The bona fides of grief

Posted: Aug 19, 2005 12:00 AM

Moral authority is about to have a showdown in Crawford, Texas, where the parents of soldiers in Iraq will square off in the heat-shimmering periphery of President George W. Bush's averted gaze.

Cindy Sheehan, the bereaved mother who has gained international attention by posting herself outside the Bush ranch and demanding a (second) meeting with the president in the wake of her son's death, is about to have company of a different sort.

Not the supporters she's grown accustomed to - television crews, anti-war demonstrators, Democratic consultants and America's political left - but a small cavalry of opponents who feel as morally engaged about the war as she does.

Every movement has its backlash, and now Cindy Sheehan is getting her turn. Her sudden departure from Crawford to tend to her ailing mother in California changes only the characters in place, not the nature of confrontation.

On Aug. 27, a caravan of military families who support the war in Iraq is scheduled to arrive in Crawford. The backlash battalion, which is calling itself the "You Don't Speak For Me, Cindy" tour, is starting in San Francisco Monday and is composed of parents whose sons and daughters are in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Among those leading the caravan is Deborah Johns of Northern California Marine Moms, whose son, William, is a Marine in Iraq. Her sentiments are typical of other military families who sympathize with Sheehan but feel she's hurting others.

"I am deeply sorry for Ms. Sheehan's loss," said Johns, who also is starring in a commercial she is producing. "However, Ms. Sheehan's actions are only causing pain to those of us who have loved ones serving in the war against terrorism."

There are plenty of others like Johns, apparently. Blogger Arthur Chrenkoff has compiled a list of equally bereaved parents who have lost children in Iraq, but who hold a different perspective.

Some of those critical of Sheehan feel that her public display is damaging to military morale and, therefore, dangerous to those still serving. Others have said she dishonors her son, who not only joined the military voluntarily, but who re-enlisted in August 2003, five months into Operation Iraqi Freedom. Whatever his mother may feel, Casey Sheehan apparently was not ignorant of the risks he faced.

Nevertheless, her message resonates with those who oppose the war. Sheehan has put a face on loss and provided an icon for dissenters. Strolling through Camp Casey, named for her son, she gets hugs and has her picture taken with new friends, prompting her to say she knows how Mickey Mouse feels at Disneyland.

Her sudden fame has also brought pain. Celebrity is often a harsh light, and Sheehan also is learning what all public people learn: The madding crowd is often vicious.

Despite the furor she has helped spawn, Sheehan says she's "willing to put up with cr-- if it ends the war a minute sooner than it would have."

Whatever she may mean by the "cr--," surely she isn't referring to other parents who have suffered equally but who disagree with her.

 One such parent, Ronald R. Griffin, whose son, Spc. Kyle Andrew Griffin, was killed May 30, 2003, wrote eloquently in Thursday's Wall Street Journal:

"I lost a son in Iraq and Cindy Sheehan does not speak for me," he began. "I grieve with Mrs. Sheehan, for all too well I know the full measure of the agony she is forever going to endure. I honor her son for his service and sacrifice. However, I abhor all that she represents and those who would cast her as the symbol for parents of our fallen soldiers."

Griffin directed some of his commentary to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who wrote that Sheehan, because she had buried a child, had "absolute moral authority" in the debate about the war. Absolute moral authority is a tricky standard these days.

Must one be a veteran or have a child in the military to countenance war? Does losing a son give one greater moral authority than those whose children survive?

Griffin writes: "How can we all possess 'absolute moral authority' when we hold so many different perspectives? I don't want that title. I haven't earned that title."

No human being has absolute moral authority on this or any other issue, though I think I know what Dowd meant. That parents who bury their children have a right to complain and to have their voices heard. That's the theory, anyway.

In practice, of course, it means that people lost in their emotions get a pass from the usual standards of debate and fair play, as Sheehan has. That's about to change. As others arrive in Crawford who share Sheehan's grief and her moral authority - but not her politics - her free pass expires.