"War means crucifying the truth-tellers."
—John Reed, 1917
In the early 1970s when I was in college, I occasionally used to hitchhike the 350 miles from the Carbondale campus of Southern Illinois University (SIU) to the Chicago suburbs where my family lived. One spring morning about an hour north of Carbondale on Interstate 57, a middle-aged man driving a white sedan stopped to offer me a ride. It had taken me two short rides to get about 40 miles north of Carbondale, so when the driver said he was going all the way to Chicago, I was thrilled. I got in the car and we were on our way.
The man told me he was on a sales trip and had been in Atlanta. He was now on the last leg of his trip on his way to his home in Madison, Wisconsin. For a while we chatted casually in the way two strangers traveling a long stretch of highway might do. I told him I was a history major at SIU, and my family, originally from California, now lived in the western suburb of Glen Ellyn. I thanked him again for offering to take me such a long distance. Maybe I could give him some gas money? No, not necessary, he said. How long had he lived in Madison? I asked. He and his wife had moved there 20 years before. They had lived in the same house all those years. He mentioned they had a son named Robert. He was their only child.
How old is he? I asked.
That's when he told me his son had died two years ago. He had been drafted and sent to Vietnam, he explained. Died there, he said.
I told him I was sorry.
He asked me how old I was. Nineteen, I replied.
Bobby was 20 when he died, he told me. I wasn't sure what to say so I said nothing. He remarked that his son had loved basketball and played varsity in high school. His wife was a homemaker, devoting herself to raising their boy. He mentioned again that he was their only child.
I didn't tell the man I was active in the campus antiwar movement. In fact, I was the chairperson of SIU's chapter of the Student Mobilization Committee. Nor did I mention I had frequently argued with my own father over the war. A year earlier in 1972 he had ordered me not to travel to New York City to attend the large peace rally planned for April 22. When I ignored him and went anyway, traveling by bus to join the 100,000 others who gathered in Times Square to demand an end to the war, he was angry.
I had been moved that day when John Lennon and Yoko Ono suddenly bounded onstage, surprising everyone and asking the thousands gathered to join them in singing "Give Peace a Chance." In the peace movement I had discovered an antidote to the anger and frustration I felt about the ongoing madness of the war. But I didn't share all this with my older traveling companion. Instead I just remarked that I thought the war was a tragedy. I hoped it would end soon. He just nodded. Too many people are dying, he told me. For a moment he looked lost in some private thought. You know it's all for nothing, don't you? He said this to me as if it were a warning. He wanted to know if I was in danger of being drafted. I didn't think so. My lottery number was high.
We changed the subject then and spent the next few hours talking about this and that and nothing at all. We stopped at a roadside cafe where he bought me coffee and a sandwich. The man's sadness permeated those hours. I took some of it with me when finally he exited one of the Chicago expressways and dropped me off close to my home. Stay safe, he said. And then he drove away.
The Politics of Personal Insult
I've thought about that long-ago trip while pondering the treatment antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan, another parent who lost a son to war, has received at the hands of the contemporary right-wing media. Sheehan has earned the wrath of the right-wing media for daring to reject the legitimacy of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. Instead Sheehan, whose son Casey died in Iraq in April 2004, denounces the war in unequivocal terms, calling President Bush a liar and a hypocrite. She wants the troops brought home now.
Good for her, I say. Sheehan has the courage of her convictions. But to gain notoriety as a war critic also means entering the target sights of the right-wing insult machine that currently patrols the media landscape. Sheehan enrages the self-proclaimed super patriots of talk media for refusing to play the stock role as the grieving but stoic mother who bravely accepts her son's sacrifice to "keep America free." Thus we witness the tawdry spectacle of media warriors such as CNN's Glen Beck, Ann Coulter, and others call Sheehan everything from a "tragedy pimp" to an "airhead" to the "commander in grief." In 2005 Salem Radio's Mike Gallagher brought his compassion directly to Sheehan when he organized a counter-protest against her peace vigil outside the President's Texas ranch. "We don't care! We don't care!" chanted Gallagher and other flag-wavers from across the way. For Rush Limbaugh, Sheehan is just a patsy of the far left, her patsiness made possible because she has "the IQ of a pencil eraser." The equally high-minded Melanie Morgan of KSFO Radio in San Francisco, who likes to joke on-air about torturing and executing various liberals, charges Sheehan is a "pornography addict."
It's a sign of the times that a mother who refuses to go along with the rationale for a war that cost her son his life is treated with such cheap disdain. To her credit, Sheehan exhibits a calm integrity responding to the snarls and bared teeth of the talk media predators. When far right columnist Michelle Malkin, author of a book defending the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during WW II, declared that Sheehan's son would not have approved of his mother's antiwar activism, Sheehan asked simply how many times had Malkin cried over her son's grave? Had she met her son even once? No matter. Malkin is the kind of sensitive soul whose response to the report of three prisoner suicides at Guantanamo was a touching "boo friggin' hoo." We can only imagine what Malkin might have said if the dead men had actually been legally convicted of anything.