THE BLOG
08/14/2005 02:03 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Cindy Sheehan's War

Cindy Sheehan inhabits an alternative world of meaning that more Americans need to experience before this war can end. She represents the survivors' need to define a meaning in her son's death - and her life - that is counter to the meaning offered by President Bush. That is why she refuses any condolences, and why she continues to ask the President what was the "noble purpose" for which Casey Sheehan died.

All wars take on a new momentum when the survivors believe that those killed represent a "noble sacrifice" and hear repeated assurances from authority figures that they "shall not have died in vain." The momentum begins to reverse when the survivors question deeply the justification for all the suffering.

Robert Jay Lifton reported this phenomenon among Vietnam-era soldiers and their families. He wrote that "when the alternative survivor mission takes hold, victims become ignoble sacrifices, products of crual deception. Their deaths then have meaning only in serving to expose the grotesque truths of the war. The alternative survivor mission can become one of oppostion to the war, its advocates, and their policies." Lipton writes further: "[we become] survivors of a death encounter, and survivors of all kinds are hungry for the meaning of that encounter - meaning that is inevitably associated with the authority of the dead."

An alternative survior mission took hold of Americans after World War I and Vietnam. It is taking hold among Americans once again because of Iraq. Cindy Sheehan's war is for this alternative meaning. She is bringing many Americans to confront the awful fact that nearly 2,000 soldiers have died and 13,000 been wounded in a war fought for fabricated reasons. She is challenging George Bush never to use those deaths as justification for more killing. She wants the truth, nothing more than the truth, because that will stop George Bush from desecrating the dead all over again through deceit. By embracing an alternative meaning, Cindy's war suggests to young Americans and their families that they are under no obligation to keep the faith with the dead by continuing to die or kill Iraqis.

The reason she is such a threat to Bush is that she claims the "authority of the dead" as a justification for peace. So do an increasing number of Gold Star mothers and military families and Iraq veterans. What is striking so far is that the Bush operatives have been unable to organize a committee of pro-war families who lost sons or daughters in the war. [Nixon did so against John Kerry and the Vietnam Veterans Against the War]. The White House has only been able to mobilize the Bill O'Reilly, who never fought a war, and Cindy Sheehan's in-laws.

Cindy is winning the war for meaning. Only the families, friends, and buddies of the dead can carry this lonely burden for the rest of us. As they do, peace movement slogans like "bring them home now" will have deep resonance with all Americans.