I have to admit that I was quite surprised when I read that Cindy Sheehan is leaving the peace movement. After reading her explanation for the move, I was less surprised, but still a bit disappointed. After reading the piece, it is clear that Sheehan has discovered that politics can be an ugly affair. When one is the focus of a political movement like Ms. Sheehan became, they become even uglier. Her departure will leave a hole, but it should not leave a vacuum. After all, there are thousands of US residents that have been hurt by the loss of a loved one in Iraq or Afghanistan, unfortunately. In addition, there are millions around the world that are just plain fed up and pissed off about these wars and the death and destruction they are causing.
Ms. Sheehan is planning to go home and raise her remaining children. That’s a good thing. Her screed makes it clear that she is burned out from her past two years of antiwar activism and doing something real like caring for children will surely put her back in touch with the better side of humanity. This move is similar to the retreat from politics and the streets that much of an entire generation underwent in the years following the government murders at Kent State and Jackson State in 1970 during antiwar protests. Another side of this retreat was the turn away from politics and towards cultural and religion. Unlike caring for one’s children, the latter two were mere escapism and somewhat solipsistic. One could argue that these phenomenon destroyed the potential for radical change in the United States, but a more appropriate analysis would merely claim that here in the US we had (and have) the luxury to stop fighting against the war because we do not live where the bombs are exploding and the assault weapons firing.
Ms. Sheehan makes it clear that she still opposes these wars and the power mongers who insist on continuing it. Indeed, she saves her harshest words of her farewell message for these men and women who "move them (US soldiers) around like pawns on a chessboard of destruction" and are " worried more about elections than people." Naturally, this includes the Democrats as well as the Republicans. And that, is the crux of Sheehan’s despair. She honestly thought that the Democrats were different. Now that they have proved they are not, she is ready to give it all up and, by doing so, hand the forces of war and reaction a victory that they will surely relish. Yeh, there will probably be some tentative cries from various Democrats telling Cindy that their party is not a war party and that she needs to hang in there. Those cries will most likely come from party rank and file, not its leaders or elected types, since the latter are much more concerned with the 2008 elections, as Sheehan clearly points out. Meanwhile, one can almost imagine the nasty jokes and high-fives going around George Bush’s breakfast table. They finally got rid of that pesky Mom whose son they killed. Maybe now they can get on with the war, especially since the Democrats caved like a cardboard box in a hurricane.
In another section of her letter, Sheehan directs her anger and frustration at the so-called leadership of the antiwar movement. Pointing a well-deserved finger at the movement and its divisions, she writes: " I have also tried to work within a peace movement that often puts personal egos above peace and human life. This group won’t work with that group; he won’t attend an event if she is going to be there…. It is hard to work for peace when the very movement that is named after it has so many divisions." What else can one say except, once again Ms. Sheehan has drawn an incorrect conclusion. As many others have written when addressing this issue, who cares about the pettiness of egos and power players in the movement? If one opposes the war, one gets in the streets and opposes it. Screw the fools jockeying for a future or a media spot. The war will be ended by the mass protest of the people who oppose it, not by getting a director’s job with MoveOn, UFPJ, or some other antiwar organization.
The most poignant paragraph in Sheehan’s statement begins with her sad acknowledgment that her son died for absolutely nothing. One can only imagine the emotions that come from this realization. Like many of her fellow citizens, Sheehan wants to believe that the United States is a good place and that the people who live there do believe in the principles espoused in its documents and by its greatest leaders. Her discovery that "(her son) Casey died for a country which cares more about who will be the next American Idol than how many people will be killed in the next few months" is a difficult thing to take. Yet, this is not a reason to quit. It is, instead, a motivation to change things at an even more fundamental level. One may not like being called a radical because they oppose the wars Washington has dragged us into, but one must also become aware that only radical analysis and action undertaken by millions will change a system that requires those wars to survive.
I recall a discussion I had with a friend during the buildup to the first Gulf War. We were talking about activist burnout and egotistical activists as we watched the antiwar movement in Olympia, WA. grow by leaps and bounds while it struggled with internal conflicts that were primarily ego-driven. I said to my friend that whenever I felt an organization couldn’t live without me, then it was time for me to step back from whatever high-profile position I happened to be in and go back to the grunt work of passing out leaflets and setting up stages. After all, it wasn’t me that mattered, but the movement.
I wish Cindy Sheehan a peaceful and restorative time away from the frontlines of the antiwar movement. Her presence, commitment and personality have made a good deal of difference in the growth of the movement against Washington’s wars. Indeed, it can be reasonably argued that it was Cindy Sheehan that made it okay for Middle America to protest, and for that she must be thanked. Now that she is taking a breather from the madness it is up to us to continue expanding those protests. It is certainly not time to give up.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is forthcoming from Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com