Grieving parents in war--Part II: protesting parents, why now?
[For Part I, go here.]
It doesn't take a therapist to note that many people, when struck by the tragic loss of a loved one, are angry as well as sad. That anger can be unleashed in a variety of directions--including towards the dead person him/herself, although that route can lead to almost unbearable feelings of guilt in the survivor. It tends to feel better to have someone or something else to blame.
Sometimes people who've been bereaved--especially if the bereavement is of the type that is widely judged to be the most intensely painful of all, the loss of a child--find it helps to channel that rage and energy into a crusade against whatever may have caused the death of that child: drunk drivers or fraternity hazing, for example.
So it's neither unique nor surprising that Cindy Sheehan is energized by her hatred of President Bush, and that she blames him for her son's death. Although her son is the one who joined up, and she may indeed have some anger at him for doing so, it's much easier to believe he was recruited under false pretences and lied to than that he freely entered into a war she feels was unnecessary and which caused his death. If she doesn't even have the consolation of feeling he died a hero in a worthy endeavor, all the more reason to strike out at the person she feels to be the real culprit.
Once again, I see somewhat of an analogy to the position of certain abused children who blame the parent who fails to protect rather than the actual perpetrator of the abuse. This reaction is not uncommon, and it often entails the abuse victim being far more angry at the former than the latter. It is often safer to blame the more accessible parent and to imagine that, had they only wanted to, that parent could have prevented this horror from happening. Bush--and all Presidents--is unavoidably something of a parental figure, and as such is sometimes subject to this sort of dynamic, also, which can exacerbate the rage felt against him.
Blogger Varifrank has a written a post that eloquently describes the intense search for order in the world of chaos that grieving parents feel when they lose a child: the need to assign blame of some sort, if only to themselves. The death of a child is an upending of what is considered the rightful order of the world:
I watched my parents in anguish over the loss of their daughter, who at age 17, took the family car to work one day and never came home. My parents were nearly comatose with guilt. My father wandered for years in a cloud of "if onlys"; "if only he had changed the tires, the car might not have flipped..." and so on. My mother felt that she shouldn't have let my sister get the job that she was driving to, a drive that one day lead to her death. The list goes on and on of "what might have been" in the minds of a parent who has lost a child.
Cindy Sheehan's "what might have been" is quite clear: her son would be alive if not for President Bush. And if she had been voicing this idea only to friends and family, in relative privacy, it would be unremarkable, and we wouldn't be talking about her on the news or writing about her in blogs. A respectful curtain would be drawn over her grief and her rage.
But Cindy Sheehan has decided to go very publicly political, and that's what makes her a proper topic of discussion. There have been angry bereaved parents in earlier wars (commenter David quoted some letters from parents in WWII with similar sentiments, for example). But at no time during WWII or the Vietnam era would such widespread coverage as has been given to Sheehan have been likely, because it requires, among other things, the cooperation of the intensely competitive 24-hour news cycle.
Sheehan and the media have a symbiotic relationship. Each needs the other right now: the media needs Sheehan for the sensationalism and the anti-Bush rhetoric she offers, and Sheehan needs the media for publicity for the cause that is driving her so strongly. So while there is exploitation, it goes in both directions, as each uses the other for their own purposes. We can say that Sheehan's grief is being exploited far more than she is exploiting the media, and I think we would be correct in saying that. But I am even more certain that Cindy Sheehan herself would disagree with the assessment that she is being exploited, since she is doing exactly what she thinks is best. Nor does she think she is exploiting her son's memory, although many think so. She thinks she is honoring it.
The Sheehan campaign would not have gotten much publicity but for the 24-hour news cycle. But also necessary is the rabid anti-Bush atmosphere of the last couple of years, and the left's perception of members of the military as victimized and manipulated dupes of the government.
Another important part of the current mix is the internet, which affords the opportunity for parents such as Sheehan to communicate easily and to network with activist leftist organizations, and to form their own groups and websites composed of other grieving parents of like mind. And then, of course, there's the opportunity for people such as myself and other bloggers to comment online, causing an amplification of the publicity.
So, although Sheehan may be the most famous of the activist grieving parents so far, she is far from alone, as this Guardian article, sympathetic to the parents' cause, makes clear. Lila Lipscomb, another grieving and angry mother whose son met his death in Iraq, was featured in Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11." The father of Nicholas Berg was a vocal presence for quite some time on the leftist circuit, blaming Bush for his son's horrific beheading by terrorists.
An important, although not immediately obvious, key to this phenomenon is a historical and generational one. It goes as follows: many of the parents involved are of the generation that was shaped by the Vietnam era and its antiwar sentiments, whereas their children, in the time-honored way of many generations before, have been shaped by very different historical forces.
And so you have deeply antiwar parents, children of the Vietnam era, frustrated and puzzled by their children's desire to join the military (I myself have a friend in exactly that position). Even for the ones whose children return unharmed, you can almost hear them asking themselves, "Where have I gone wrong?" These parents, in turn, had rebelled against the previous generation, their parents, whose formative war experience was World War II and who had a very different take on military service. This accounted for a large amount of intergenerational conflict during the Vietnam era, with protesting children causing parents to ask themselves, in turn, where they (or their children) may have gone wrong.
It's not an unusual phenomenon, this alternating of generations in which grandparents and grandchildren are aligned, with parents the odd men (and women) out, in the middle. This extremely interesting article explains how it goes:
It is a complicated paradox - one that history cannot help [this father] navigate. During Vietnam, college-age sons and daughters bucked their World War II-era parents to lead protests against the war. But the Iraq war has turned that around, exposing a divide between activist parents, some of whom were shaped by Vietnam, and their more conservative children, who were shaken by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001...
However subtle the role reversal is, hundreds of families scattered across the country are living it.
In Waterbury, Ray Odiorne, 56, an ordained minister who works as a psychotherapist, reflects on the days he used to take his two young daughters to peace vigils around New England. He told them stories of how he had marched against the Vietnam War while attending seminary school in Massachusetts, how once he had run all the way from Harvard Square to downtown Boston after a face-off with police firing tear gas.
Few people know it, but he is a military dad. His youngest daughter, Kathryn, 23, enlisted in the Army last year. When she broke the news to him in October, he felt punched in the gut.
"I was stunned. It was so out of the blue. I mean, good grief, she went to Wellesley," a liberal arts college, he said. "I couldn't help but wonder if it was a way to get back at dear old dad."
Although almost a comical caricature in his response "Good grief, she went to Wellesley!", and despite the narcissism inherent his explanation--as though his daughter's enlistment were all about him--Odiorne does express a certain intergenerational truth. Children often decide to do things that run counter to their parents' beliefs and wishes, although there's ordinarily a great deal more to a decision to enlist than that. The gulf often yawns between parent and child, exacerbated by the intensity of parental feeling caused by worrying about a child who has enlisted (or, during the Vietnam War, had been drafted).
I wonder what transpired between Cindy Sheehan and her son Casey when he signed up. She is widely reported to have opposed the Iraq War even before her son enlisted, so my guess is that she went through something very much like what those parents in the article experienced: an initial shock and even perhaps anger, and then an effort to support that child despite anger at that child's choice, and a fervent hope that the child will be okay.
And then, when parents such as Sheehan endure the horror of their worst nightmares coming true and their child dies in that war, their anger can be released, to leap out at the nearest and largest target: the President.
And the press stands by and fans the flames.
[Trackback to open post at Mudville Gazette.]