How Not to Honor Our Honorable Dead: Ending the Summer of Cindy Sheehan

Mackubin T. Owens

September 1, 2005

Hurricane Katrina and the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist seem to have put an end to the media circus surrounding the “Summer of Cindy Sheehan.” Of course, given the attention span of the press, it may well have ended anyway once the dog days—and slow news days – of August came to an end.

I don’t think I am alone in believing that Cindy Sheehan’s use of her son’s death in Iraq to advance the political goals of and other outfits on the political Left in this country was inappropriate. Mrs. Sheehan did herself no favors and certainly made a mockery of her son’s death. The most tragic consequence of Mrs. Sheehan’s antics in Crawford is that her son, Casey Sheehan, is now more likely to be remembered as a victim rather than the hero he was.

I certainly understand Mrs. Sheehan’s anguish and sense of loss. I corresponded for some time with the mother of a Marine in my platoon in Vietnam who was killed in May 1969. Her inconsolable pain and grief put me in mind of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, Epitaphs of the War, verse IV, “An Only Son:” “I have slain none but my mother, She (Blessing her slayer) died of grief for me.” Kipling, like Mrs. Sheehan, lost his only son in World War I.

How should we honor those who have died in war? Doesn’t the image of a flag-draped coffin borne to the grave on a horse-drawn caisson, the lone piper, the rifle volley, the folded flag handed to a mother or wife of the dead soldier “on behalf of a grateful nation,” and the plaintive strains of “Taps” echoing through the cemetery somehow glorify war and trivialize individual loss and the end of youth and joy? I think not.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said it well in his famous Memorial Day address of 1884. “[G]rief is not the end of all,” he said. “I seem to hear the funeral march become a paean. I see beyond the forest the moving banners of a hidden column. Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death—of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and joy of the spring. As I listen, the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope and will.”

As the summer of Cindy Sheehan was reaching its apogee, country-music stations began playing a remarkable song by Trace Adkins that captures the essence of Holmes’s image. In “Arlington,” Adkins, who is known primarily as one of the best performers of the “in your face,” honky-tonk style of country music, offers a dignified ballad that captures the “mystic chords of memory” that links one generation of heroes to another. I doubt that even the most stone-hearted of people can listen to “Arlington” without tearing up.

I never thought that this is where I’d settle down,
I thought I’d die an old man back in my hometown,
They gave me this plot of land, me and some other men, for a job well done.
There’s a big white house that sits on a hill just up the road,
The man inside he cried the day they brought me home,
They folded up a flag and told my mom and dad, we’re proud of your son.

Chorus: And I’m proud to be on this peaceful piece of property,
I’m on sacred ground and I’m in the best of company,
I’m thankful for those thankful for the things I’ve done
I can rest in peace, I’m one of the chosen ones, I made it to Arlington.

I remember that my daddy brought me here when I was eight,
we searched all day to find out where my granddad lay,
and when we finally found that cross,
he said, “son this is what it cost /to keep us free” Now here I am, a
thousand stones away from him,
he recognized me on the first day I came in,
and it gave me a chill, when he clicked his heels, and saluted me.

Chorus: And every time I hear twenty-one guns,
I know they brought another hero home to us.

We’re thankful for those thankful for the things we’ve done,
we can rest in peace, ’cause we are the chosen ones,
we made it to Arlington, yea dust to dust,
Don’t cry for us, we made it to Arlington.

Of course the centerpiece of the Summer of Cindy Sheehan was her demand that the President meet with her to explain why her son died. As everyone knows, he had already met with her once, and at the time, she reported that the meeting comforted her, despite the fact that she opposed the war long before her son’s death.

Even some Republicans thought the president should have met with her again. I disagree. President Bush has met with the families of fallen soldiers to an extent that exceeds that of his predecessors. But perhaps he should write her. I suggest a letter along the following lines:

Dear Mrs. Sheehan:

I have been shown reports confirming that your son, Casey, died bravely on the field of battle in Iraq.

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic he died to save.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

George W. Bush

Of course, this is a paraphrase of Lincoln’s letter to Mrs. Lydia Bixby of Massachusetts, whom Lincoln believed to have lost five sons in the war that still raged in 1864 (it was actually two – as if the number matters). When Lincoln sent this letter, he had no idea that Mrs. Bixby was a Confederate sympathizer—in other words, that she favored the cause of those who killed her sons. I believe that even if Lincoln had known, he would have sent it anyway.

Unlike Lincoln in the case of Mrs. Bixby, President Bush knows that Mrs. Sheehan sympathizes with her son’s killers. She has expressed her sympathies publicly on more than one occasion. But the President should send such a letter anyway. Maybe it could shame Cindy Sheehan into separating her political agenda from her son’s honorable sacrifice and enable her to grant Casey Sheehan the dignity and respect that his sacrifice deserves.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center and an associate dean of academics and a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.