On Being in a Ditch at the Side of the Road

Retired four-star Army General Barry McCaffrey to Time magazine: “The Army’s wheels are going to come off in the next 24 months. We are now in a period of considerable strategic peril. It’s because Rumsfeld has dug in his heels and said, I cannot retreat from my position.”

Cindy Sheehan testifying at Rep. John Conyers public hearings on the Downing Street Memo: “My son, Spc. Casey Austin Sheehan, was KIA in Sadr City Baghdad on 04/04/04. He was in Iraq for only two weeks before [Coalition Provisional Authority head] L. Paul Bremer inflamed the Shi’ite militia into a rebellion which resulted in the deaths of Casey and six other brave soldiers who were tragically killed in an ambush. Bill Mitchell, the father of Sgt. Mike Mitchell who was one of the other soldiers killed that awful day is with us here. This is a picture of Casey when he was seven months old. It’s an enlargement of a picture he carried in his wallet until the day he was killed. He loved this picture of himself. It was returned to us with his personal effects from Iraq. He always sucked on those two fingers. When he was born, he had a flat face from passing through the birth canal, and we called him ‘Edward G.,’ short for Edward G. Robinson. How many of you have seen your child in his/her premature coffin? It is a shocking and very painful sight. The most heartbreaking aspect of seeing Casey lying in his casket, for me, was that his face was flat again because he had no muscle tone. He looked like he did when he was a baby laying in his bassinette. The most tragic irony is that if the Downing Street Memo proves to be true, Casey and thousands of people should still be alive.”

Donald Rumsfeld testifying before the House Armed Services Committee in March 2005: “The world has seen, in the last three and a half years, the capability of the United States of America to go into Afghanistan … and with 20,000, 15,000 troops working with the Afghans do what 200,000 Soviets couldn’t do in a decade. They’ve seen the United States and the coalition forces go into Iraq. … That has to have a deterrent effect on people.” (Ann Scott Tyson, “U.S. Gaining World’s Respect From Wars, Rumsfeld Asserts,” the Washington Post, March 11, 2005 [scroll down])

George Bush on arriving for a meeting with families of the bereaved, including Cindy Sheehan and her husband on June 17, 2004: “So who are we honoring here?”

A teaser at the “Careers and Jobs” screen of GoArmy.com: “Want an extra $400 a month?” Click on it and part of what comes up is: “Qualified active Army recruits may be eligible for AIP [Assignment Incentive Pay] of $400 per month, up to 36 months for a total of up to $14,400, if they agree to be assigned to an Army-designated priority unit with a critical role in current global commitments.”

Who Is in That Ditch?

Casey Sheehan had one of those small “critical roles” in the “current global commitment” in Iraq that, in Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s words, “has to have a deterrent effect on people.” As it happens, Sheehan was one of the unexpectedly deterred and now, along with 1,846 other American soldiers, is interred, leaving his take-no-prisoners mother Cindy – a one-person antiwar movement – with a critical role to play in awakening Americans to the horrors, and dangers, of the Bush administration’s “current global commitments.”

Over the last two years, administration officials, civilian and military, have never ceased to talk about “turning corners” or reaching “tipping points” and achieving “milestones” in the Iraq-War-that-won’t-end. Now it seems possible that Cindy Sheehan in a spontaneous act of opposition – her decision to head for Crawford, Texas, to face down a vacationing president and demand an explanation for her son’s death – may produce the first real American tipping point of the Iraq War.

As a million news articles and TV reports have informed us, she was stopped about five miles short of her target, the presidential “ranch” in Crawford, and found herself unceremoniously consigned to a ditch at the side of a Texas road, camping out. And yet somehow, powerless except for her story, she has managed to take the president of the United States hostage and turned his Crawford refuge into the American equivalent of Baghdad’s Green Zone. She has mysteriously transformed August’s news into a question of whether, on his way to meet Republican donors, the president will helicopter over her encampment or drive past (as he, in fact, did) in a tinted-windowed black Chevrolet SUV.

Faced with the power of the Bush political and media machine, Cindy Sheehan has engaged in an extreme version of asymmetrical warfare and, in her person, in her story, in her version of “the costs of war,” she has also managed to catch many of the tensions of our present moment. What she has exposed in the process is the growing weakness and confusion of the Bush administration. At this moment, it remains an open question who, in the end, will be found in that ditch at the side of a Texas road, her – or the president of the United States.

Confusion in the Ranks

Ellen Knickmeyer of the Washington Post reported last week that “a U.S. general said … the violence would likely escalate as the deadline approached for drafting a constitution for Iraq.” For two years now, this has been a dime-a-dozen prediction from American officials trying to cover their future butts. For the phrase “drafting a constitution” in that general’s quote, you need only substitute “after the killing of Saddam Hussein’s sons” (July 2003), “for handing over sovereignty” (June 2004), “for voting for a new Iraqi government” (January 2005) – or, looking ahead, “for voting on the constitution” (October 2005) and, yet again, “for voting for a new Iraqi government” (December 2005), just as you will be able to substitute as yet unknown similar “milestones” that won’t turn out to be milestones as long as our president insists that we must “stay the course” in Iraq as he did only recently as his Crawford vacation began.

After each “spike of violence,” at each “tipping point,” each time a “corner is turned,” Bush officials or top commanders predict that they have the insurgency under control only to be ambushed by yet another “spike” in violence. This May, for example, more than three months after violence was supposed to have spiked and receded in the wake of the Iraqi election, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Richard Myers offered a new explanation – the “recent spike in violence … represents an attempt to discredit the new Iraqi government and cabinet.” When brief lulls in insurgent attacks (which often represent changes in tactics) aren’t being declared proof that the Iraqi insurgency is faltering/failing/coming under control, then the spikes are being claimed as “the last gasp” of the insurgency, proof of the impending success of Bush administration policies – those “last throes” that Vice President Cheney so notoriously described to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer as June ended.

Recently in a throw-(not throe-)up-your-hands mode, Army Brig. Gen. Karl Horst, deputy commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, which oversees Baghdad, offered the following, taking credit for having predicted the very throe his troops were then engulfed in: “If you look at the past few months, insurgents have not been able to sustain attacks, but they tend to surge every four weeks or so. We are right in the middle of one of those periods and predicted this would come. … If they are going to influence the constitution process, they have only a few days left to do it, and we fully expect the attacks to continue.”

You would think that someone in an official capacity would conclude, sooner or later, that Iraq was a spike in violence.

It’s an accepted truth of our times that the Bush administration has been the most secretive, disciplined, and on-message administration in our history. So what an out-of-control couple of weeks for the president and his pals! His polls were at, or near, historic lows; his Iraq War approval numbers headed for, or dipping below, 40 percent – and polls are, after all, the message boards for much of what’s left of American democracy. As he was preparing for his record-setting presidential vacation in Crawford, George and his advisers couldn’t even agree on whether we were in a “global struggle with violent extremism” or in a Global War on Terror. (The president finally opted for war.) He was, of course, leaving behind in Washington a special counsel, called into being by his administration but now beyond its control, who held a sword of judicial Damocles over key presidential aides (and who can probably parse sinking presidential polls as well as anyone).

Iraq – you can’t leave home without it – has, of course, been at the heart of everything Bushworld hasn’t been able to shake off at least since May 2, 2003. On that day (when, ominously enough, seven American soldiers were wounded by a grenade attack in Fallujah), our president co-piloted a jet onto the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier halted off the San Diego coast (lest it dock and he only be able to walk onboard). All togged out in a military uniform, he declared “major combat operations” at an end, while standing under a White House-produced banner reading “mission accomplished.” Ever since then, George has been on that mission (un)accomplished and Iraq has proved nothing if not a black hole, sucking in his administration and the American military along with neocon dreams and plans of every ambitious sort.

The Iraqi insurgency that should never have happened, or should at least have died down after unknown thousands of its foot soldiers were killed or imprisoned by the American military, inconveniently managed to turn the early days of August into a killing zone for American soldiers. Sixteen Marine Reservists from a single unit in Ohio were killed in a couple of days; seven soldiers from the Pennsylvania National Guard were killed, again in a few days. Thirty-seven Americans were reported to have died in Iraq in the first 11 days of the presidential vacation, putting American casualties at the top of the TV news night after night. And yet the administration has seemed capable only of standing by helplessly, refusing to give an inch on the “compassion” president’s decision – he and his advisers are still navigating by the anti-Vietnam playbook – not to visit grief-stricken communities in either Ohio or Pennsylvania, or ever to be caught attending the funeral of one of the boys or girls he sent abroad to die. He did manage, however, to fly to the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico to sign the energy bill and also left his ranch to hobnob with millionaire Republican donors.

In this same period, cracks in relations between an increasingly angry military command in Iraq and administration officials back in Washington began to appear for all to see. The issue, for desperate military officers, was – as for Cindy Sheehan – how in the world to get our troops out of Iraq before the all-volunteer military went over an Iraqi cliff, wheels and all.

As July ended, our top general in Iraq, George W. Casey, announced (with many conditional “ifs”) that we should be able to start drawing down American troops significantly by the following spring – that tens of thousands of them were likely to leave then and tens of thousands more by the end of 2006, and Don Rumsfeld initially backed him up somewhat edgily. Then, as Rumsfeld hedged, more military people jumped into the media fray with leaks and comments of all sorts about possible Iraqi drawdowns and there was a sudden squall of front-page articles on withdrawal strategies for a hard-pressed administration in an increasingly unpopular war. At the same time, confusingly, reports began to surface indicating that, because of another of those prospective “spikes” in violence, the administration would actually be increasing American troop strength in Iraq before the December elections by 10,000-20,000 soldiers.

Finally, after a war council of the Rumsfeld and Rice (Pentagon and State Department) “teams” in Crawford last week, the president held a press conference (devoted in part to responding to Cindy Sheehan) and promptly launched a new, ad-style near-jingle to explain the withdrawal moment to the American people: “As Iraqis stand up,” he intoned, “we will stand down.”

But in a week in which the American general in command of transportation in Iraq announced that roadside bomb attacks against his convoys had doubled over the past year, such words sounded empty – especially as news flowed in suggesting that, while the insurgents continued to fight fiercely, the new Iraqi military seemed in no rush whatsoever to “stand up” and that our own commanders believed it might never do so in significant numbers. At his news conference, our never-never-land president nonetheless spoke several times of being pleased to announce “progress” in Iraq. (“And we’re making progress training the Iraqis. Oh, I know it’s hard for some Americans to see that progress, but we are making progress.”)

He spoke as well of attempts to ease the burden on the no-longer-weekend warriors of the National Guard and the Reserves (who are taking unprecedented casualties in August). He said: “We’ve also taken steps to improve the call-up process for our Guard and for our Reserves. We’ve provided them with earlier notifications. We’ve given them greater certainty about the length of their tours. We minimized the number of extensions and repeat mobilizations.” Unfortunately, at just this moment, Joint Chiefs head Myers was speaking of the possibility of calling soldiers back for their third tours of duty in Iraq: “There’s the possibility of people going back for a third term, sure. That’s always out there. We are at war.”

“Pulling the troops out would send a terrible signal to the enemy,” the president insisted as he turned to the matter of withdrawal in his news conference. He then dismissed drawdown maneuvers as “speculation and rumors”; and, on being confronted by a reporter with the statements of his own military men, added, “I suspect what you were hearing was speculation based upon progress that some are seeing in Iraq as to whether or not the Iraqis will be able to take the fight to the enemy.”

While that may sound vague, it was, nonetheless, the sound of a president (who, along with his secretary of defense, has always promised to abide by whatever his generals in the field wanted) disputing those commanders in public. Gen. Casey was also reportedly “rebuked” in private for his withdrawal comments. Our commanders in Iraq are, of course, the official realists in this war, having long ago given up on the idea that the insurgency could ever be defeated by force of U.S. arms and worrying as they do about those “wheels coming off” the American military machine.

In fact, the Bush administration’s occupation of Iraq – as Howard Zinn put the matter recently, “[W]e liberated Iraq from Saddam Hussein, but not from us” – is threatening to prove one of the great asymmetric catastrophes in recent military history. A ragtag bunch of insurgents, now estimated in the tens of thousands, using garage-door openers and cell phones to set off roadside bombs and egg-timers to fire mortars at U.S. bases (lest they be around when the return fire comes in), have fought the U.S. military to at least a draw. We’re talking about a military that, not so long ago, was being touted as the most powerful force not just on this planet at this moment but on any planet in all of galactic history.

Previously, such rumors of withdrawal followed by a quiet hike in troop strength in Iraq might have been simply another clever administration attempt to manipulate the public and have it both ways. At the moment, however, they seem to be a sign not of manipulation but of confusion, discord, and uncertainty about what to do next. If the public was left confused by such “conflicting signals” about an Iraqi withdrawal, wrote Peter Baker of the Washington Post, “it may be no more unsure than the administration itself, as some government officials involved in Iraq policy privately acknowledge.” An unnamed “military officer in Washington” typically commented to Anne E. Kornblut of the New York Times, “We need to stick to one message. This vacillation creates confusion for the American public.”

Even administration officials are now evidently “significantly lowering expectations” and thinking about how exactly to jump off the sinking Iraqi ship. The president, beseeching “the public to stick with his strategy despite continuing mayhem on the ground,” is, Baker commented, “trying to buy time.” But buy time for what? This is the question that has essentially paralyzed George Bush’s top officials as they face a world suddenly not in their control.

Cindy and the Media

And then, if matters weren’t bad enough, there was Cindy Sheehan. She drove to Crawford with a few supporters in a caravan of perhaps a dozen vehicles and an old red, white, and blue bus with the blunt phrase, “Impeachment Tour,” written on it. She carried with her a tent, a sleeping bag, some clothes, and evidently not much else. She parked at the side of the road and camped out – and the next thing anyone knew, she had forced the president to send out not the Secret Service or some minor bureaucrat, but two of his top men, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin. For 45 minutes, they met and negotiated with her, the way you might with a recalcitrant foreign head of state. Rather than being flattered and giving ground, she just sent them back, insisting that she would wait where she was to get the president’s explanation for her son’s death. (“They said they’d pass on my concerns to George Bush. I said, ‘Fine, but I’m not talking to anybody else but him.'”)

So there she was, as people inspired by her began to gather – the hardy women of Code Pink; other parents whose children had died in Iraq; a former State Department official who had resigned her post to protest the onrushing Iraq War; “a political consultant and a team of public relations professionals”; antiwar protesters of all sorts; and, of course, the media. Quite capable of reading administration weakness in the polls, trapped in no-news Crawford with a president always determined to offer them less than nothing, hardened by an administration whose objective for any media not its own was only “rollback,” and sympathetic to a grieving mother from Bush’s war, reporters found themselves with an irresistible story at a moment when they could actually run with it.

Literally hundreds of news articles – almost every one a sympathetic profile of the distraught mother and her altar-boy, Eagle-Scout dead son – poured out; while Sheehan was suddenly on the morning TV shows and the nightly news, where a stop-off at “Camp Casey” or the “Crawford Peace House” was suddenly de rigueur. And the next thing you knew, there was the president at his news conference forced to flinch a second time and, though Sheehan was clobbering him, offer “sympathy” to a grieving mother at the side of the road five miles away whom he wasn’t about to invite in, even for a simple meeting, but who just wouldn’t leave. (“And so, you know, listen, I sympathize with Mrs. Sheehan. She feels strongly about her – about her position. And I am – she has every right in the world to say what she believes. This is America. She has a right to her position…”)

Talk about asymmetric warfare. One woman against the massed and proven might of the Bush political machine and its major media allies (plus assorted bloggers) and though some of them started whacking away immediately, Cindy Sheehan remained unfazed. After all, she had been toiling in the wilderness and this was her moment. Whatever the right-wing press did, she could take it – and, of course, the mainstream media had for the time being decided to fall in love with her. After all, she was perfect. American reporters love a one-on-one, “showdown” situation without much context, a face-to-face shootout at the OK Corral. (Remember those endless weeks on TV labeled “Showdown with Saddam”?) In addition, they were – let’s be honest – undoubtedly angry after the five-year-long pacification campaign the administration had waged against them.

But they had their own ideas about who exactly Cindy Sheehan should be to win over America. They would paint a strikingly consistent, quite moving, but not completely accurate picture of her. They would attempt to tame her by shearing away her language, not just the profanity for which she was known, but the very fierceness of her words. She had no hesitation about calling the president “an evil maniac,” “a lying bastard,” or the administration “those lying bastards,” “chickenhawks,” “warmongers,” “shameful cowards,” and “war criminals.” She called for the president’s “impeachment,” for the jailing of the whole top layer of the administration (no pardons). She called for American troops to be pulled out of Iraq now. And most of this largely disappeared from a much-softened media portrait of a grieving antiwar mother.

And yet Sheehan herself seems unfazed by the media circus and image-shaping going on around her. In a world where horrors are referred to euphemistically, or limned in politely, or artfully ignored, she does something quite rare – she calls things by their names as she sees them. She is as blunt and impolite in her mission as the media is circumspect and polite in its job, as most of the opposition to George Bush is in its “opposition.” And it was her very bluntness, her ability to shock by calling things by their actual names, by acting as she saw fit, that let her break through and that may help turn a set of unhappy public opinion polls into a full-scale antiwar movement.

What will happen next? Will the president actually attend a funeral? Will Cindy Sheehan force him from his Green-Zone world? Suddenly, almost anything seems possible.

However the media deals with her, she embodies every bind the administration is in. As with Iraq (as well as Iran), the administration can’t either make its will felt or sweep her off the landscape. Bush and his officials blinked at a moment when they would certainly have liked to whack her, fearing the power of the mother of a dead son from their war. And then, completely uncharacteristically, they vacillated and flip-flopped. They ignored her, then negotiated. They sent out their attack dogs to flail at her, then expressed sympathy. Officials, who have always known what to do before, had no idea what to do with Cindy Sheehan. The most powerful people in the world, they surely feel trapped and helpless. Somehow, she’s taken that magical presidential something out of George and cut him down to size. It’s been a remarkable performance so far.

The Tipping Point?

Casey Sheehan died on April 4, 2004, soon after he arrived for his tour of duty in Iraq. His mother had never wanted him to go to a war that was “wrong,” a place where he might have to “kill innocent people” and where he might die. (“I begged him not to go. I said, ‘I’ll take you to Canada’ … but he said, ‘Mom, I have to go. It’s my duty. My buddies are going.'”) In her grief – always beyond imagining for those of us who have not lost a child – this woman found her calling, one that she would never have wanted and that no one would have ever wished on her.

For more than a year, having set up a small organization, Gold Star Families for Peace, she traveled the country insisting that the president explain, but in relative obscurity – except on the Internet, that place where so much gestates that later bursts into our mainstream world and where today, at Technorati.com, which monitors usage on blogs, her name is the most frequently searched for of all. As she has said, “If we didn’t have the Internet, none of us would really know what was truly going on. This is something that can’t be ignored.”

In March, she appeared – thanks to prescient editors – on the cover of the Nation magazine for an article, “The New Face of Protest?,” on the developing military, and military-family inspired, antiwar movement. She was giving a speech at the Veterans for Peace national convention in Dallas when she evidently decided that she had to head for Crawford, and the rest you know.

As our president likes to speak about “our mission” in Iraq and “our mission of defeating terrorists” in the world, so Cindy Sheehan has found herself on a mission. Our president speaks resolutely of “staying the course” in Iraq. That’s exactly what Cindy Sheehan is planning to do in Crawford (and undoubtedly beyond). George prides himself on not flinching, giving ground, or ever saying he’s sorry. But he also had remarkably good luck until he ran into Cindy. Whether in his presidential runs, in Congress, or elsewhere, he really hasn’t come up against an opponent who was ready to dig in and duke it out blow for blow, an opponent ready never to flinch, never to apologize, never to mince words, never to take prisoners. Now he’s got one – and like so many personal demons, she’s been called up from the id of his own war: A mother of one of the dead who demands an explanation, an answer, when no answer he gives will ever conceivably do; a woman who, like his neocon companions, has no hesitation about going for the jugular. And, amazingly, she’s already made the man flinch twice.

No matter how the media surrounds her or tries to tame her, the fact is she’s torn up the oppositional rule book. She’s a woman made in the mold of Iraq War vet Paul Hackett, who ran in a hopelessly Republican congressional district recently. He didn’t hesitate to call the president a “chickenhawk” or a “son of a bitch,” and to the surprise of all won 48 percent of the vote doing so, leading Newt Gingrich to say that the race “should serve as a wake-up call to Republicans” for the 2006 elections.

There’s a lesson in this. Americans are not, generally speaking, your basic turn-the-other-cheek sorts of folks. They like to know that the people they vote for or support will, at the very least, stand there and whack back, if whacked at. Whatever she may have been before, Cindy Sheehan was beaten into just that shape on the anvil of her son’s death. (“I was stunned and dismayed when the United States invaded Iraq. I didn’t agree with it. I didn’t think it was right, but I never protested until after Casey was killed.”) Some of her testimony at the Conyers hearings on the Downing Street Memo catches this spirit, and it’s well worth quoting:

“There are a few people around the U.S. and a couple of my fellow witnesses who were a little justifiably worried that in my anger and anguish over Casey’s premeditated death, I would use some swear words, as I have been known to do on occasion when speaking about the subject. Mr. Conyers, out of my deep respect for you, the other representatives here, my fellow witnesses, and viewers of these historic proceedings, I was able to make it through an entire testimony without using any profanity. However, if anyone deserves to be angry and use profanity, it is I. What happened to Casey and humanity because of the apparent dearth of honesty in our country’s leadership is so profane that it defies even my vocabulary skills. We as Americans should be offended more by the profanity of the actions of this administration than by swear words. We have all heard the old adage that actions speak louder than words and for the sake of Casey and our other precious children, please hold someone accountable for their actions and their words of deception.”

Last week, the Pentagon relieved a four-star general of his command allegedly because he had an affair, while separated from his wife, with a woman not in the military or the government; and yet not a single top official or high-ranking officer (except for scapegoat Brig. Gen. Janice Karpinski) has suffered for American acts at Abu Ghraib, or murder and torture throughout our imperium, or for torture and abuse at our prison in Guantanamo, or for any of the disasters of Iraq. In such a context, the words “please hold someone accountable” by the mother of a boy killed in Iraq, a woman on a mission who doesn’t plan to back down or leave off any time soon – well, that truly constitutes going directly for the president’s political throat. It’s mano a mano time, and while I would never underestimate what this administration might do, I wouldn’t underestimate the fierce power of an angry mother either. The Bush administration is in trouble in Iraq, in Washington, and in Crawford.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War.

[Note on sources: Cindy Sheehan is first and foremost an Internet phenomenon. Those of you who want to read her writings since 2004 should visit her archive at the always lively libertarian site, LewRockwell.com. (Rockwell seems to specialize in strong women, publishing as well the writings of ret. Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski.) For the Sheehan phenomenon in its present incarnation check out a new Web site www.meetwithcindy.org, but then go to the must-visit site, AfterDowningStreet.com, which has a fascinating, ever-updated Sheehan subsection.]

Copyright 2005 Tom Engelhardt

Author: Tom Engelhardt

An editor in publishing for the last 25 years, Tom Engelhardt is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War era, now out in a revised edition with a new preface and afterword, and Mission Unaccomplished, TomDispatch Interviews With American Iconoclasts and Dissenters. He is at present consulting editor for Metropolitan Books, a fellow of the Nation Institute, and a teaching fellow at the journalism school of the University of California, Berkeley. Visit his Web site. This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.