Hiding from Cindy

Thursday, August 18th, 2005

My guess is that the Army’s new $350 million recruitment-ad blitz targeting parents will not feature any footage of Cindy Sheehan camped in a ditch five miles outside of Crawford, Texas, waiting patiently for the vacationing president to talk to her.

Nor, I suspect, will “Arlington West,” the makeshift cemetery containing more than 1,800 crosses spread out along the road to the Bush ranch, be part of the slick, insidious hype the Leo Burnett agency is hoping will soften the fearful grip American parents have on their teenagers these days, only one in four of whom wants his or her kid to enlist.

Big problem, those parents. Thanks at least in part to their influence, the Army is only hitting about 70 percent of its recruitment goal for the year, no small matter in a time of war and quagmire. So it’s hoping, through the magic of television, to do an end run around reality — that is, the lies and grim statistics that are causing public opinion to sour on the war — and flog the old manhood mythology for all its worth.

In one commercial, for instance, a boy clinches a conversation with his skeptical mom about enlisting so he can have a way to pay for college by saying, “And besides, it’s time for me to be a man.”

What brilliant (and shameless) manipulation of human psychology — as though the Army’s raison d’etre is the personal growth of young people. Yes, boys have to grow into men, and rites of passage are crucial for this, but the admen and the Army are hawking a cynical lie. Almost 90 years ago, poet Wilfred Owen, who died in World War I, captured the essence of that lie in his extraordinary poem “Dulce et Decorum Est.” (The last line, translated from the Latin, means, “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”)

“If you could hear,” Owen writes, describing the death of a fellow soldier in a gas attack, “at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.”

Cut back to Cindy Sheehan out there in the hot Texas sun, courageously taking her stand against lies both old and new. Sheehan, of course, is a real-life mom whose son, Casey, died a year ago in Sadr City, Iraq, at age 24. She lost Casey to those lies. (“I begged him not to go,” she told a reporter, “. . . . but he said, ‘Mom, I have to go. It’s my duty. My buddies are going.’”)

Now she wants to know why this happened. She wants to hear the answer personally from the man who sold the war to the nation on the basis of blatant fabrications about weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein’s link to Osama bin Laden and, when all else failed, bringing democracy to Iraq. She wants to look him in the eyes and hear him tell her what, exactly, in those lies was worth her son’s life.

“How many of you have seen your child in his/her premature coffin?” she asked recently at U.S. Rep. John Conyers’ special hearing on the Downing Street Memo (as quoted by Tom Englehardt in Mother Jones). “It is a shocking and very painful sight. The most heartbreaking aspect of seeing Casey lying in his casket for me was that his face was flat again because he had no muscle tone. He looked like he did when he was a baby laying in his bassinette. The most tragic irony is that if the Downing Street Memo proves to be true, Casey and thousands of people should still be alive.”

We know our president can’t tolerate criticism, but the more Bush evades Cindy Sheehan — the more he motorcades past her encampment, which is swelling with supporters, or escapes the ranch by helicopter — the more cowardly he looks in the eyes of the world. And the more history digs in and stands watch with Sheehan.

When has such a thing ever happened before? When has a grieving mom, merely bearing witness to the humanity of her lost loved one, so mobilized a nation’s conscience and forced it to ponder the cost of a war? Whether or not Bush ever meets with her, Sheehan has delivered her message: My son matters!

All our sons and daughters matter. And the Army’s saturation ad campaign, no matter how slick and sanitized, won’t convince too many parents otherwise.