, many also acknowledge that Sheehan's story is useful. At the most basic level, it breaks your heart; everyone agrees with that. But different corners of the movement also see different strengths in Sheehan's protest. For hardliners, what Sheehan symbolizes is defiance and urgency. "She's been very bold and very determined," says Ai Mara, the national coordinator of the Not in Our Name project, "and that's something others in the movement have a hard time doing. She's not taking no for an answer. Ultimately what she's calling for is for troops to get out of Iraq. This is something that the rest of the movement can learn from."


More moderate groups, meanwhile, choose to focus not on Sheehan's call for troop withdrawal but instead on her demand to talk to the president about the mission in Iraq. "More than anything, she's a powerful symbol of the administration's refusal to face the facts about Iraq," says Eli Pariser, executive director of's political action committee. "That's what brings so many people to her side. She's finally demanding accountability from the administration for the deception that led to war."

Jim Dean -- who is the chairman of Democracy for America, the political group that grew out of Jim's brother Howard's presidential campaign -- says much the same thing. "I'd truly like to see this war over, but I'll be honest with you, I don't have a silver-bullet solution to this whole thing," Dean says. "But if we want to get these troops out of there in a hurry, the first thing we should start to do is have a discussion about accountability. This is about accountability. That is something that most Americans understand. What she's doing is born out of sorrow. People see the common sense and fairness in what she's asking for. Just because you have troops in battle doesn't mean you don't have to account for what's happened."

It's not clear which of Sheehan's demands -- to meet the president or withdraw from Iraq -- might prove more attractive to the American public. It could be that people will agree with both; that they'll essentially follow the prescription to leave Iraq now. Polls do show that the nation is moving in that direction, and at the vigil in Oakland, this position certainly seemed to be the prevailing attitude. "If it were up to me? Yeah, I'd bring them back," said Peter Lee, a 60-year-old man at the protest. Arguments that Iraq would descend into civil war if the U.S. withdrew didn't hold much sway with Lee. "We can't tell what forces will shape it," he said. After all, just about every other prediction we've made about the war has proved off the mark.


Of course, this vigil was held in the San Francisco Bay Area, in Rep. Barbara Lee's district, about the bluest spot in the nation, and not a place to go for an indication of what the nation thinks about war and peace. A better sense of the antiwar movement's policy ideas about Iraq might be found in a survey MoveOn conducted of its members in June. In an e-mail headlined "What should we do about Iraq?" the group asked members if it should put its resources into pushing for passage of the Homeward Bound Act, which calls for troops to begin to come home by next fall. An overwhelming share of MoveOn members -- more than 80 percent -- responded with approval of the plan.

MoveOn's Pariser speaks enthusiastically of setting a deadline for troop withdrawal. Doing that, he says, would set the conditions to compel various factions in Iraq to create a working government. "The theory here is that the best shot that we have in creating stability in Iraq is creating a political climate where Shiites and Sunnis can cut a deal," he says. "Right now the Shiites in the government have the full force and weight of the U.S. military behind them, and as long as we're there, the Shiites won't have the political reason to cut a deal."

Pariser's theory is a good deal less provocative than that of hard-liners in the antiwar movement, who see the U.S. presence in Iraq as not only an obstacle to a stable government, but as the main source of all the violence there. "The U.S. occupation is the primary cause of the death and the cause of violence there," says Phyllis Bennis, a Middle East scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington think tank that sits on the steering committee of United for Peace and Justice. Bennis believes that while there is a hard core of fighters in Iraq who are motivated by religious extremism, the insurgency in Iraq is not primarily sectarian or religious, but rather "Iraqis who support the occupation vs. those who oppose the occupation." The majority of the fighters, "as far as we can tell, are motivated by nationalism," she says. If the occupation ends, the nationalistic fighters will put down their arms, and Iraqis will turn against the religious extremists who target civilians, Bennis believes.

Bennis acknowledges that her theory of what might happen if the U.S. leaves Iraq is not guaranteed; things may still turn out badly in Iraq if the nation follows her plan. "But what we do know is that if the occupation remains, it's not going to win," she says. "The danger is far greater of staying." And if that's the case, she asks, why stay a day longer?


Sheehan herself has made her position crystal clear. "We're over there and we need to come home," she said in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday. What happens in Iraq after we leave isn't a worry of ours, she added. "We need to let the Iraqi people handle their own business." Sheehan also fingered the U.S. presence as the source of all violence there. Asked about whom she blames for the death of her son, she said it was George W. Bush alone. Of the insurgent groups who were more directly responsible, she said, "The person who killed my son, I have no animosity for that person at all."

To say the least, Sheehan is a bomb-thrower, which many on the right hope will knock her from her new perch as the head of the antiwar movement. During the past couple of weeks, Matt Drudge has put forward a constant barrage of some of her most impolitic statements about foreign policy -- her criticisms of Israel, or the "foul-mouthed tirade" she delivered at San Francisco State University in April, in which Sheehan called members of the Bush administration "fucking hypocrites" and declared, "We are not waging a war on terror in this country. We're waging a war of terror. The biggest terrorist in the world is George W. Bush!"

Could Sheehan's rants derail the antiwar movement? It's conceivable, if what happened in Vietnam is a guide. In late 1969, the war, which had initially been approved by a huge percentage of the country, had become quite unpopular. As Harold Meyerson pointed out recently in the Washington Post, "The Gallup Organization found that 49 percent of Americans favored a withdrawal of U.S. forces and 78 percent believed that the Nixon administration's rate of withdrawal was 'too slow.'"

But here's the odd thing: A large number of Americans -- 77 percent -- said they didn't like the antiwar demonstrators, either. "That disapproval was key to Nixon's political strategy," Meyerson wrote. "[Nixon] didn't so much defend the war as attack its critics, making common cause with what he termed the 'silent majority' against a mainstream movement with a large, raucous and sometimes senseless fringe. When Nixon won reelection in a landslide, it was clear that the strategy had worked -- and it has been fundamental Republican strategy ever since."


Nixon was able to score points off the protesters' theatrical condemnation of the war, Gitlin says. "Many Americans accepted that the war was awful, but at the same time it was an embarrassment," he says. "It wasn't something you could wall off as belonging to Lyndon Johnson. It had been the nation's war. So here are these people out there who are culturally and theatrically odd, and they are a living reminder that the country is doing something idiotic and worse." The way the public reacted, Gitlin says, was to condemn the war as well as the protesters, "the long-haired, sandal-wearing, bearded types burning American flags."

In the past, Gitlin worried that the protests against the war in Iraq would produce the same sort of backlash. In October 2002, when International ANSWER (a group that supports Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, and Kim Jong Il) and Not in Our Name (affiliated with the Revolutionary Communist Party) were launching the first large protests against the war, Gitlin told Salon's Michelle Goldberg that he feared "a gigantic ruination for the antiwar movement."

Gitlin says the antiwar movement has become broader and wider in its appeal. "There's a much larger, more diffuse and variegated antiwar sentiment in this country now," he says. People calling for an end to war are not just located on the political fringes. And Sheehan, in particular, doesn't strike Gitlin as an ideologue but someone who's responding, if in a highly public way, to personal tragedy. "She's taking the position that what she wants is a conversation," Gitlin says. "It's hard to object to that. The dramaturgy of her appearance is quite powerful. She's simply asking for a personal contact, which is clever."

Also, the public may forgive Sheehan her indelicacy for the simple reason that, as Maureen Dowd has pointed out, "The moral authority of parents who bury children killed in Iraq is absolute." Pariser puts it this way: "There's literally almost nothing you could say that cancels out the grief of a mother who lost her son, the strength of that voice. Conservatives, the smart ones at least, know that you can float all sorts of rumors and allegations and lies, but you can't challenge the integrity and the pain of a mother who lost her kid."


The antiwar movement is not pinning all its efforts on Sheehan, certainly. It still plans street protests; United for Peace and Justice is organizing a march on Washington on Sept. 24. And even if Sheehan is not damaged by her past statements, the movement could well stumble with the public in other ways.

One lingering question is the movement's position toward Iraqi insurgents, which is undefined, and which may leave the people who are against the war vulnerable to the charge that they are comforting terrorists in calling for a withdrawal from Iraq. According to Leslie Cagan, the national coordinator for United for Peace and Justice, the group has adopted no formal response to Iraqi insurgents because there is a wide range of opinions about the matter among UFPJ's member groups. Cagan says that within the group there is "a general feeling that we understand why people are using many tactics to fight against the occupation by the U.S. military, but we do not support terrorists or organized paramilitary groups."

Still, the antiwar movement remains determined to broaden its focus. Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink, the women's group that has worked closely with Sheehan to publicize her protest, says that wide appeal finally seems possible. Benjamin is a hard-liner in the movement but "that's the direction the country is moving in," she says. "As the peace movement gets more and more organized and reaches into faith-based organizations, unions, teachers, youth in the schools," more and more people will come to believe that "fighting in Iraq is not worth it."

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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