Is Cindy Sheehan the Rosa Parks or the Jane Fonda of the War in Iraq? Is she the lonely sentinel, standing righteously against injustice? Or a self-centered publicity seeker, endangering American soldiers in the War?
The question is something of a political Rorschach test, telling us more about ourselves and our appraisal of America's wars than about Sheehan. But asking it and understanding the issues behind the question might help us find a solution to the illegitimate and failed War.
Rosa Parks is an iconic figure of twentieth century America because she so tidily embodies one of its greatest ideals: the courageous stand against injustice. When she refused to give up her seat on the bus, she let loose a fire that had simmered since the end of the Civil War. Despite its ideals of equality, American society in the early 1960s was manifestly unequal. Blacks were undeniably second-class citizens, their subjugation systematically abetted by the government itself.
The cultural esteem for Parks' heroism originates with the founding fathers. They, too, had been made second-class citizens by their own government. They were denied representation, protection against unreasonable searches, and trials by jury, rights guaranteed to all Englishmen. They demanded those rights of King George but were rebuffed. Mending those injustices became the inspiration for the American Revolution.
Jane Fonda is a similarly iconic figure but for different and more complex reasons. Her conflicted celebrity, almost 40 years after her act, reflects not one but two models that collide with each other in the American psyche and that make the protest of war so problematic for Americans.
In the hostile rendering, Fonda endangered American soldiers in Vietnam by providing succor to the enemy. "Hanoi Jane" is no more than a latter-day Tokyo Rose, and, in fact, a modern day Benedict Arnold. There is no exculpation for her acts. They were traitorous. And the garden variety war protesters were merely state-side acolytes in the treason, inescapably stained with the same existential guilt.
But the fact that Fonda still enjoys celebrity status with much of the American citizenry suggests, at the very least, another deeply held understanding of her acts. Just as Parks had done, Fonda defied the tyranny of her own government, a government that had abandoned its own ideals and was perpetrating a massive injustice.
Ho Chi Mihn had asked President Truman in 1946 if the U.S. would help the Vietnamese throw off the yoke of French colonial occupation. Sadly, Truman sided with the French, betraying his country's founding ideals of self-determination and freedom from colonial domination. In that act, he irretrievably undermined the U.S. moral position with the Vietnamese people, ultimately dooming the course of the War. Truman's betrayal of American ideals is the origin of our enduring angst about the Vietnam War. But it is not the only source.
While Americans ritualistically mourn the 58,000 U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam, we are oblivious, or worse, indifferent, to the fact that more than three million Vietnamese were killed. That is 50 Vietnamese killed for every American. And this, against a country that had never attacked or even threatened to attack the United States but, rather, had asked it for help.
It is a profound moral blindness to deny the immorality of such a war. Fonda's protests of the War, of the betrayal inherent in its origins and the brutal injustice that saturated its execution, are what sustains the positive side of her reputation today.
The meaningful question now is, does protest against the current War endanger its outcome? In some sense, the answer must be "yes". But that doesn't necessarily mean it's wrong. The North Vietnamese paid close attention to American sentiment towards their war. Ho Chi Mihn rightly observed, "Eventually, the Americans will tire of their losses and will have to go home." His strategy was one of enervation, of fatiguing America of its will to fight. It worked. A similar dynamic is surely playing out in Iraq today.
As public rejection of the War steadily mounts it becomes increasingly clear that the War will not be won. But that can hardly be the fault of the miniscule number of protesters or the even more minute coverage they have belatedly received in the media. Rather, it is an indictment of the legitimacy of the War itself, of Bush's deceitful campaign to sell it to the American people, and of his catastrophically failed execution of it. In fact, it is an all-too-telling measure of the fragility of the War's support that its backers are so spooked, so threatened, by the simple civil protest of one single woman.
What if the Vietnam protests had not occurred? It was the impending civil war in the U.S. that convinced Johnson's "Wise Men" that the War must be ended. What if the protesters had been silenced, as the right wing thugs want to silence Cindy Sheehan today? What if the War had gone on for another ten years and another 58,000 American and another three million Vietnamese lives had been lost?
In this sense, the protests undoubtedly saved soldiers' lives, in fact, many times more lives than might have been lost as their consequence. They unquestionably helped end a calamitous injustice.
But beyond concerns for body counts lies a more perplexing irony of protest, one that is seemingly lost on those who would condemn Cindy Sheehan as the Hanoi Jane of Iraq. It is precisely through such acts of protest that America itself was born. Those who would muzzle Sheehan would destroy the very freedom to challenge government that they claim to be fighting for, that they claim to be wanting to install into Iraq.
Worse, by silencing protest, they make it impossible to weigh the justice-or to end the injustice-of the War itself. As with Vietnam, Iraq never attacked or even threatened to attack the U.S. As with Vietnam, Iraq's invasion was rationalized by a massive campaign of lies and distortions by the U.S. government. The war has killed almost 2,000 American soldiers and, according to Lancet, the respected British medical journal, over 100,000 Iraqis, mostly women and children. As with Vietnam, that is 50 Iraqis killed for every American.
And as with Vietnam, it is a profound moral blindness that tries to conflate such acts into a just cause. It is equally profound political cowardice that needs to suppress the voice of a single woman who would simply question the justification for such acts. For, as with protest, accountability of the government to its people is one of the elemental bases of America's founding, indeed, of its very existence.
Finally, beyond body counts, beyond the sanctity of protest, beyond the imperative to confront and right injustice, beyond the need for accountability, lies the simple question of how the war can be ended. It was not Cindy Sheehan's but George Bush's Dogpatch demagoguery that declared, "Bring 'em on!"
But his war spawns insurgents far faster than Bush can kill them. It long ago breached the dikes of Iraq itself and has metastasized throughout the rest of the world. It has made America and the world less safe from terrorism, not more so. And there is no end in sight. When the president's latest aim for the War itself-to reduce terror-has been lost, "Stay the course" is not a plausible, not even a remotely sensible strategy.
Yet that is all Bush has to offer the American people. It is not acceptable. A sizable majority of Americans now believe the war is a failure. How can it possibly be a threat to the nation to ask of the man who lied us into it how he plans to get us out? Or is it simply Bush's plan to wait for another 2,000 American soldiers' deaths? And another 2,000? And another 2,000? When will it end? And how?
Perhaps more than either Rosa Parks or Jane Fonda, Cindy Sheehan is really the child in the fairy tale who declared that the emperor had no clothes. It was his unadorned innocence against the arrogant casuistry of the local pundits that finally awoke the town to what everybody could see but were too embarrassed to admit: they had been taken.
The servile idolatry of authority that so insecurely needs to suppress a lone woman's protest against such a transparent and tragic fraud as the War in Iraq is a far greater threat to America than is that simple protest itself. If we truly believe in America, the merits of the Iraq War notwithstanding, we must honor and defend Cindy Sheehan's act. Even more, we must join it to defend it against the faux patriots who would ruthlessly, happily silence not only Sheehan but all of the rest of us as well.