Tuesday, August 16, 2005

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.]


At 1:32 PM, August 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a viewpoint that no one's going to like, but I suggest you listen. I grew up in a house where my father, a very good man, died young, and left my mother with my sister and brother and me, aged from 8-12. It was hard for her and she was overwhelmed by grief.

She was, understandably and correctly, given a lot of slack by everyone. My siblings and I became completely acquiescent to her desires (nobody cut us any slack, something we didn't grasp for many years). Somehow, in a matter of a few years, conscious sympathy transformed into unthinking deference, while my formerly loving, though headstrong and emotional mother, became a tyrannical emotional blackmailer. Deviance from her will became equated with treachery to our dead father and cruelty to her grief. At first, as I said, in a conscious and deliberate way, but then as a Pavlovian response. My brother especially suffered (as the oldest child and only male, he turned into her emotional punching bag), but all of us did.

Any normal person feels sympathy and sadness for Ms. Sheehan's loss, but the situation has become ridiculous. She has been granted an unspoken "Most suffering person in America" designation and allowed to make the most vicious and slanderous accusations against anyone who disagrees with her as well as to make a mockery of the sacrifices and convictions of our military.

Worst of all, the fear and shame of aggravating her misery by holding her responsible for her actions has become a carte blanche for her to inflict enormous pain upon the others who have lost their loved ones in Iraq. Sheehan dismisses these people's own beliefs about the war, mocks the loss of their loved ones as a pointless waste, and demeans the memory of brave soldiers into that of dimwitted victims. Sheehan's suffering is so great, we are given to understand, that the combined suffering of all these untold thousands is as a teardrop compared to her ocean of grief.

Emptiness and sadness over Casey’s death will become a permanent part of the life of his parents and siblings, but if now the level of moral authority is to be granted based on the suffering one has to endure, it should be known that there are millions of people in our country who would be grateful to trade places with Mrs. Sheehan: those whose children will know nothing but suffering throughout their lives because of mental and/or physical handicaps; those whose children died after suffering a nightmare of torture and rape; those whose children have vanished, perhaps murdered long ago or perhaps suffering who knows what and who knows where; those whose children began normally and then suffered an injury or illness that has left them permanently disabled, either or mentally or physically; and, this I am depressed to say, is just a start.

Wait! I reconsider. Let’s embrace the Sheehan dynamic. We’ll start by sending the parents of those whose children were murdered at the hands of released criminals to camp out at the houses of ACLU officers who resist any policy other than that of jailing criminals for life; the families of 9/11 victims can take up residence outside of Jamie Gorelick’s house for creating the “wall” that prevented the “Able Danger” group from informing the FBI about Mohammed Atta; women who had abortions, but have now come to believe that they murdered their own children, can head over to Planned Parenthood; and so forth. I’m sure there are other ideas. I’ll be sure to keep my eye on the news to watch them put into practice.

Somehow, in our society, it has become accepted that certain people who have suffered injustice are given a pass to inflict it on others. No, no, no, and again, no. Suffering evil is not the process whereby one is given a license to inflict it.

At 1:45 PM, August 16, 2005, Blogger fjelehjifel said...

Outstanding Post! Helped me to understand a difficult subject.

I suspect Cindy Sheehan's 15 minutes of fame will end the way most of these moments so often do: Sooner or later, something else will inevitably come along to knock her off the evening news, just the way 9/11 pushed the media frenzy over the missing Chandra Levey out of the national consciousness.

This time, let's hope it's good news like the killing or capture of bin Laden or Zarqawi.

At 2:19 PM, August 16, 2005, Blogger John's Big Head said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 2:24 PM, August 16, 2005, Blogger John's Big Head said...

The Blame Game, assessing and assigning guilt. Who supported the muhadjeen in the over throw of the Soviet backed regime in Afghanistan, who provided weapons to Saddam in his war against the Iranians (and vice versa) and the gases Saddam used against the Kurds? Michael Moore made a great film, Farenheight 911 which exposes the links between the Bushes and Bin Ladens. The old boy oil network of Saudis and Texans. When the unimaginable and unthinkable happens look to see who gains to find who's to blame. Yes, each person is personally responsible for their actions, like the sons and daughters who join the military. But I don't blame them, nor their parents. And they shouldn't blame themselves. We are all caught up in something in which we have little or no power to control or stop. (even the UN couldn't stop Bush going to war in Iraq) People are right to protest, people need to protest, or our next president is going to be a fellow by the name of Jeb Bush and the reign of fear that moulds our collective social psyche will continue.

At 2:29 PM, August 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyone ever noticed how many of the most vocal peace activists have children in the military?

I don't think this is a coincidence. Now, to be fair, it is partly a coincidence. Something like 400,000 people have had a tour in Iraq, and when the pool of soliders is that large it isn't surprising that a few have lunatic peacenik parents.

But even accounting for that, the numbers still seem disproportionately high.

I suspect that many of the liberal philosophy of these parents was expressed in every aspect of their lives. It wasn't limited to their foreign policy. These liberal parents didn't set many limits for thier kids. They didn't provide positive, traditional role models -- on the contary, they ridiculed traditional role models and institutions, such as the Boy Scouts, that give structre to many childrens' lives.

Also, the parents probabaly weren't that that happy or well-adjusted. The kids, understandably, looked at their parents and said "I'm going to do the opposite." Some of probably even hate thier parents for being weak, morally adrift, and self-centered.

These kids felt a void in their lives. They were drawn to the traditional institutions, such as the military, that their parents dispised.

I tend to think that Gen X and later are much, much more conservative than the Baby Boomers. In fact, they are shockingly more conservative. It is hard to see this now becuase the Baby Boomers still control the media and popular culture. But once they die out we will see many radical changes.

At 3:09 PM, August 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, it’s Archie Bunker turned upside down. My youngest son & myself is a case in point. He’s conservative & I have my liberal leanings. As long as we stay on the war we are in agreement. When we venture into other subjects our discussions can heat up. Take Social Security: He’s all for privatization & I’m not. He affectionately calls me “commie” & my appellation for him is “capitalist dog.”

At 3:20 PM, August 16, 2005, Blogger Stephen said...

In the 1960's it became fashionable to attribute 'truth' to madnesss, a la R.D. Laing. Thus, psychotic individuals were in touch with deeper, more authentic aspects of life than the rest of us robotic, soulless cogs in the capitalist wheel. Cindy Sheehan is quite clearly nuts. Hooray. The '60's survivors can hold a reunion. It's nostalgia time for the Janis Joplin loving, DeadHeads--and Cindy Sheehan is, like, groovy, man. She's on to those 'deeper truths'. Like it's the JEWS. Pass the toke baby, everybody must get stoned.

At 3:56 PM, August 16, 2005, Blogger goesh said...

David Duke is now her ally, isn't he? I read somewhere he had written some kind of statement to the affect of supporting her bizarre and quasi insane statements about Israel.

At 3:57 PM, August 16, 2005, Blogger David Foster said...

For an interesting portrayal of someone whose parents were low-life hippies..and who reacts by going in the other direction--read Tom Wolfe's "A Man in Full"

At 4:37 PM, August 16, 2005, Blogger maryatexitzero said...

R.D. Laing also came up with the theory that schizophrenia is basically the fault of a family (or, usually a mother) that can't "communicate" well - a theory that made families, especially mothers, feel guilty about a condition that we now know is probably a chemical imbalance.

Laing also influence Michael Foucault, who later went on to praise Khomeini's Islamist takeover of Iran. Foucault also died of AIDS because of his irrational hatred of doctors.

What on earth was going on during the sixties? It couldn't have just been the drugs.

When my son was a toddler, he hated it when the wind blew in his face. Everytime a breeze blew through his hair, he would yell at his father, because he assumed that his all-powerful Dad was responsible for everything. Cindy Sheehan and most of the "peace" crowd seem to be following the same logic.

Fortunately my son grew out of that phase when he was three.

At 4:39 PM, August 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One reads things like the following in today’s London Times and can only ask what in hell is wrong with the anti-Iraq war zealots who can’t wait to let Iraq fail:

“This was the first time that Iraq, created as a state 84 years ago, was allowing its people to write a constitution. The first one, establishing monarchy in 1921, was written by the British. The second, in 1958, was the work of colonels who copied the Soviet model. Subsequent constitutions were written by the so-called Revolutionary Command Council of the Baath party with no popular input.”


“For months the shaping of a new constitution has been the theme of popular political debates throughout Iraq. More than 300 conferences were held on the subject throughout the country, allowing an estimated 50,000 people to express the views of countless cultural associations, trade unions, guilds, tribal groups and religious fraternities. Iraq’s newly created free media, including more than 150 newspapers and six television stations, almost all privately owned, have brought the debate to every home in the country.”


“Soon after the liberation of Iraq in 2003, Yussuf al-Ayyeri, a chief theoretician of al-Qaeda, published a book entitled The Future of Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula after the Fall of Baghdad. In it, he designated Iraq as ‘the greatest battlefield of Islam against the infidel and its native allies’. Al-Ayyeri wrote: ‘It is not the American war machine that should be of the utmost concern to Muslims. What threatens the future of Islam, its very survival, is American democracy. To allow Iraq to build would represent Islam’s biggest defeat since the loss of Andalusia.’”

At 7:35 PM, August 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's sad that the US is in Iraq right now (right or wrong). I think it's sad that many people are dying both Iraqi and American. The one thing I think is saddest of all is that this is exactly what guys like Bin Laden knew would happen if they pushed the US hard enough.

Unfortunately, a path has been choosen. One that has to be seen to a postive end or the US risks being the target of every two bit thug that wants his moment in the sun.

I feel for all that have lost family and friends. Bush was very open about his plans to go to war prior to the election. Interesting how now people are beginning to protest now as opposed to not electing him back into office (ever wonder why so many of his people quit after the election)

At 9:43 PM, August 16, 2005, Blogger goesh said...

Flag desecration in Texas ---
I saw it on the news, as others probably have too. Some guy rigged a truck to knock down a bunch of crosses and American flags erected by the protestors at the Bush ranch. Now I don't go along with flag desecration but it seems the Lefties want it both ways. On the one hand they support the right of free expression, i.e. flag burning, but then when the same freedom of expression is used contrary to their interests, they become outraged. A great hue and cry went up over this freedom of expression. What a laugh and how typical of them. One fool was saying, " they drove over the graves", referring to the crosses the protesters had erected, as if real soliders were actually buried on the roadside and their bodies had been desecrated. Give me a break! Lunacy! Madness! Hysteria! Can you imagine that?

Sheehan reminds me of a passive cow being led into the barn to be milked. That's what comes to mind - attribute this to my rural upbringing I suppose, but she is being milked by the Left. When the media grows tired of it and the cameras leave and her so- called supporters leave, she will be left alone at night not understanding , ever, why her son enlisted and why he volunteered for dangerous duty. Did her boy send her letters talking about Iraq and saying he felt it important to be there? I bet he did. How will she reconcile that, alone at night with nothing but her thoughts and no cameras and no attention? Is she capable of contemplating what her son would say about this if he could communicate from 'the other side'? I seriously doubt it. Cows can only be led to be milked when it is convenient for those who lead them into stalls. She dishonors a combat veteran in the worst possible way and she is despicable in this veteran's opinion. Is she capable of understanding that some of the jihadis her son killed will not now blow up Iraqi civilians and/or launch attacks against Americans in other parts of the world? Is anyone on the Left capable of realizing this?

John's Big Head - you well better be afraid. They want you and your children and your(our) way of life dead, dead, dead. What do you think 9/11 was about? A freakin' protest? How about a chartered small ship with a nuclear bomb in a cargo container, one in the New York harbor? What would that do to our economy and how many would be killed? I bet you're one of those guys who thinks we should just send the FBI into the mountains and tribal regions of Pakistan in their nice suits and just arrest bin laden, right? And I bet you're one of those guys who could give a warm fuzzy to terrorists, nice hugs, and have rational discussions thus ending their need to kill us - right? Hey John, how about a jihadi taking a vial of sarrin gas and dribbling it out on a busy, busy L.A. street as he rapidly walks into the wind? How many infidels like you could he get? Oh John! What if you and your children were in a mall on the Mexican border and across the border comes mahood and a half dozen of his jihadi buddies in a van and out they jump with AK-47s, rush into the mall and open up, and what if your child was shot in the head? Just think, John, you could then be like Sheehan and spend the rest of your life blaming George Bush! You would look good on an al jazeera beheading tape, all trussed up like a Christmas turkey. I mean, you are just another hapless, powerless victim of your own nation, heritage, culture, economy and political sytem. You're an American victim, John, after all, Bush is President. You may be entitled to some benefits. I apologize for being so verbose, when I simply could have called John a cowardly fool and been done with it.

At 9:56 PM, August 16, 2005, Blogger Dean Esmay said...

Hey dude. The link "similar sentiments" doesn't seem to work. It goes here:


...and produces an error.

I'd like to read it, so I hope you can fix it.

At 10:14 PM, August 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Link fixed! Thanks for the heads-up.

At 12:07 AM, August 17, 2005, Blogger Holmes said...

This might be my new favorite blog, not that I am anyone important that you should feel honored. But you approach matters from a more rational standpoing than most Conservatives I know.

At 6:05 AM, August 17, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cindy Sheenham is a full-fledged media distraction from Able Danger, Jamie "the wall" Gorelick's questionable position on the 9/11 Commission, Berger's theft of classified document from National Archives, and Air America's theft of over $800,000 for GLORIA Boys and Girls Club.

At 8:46 AM, August 17, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The fact that the MSM has attached
themselves to this greiving mom is
shows they have descended another
rung on the ladder down to irrelevance.

At 9:02 AM, August 17, 2005, Blogger starboardside said...

Well said Goesh,you hit the nail right on Johns big head.

At 12:15 PM, August 17, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...


You're last post was like genuine war on terror paranoia porn. I’d hate to visit your nightmares.

At 10:39 PM, August 17, 2005, Blogger goesh said...

Bob I doubt you could relate to anyone's nightmares, let alone any I've had. You have a fail-safe system built in for yourself. Any future attack on the US can be blamed on Bush/conservatives since all the time and money and lives were wasted in Iraq, that could have been used to prevent said attacks from happening. Got your little fingers crossed, Bob? Hmmm?You must have since you and liberals in general proffer no solutions, except to impeach Bush and bring the troops home. You got alot of mouth but no balls as we used to say back when I was creating real nightmares. Your nightmare is coming very soon with the appointment of Roberts and a replacement for Rheinquest, isn't it? The old Chief is dying fast of thyroid cancer. Bad enough that Bush got in twice, eh Bobby, but now he gets to appoint a couple of SC Justices. Talk about having a political orgasm, Bob! It is almost as glorious as that carrier landing Bush made. You do you remember that, don't you Bob?

At 10:41 AM, August 21, 2005, Blogger Daniel in Brookline said...

To address a tiny comment made, in passing, in this (extremely thoughtful) blog entry --

Yes, Casey Sheehan *is* a genuine hero. He has been decorated -- Bronze Star, if I'm not mistaken -- and the action in which he was killed was one for which he had volunteered to go. "Where my chief goes, I go", he said, and off he went.

(I commented about this a bit here.)

Moreover, as James Taranto pointed out, he died in the battle for Sadr City -- an area that is now peaceful and quiet. In other words, the military objective, in which Spc. Sheehan died, was successful. Without it, people would be dying daily in Sadr City -- but they are not, thanks in part to Spc. Sheehan and his comrades-in-arms.

People are alive today -- perhaps hundreds, or even thousands of people -- because of the action in which Casey Sheehan gave his life. What better legacy could you want than that?

Daniel in Brookline

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