On April 4, 2004, Casey Sheehan was killed in Iraq. His mother Cindy Sheehan wants President Bush to explain why. He might answer this way: "The hard truth is your son's life was wasted. I accept a share of blame, but only a share. Others must accept theirs, my advisors and supporters, my political opponents and ordinary Americans -- particularly ordinary Americans."
Can good people do bad things? I consider myself a good person. Yet upon receipt of a coded message, I would have killed innocent men, women and children. They had to die to enforce my leader's threats against their government. So I was told, and so I believed.
I am not a terrorist. I am a veteran. The coded message would have come from the President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, during my term of active service. It would have instructed my U.S. Army unit to launch nuclear weapons then deployed in Europe as part of America's policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). According to the theory behind MAD, peace required U.S. and Soviet leaders to believe nuclear war would kill much of each nation's civilian population.
MAD sounded perfectly sane to young men like me and my soldier buddies. We grew up in the 1950s culture of fear. School air raid drills and backyard bomb shelters were normal parts of our young lives. One of my favorite childhood TV shows was "I led three lives," about an ordinary family man who was also a communist spy and an FBI agent.
When a new culture of fear arose after 9/11, I watched with more skeptical eyes. The only reality to the "war on terror" is its victims -- some killed by terrorists, many more by America's response to terrorism. The latter include more than 1,800 Americans killed in Iraq, so far — including Cindy Sheehan's son Casey.
How might Cindy expand her inquiry into his death?
She could ask Republican Party leaders why they chose New York for their 2004 convention, if not to squeeze political advantage from the emotional fallout of 9/11.
She could ask Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry, former leader of Vietnam Veterans against the War, why he didn't campaign for a prompt end to the even more absurd Iraq war.
She could ask almost any media figure (like National Public Radio's Garrison Keillor) why they spoke so fondly of the period after 9/11, when Americans put aside private concerns to grieve for the victims and rage against their killers. In 1943, Germans shared similar emotional unity, when they learned that nearly 100,000 of their fathers, sons, brothers and husbands faced suffering and death in Russian prisons after the fall of Stalingrad. In their shared grief and anger, they found strength to continue Germany's war effort. Or so said Nazi propagandists who controlled Germany's media.
Sharing strong emotions through politically and commercially manipulated mass media is the modern form of the primeval spirit of the mob, which, in turn, is the universal seed of war. Pictures and stories of excited crowds, often deliberately incited, embellish histories of the early days of most conflicts.
Shakespeare expressed the malignant potential of politically manipulated, collective emotion in Mark Antony's funeral oration to the Roman mob: "And Caesar's spirit, raging for revenge, / With Ate by his side come hot from hell, / Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice, / Cry 'Havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war."
Recent investigations have debunked administration claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or relationships with Al Qaeda. Those same investigations show how post-9/11 hysteria may have played a role in triggering the war. Mideast war hawks (the so-called neo-cons) began advancing anti-Iraq proposals in the mid-1990s, but with little success. After 9/11, their cause hit the bureaucratic fast track.
What loaded the war hawks' guns? The attack itself? Public reaction? A little of both? We will probably never know. Nor will we know where a calmer public reaction might have led us. All we can do now is cope with the present, count the cost, tend the wounded and mourn the dead.
George Bush owes Cindy Sheehan answers.
So do we.
Robert L. Stokes is a retired college professor who lives in Spokane. He can be contacted by e-mail at [email protected]