Over two thousand American parents are grieving their losses from the war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, but sometimes it only seems like one: Cindy Sheehan, who is never shy, rarely dignified, barely rational, and always present. She was at the U.N. recently, getting arrested and exposing her middle-aged midriff; she was in Venezuela in January, praising the dictator Hugo Chavez and calling President Bush the greatest terrorist in the world; she wrote an unhinged letter to the President’s mother in November; in September, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, she declared New Orleans “occupied” territory when the rest of us were wondering why it wasn’t occupied sooner.
As most Americans know at this point, Ms. Sheehan’s antiwar activism is inspired by the death of her son, Army Specialist Casey Sheehan, who died in Iraq in April 2004. Some great moral crusades get started from the wells of personal loss, but it became apparent quickly that Ms. Sheehan’s wouldn’t be among them. For one thing, opinion on the war was divided; for another, her own personal collapse was so evident that it always obscured whatever merits her cause may have had.
Ms. Sheehan is a cringe-inducing hysteric, perhaps never more so than when she posed for Vanity Fair on her son’s grave, a grave that (as others have noted) still lacks a headstone, while Ms. Sheehan has a new car. In one of her blog entries she informed millions of strangers that her son was probably a virgin when he went to Iraq. Each day she dishonors his memory, and her profoundly weak and shallow response to loss has been celebrated in all of the expected quarters. Now word comes that Susan Sarandon will play her in a feature film. Well, naturally.
Ms. Sheehan’s now ex-husband prefers to keep silent while she demands restitution from a world that has always had wars and always will. Her son’s death is tragic but not mysterious, or if it is mysterious the only being that can explain it is the one that Ms. Sheehan, a Catholic renunciate, has renounced. Instead she looks for answers from politicians, and for solace from celebrity. She gets neither, because of course what she wants is her son back. It should be understood that she is fighting God, not George Bush, but she has a better chance of getting a meeting with the President than an answer from the Almighty, who has never been much on explanations.
MEANWHILE, ONE OF MS. SHEEHAN’S fellow Californians also grieves a lost son. Patrick K. Tillman has been largely quiet in the two years since his son’s death, putting his trust in the military personnel who pledged to him that they would get to the bottom of what happened on April 22, 2004. Corporal Pat Tillman, former free safety and free spirit for the Arizona Cardinals, left professional football to become a soldier after September 11th. He and his brother Kevin first served in Iraq, then in Afghanistan, where Pat was killed a few weeks after Casey Sheehan died in Iraq. For over a month afterwards, Tillman was said to have died in combat, presumably against Taliban forces. Only later did the truth come out, that he had been killed by friendly fire in a terrible accident that seems to have been avoidable. Having been told a lie at the outset, and having heard changing stories since, Mr. Tillman no longer has confidence that the Army’s explanations are reliable.
Participants’ versions of the incident have changed over time; evidence has been destroyed; and the Tillmans haven’t even managed to retrieve their son’s diary. Earlier this month, the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command announced a new inquiry into the incident, which may include the possibility of a cover-up. For most of the two years since his son’s death Mr. Tillman has been a quiet, grieving parent, like the vast majority of other parents of fallen American troops. Patience has its limits.
“There is so much nonstandard conduct, both before and after Pat was killed, that you have to start to wonder,” Mr. Tillman told the New York Times recently. “How much effort would you put into hiding an accident? Why do you need to hide an accident?”
Pat Tillman became the noble athlete of this generation the moment he took off his football uniform and put on a military one. If his actions didn’t say enough, testimony from those who knew him speak of an independent, courageous man who seemed to exemplify the American spirit and that old-fashioned word, heroism.
Tillman’s parents have made some blistering criticisms of the Army (“they blew up their poster boy,” his father said last year), but their statements have generally been specific to the incident and focused on those who have responsibility for what happened. They are making one reasonable request of the Army: Tell us, to the best that you are able, what happened to our son. The military’s refusal or inability to do so, at least so far, is a cruelty that Ms. Sheehan has not had to experience. Of course, you’d think Ms. Sheehan was the only mother who ever lost a child in a war.
Pat Tillman’s mother has no such illusions. “This is how they treat a family of a high-profile individual,” she said, speaking of the military’s handling of the incident. “How are they treating others?”
Then, Ms. Tillman says, with terrible economy, “I am beyond tears. It is killing me.”
Imagine what walls Pat Tillman would have kicked in to spare his mother this. And imagine what rocks Casey Sheehan might hide under if he could see the way his mother carries on.