With the controversy swirling about President Trump’s phone call with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson who, along with three other service members who were killed in Niger, it’s worth recalled the case of Cindy Sheehan.
In 2004, Sheehan’s son, Casey Sheehan, was killed by enemy action during the Iraq War. And the following year, the grieving mother camped out near President George W. Bush’s Texas ranch in order to try to force a meeting with the president. Sheehan spent over a month there, drawing the attention of the national press corps, and becoming arguably the most important anti-war activist of that era.
But it was what happened just five days into Sheehan’s protest that is most relevant today. Bush was asked about her presence nearby and he offered his “sympathy.”
“She feels strongly about her position, and she has every right in the world to say what she believes,” Bush declared. “This is America. She has the right to her position. And I thought long and hard about her position—I’ve heard her position from others, which is ‘get out of Iraq now.’ And it would be a mistake for the security of this country and the ability to lay the foundations for peace in the long run if we were to do so.”
More than a few outlets have favorably contrasted this response with Trump’s own interactions with Gold Star families, including his most recent. But in an email interview with The Daily Beast, Sheehan insists that “Bush was no better.”
As for what she’d say to Sgt. Johnson’s widow, Sheehan couldn’t offer words. “I don’t think I would have any advice for her, but just a tight hug,” she explained.
I caught up with Sheehan, via email, on Monday to ask for her perspective on the latest White House firestorm. Our exchange, which is slightly edited, is below.
I saw that you spoke to the Washington Examiner a few days ago and said you weren’t shocked by President Trump’s comments to a Gold Star widow. Has anything that transpired since then to change your mind?
Nothing has happened to change my mind since I talked to the Washington Examiner. Even if Trump was so insensitive, it doesn’t change the fact that the U.S. should not have spec[ial] forces in Niger in the first place. My heart goes out to the family. But our young people do not have any idea what they are getting themselves into when they join the U.S. military.
It seems like President Trump and President Bush made similar mistakes. Is it possible that these were examples of presidents just being awkward when talking to someone who is in the midst of grieving, or do you think there’s something deeper at play here?
I guess presidents are humans, too… and it is really awkward to be with parents who have buried a child. There isn’t really anything anyone can say that isn’t somewhat hurtful. However, since I publicly opposed the wars and U.S. empire, I have heard, “He knew what he was signing up for,” many times. It’s simply not true, like I said before. I made a YouTube yesterday called, (Military) Recruiters Like Worse Than Used Car Salesmen.
[Note: In her YouTube video, Sheehan concedes that “maybe in Special ops forces, they know what they’re signing up for. But certainly… poor working-class young people… they are presented with these amazing opportunities…”]
I want to drill down a little more about the “what he signed up for” line. Are you saying that military recruiters downplay the danger and potential sacrifice?
As far as I know from personal experience and talking to other vets, particularly since 9/11, recruiters promise all kinds of benefits and promise young people that they won’t have to go to war at all. That’s what Casey’s recruiter told him in 2000. “Tell your mom, even if there is a war, you won’t see combat, because you are such a high-value recruit.” Casey was killed in combat a few days after arriving in Iraq.
Does that (the notion that some recruits don’t know what they are signing up for) diminish from the heroic sacrifice that service members make?
I guess that would depend on the circumstances. Many U.S. troops occupy countries that are no threat to the U.S. and many innocent civilians have been killed. I don’t find that heroic at all. But most “grunts” are from poor, working-class, or are people of color who see little else in society. So they believe the recruiters and join the military. I see most of the U.S. military as victims, not heroes. Of course, no one statement covers everything adequately.
It sounds like your primary concern was with the Iraq War, not the fact that the president wouldn’t meet with you?
Yes, the Camp that arose in Crawford in the summer of 2005 never would have happened if Bush had met with me. I would have left that day. But even if he had met with me, I still would have continued my protest.
President Bush is now being praised by some people who see him as more compassionate and eloquent than President Trump. There are stories about him standing there while a soldiers’ mom unloaded on him. Do you believe that this is revisionist history, or that President Trump is actually worse at this part of the job?
I think that in 2017 presidents having to comfort grieving families who had loved ones killed in war is barbaric, because war is barbaric. Trump has proven himself to be a loose cannon who doesn’t seem to have very many social graces. But Bush was no better. I wish the conversation was about the barbarism of war and, in this instance, why are there special ops forces in Niger? Where is the movement to oppose U.S. wars, instead of liberal handwringing over botched messages of condolence?
Have you run into any people who hated you for your protest back then, but who have changed their minds now?
I still get my fair share of hate messages. But the messages from people who outright apologize to me for “hating” me and who tell me they have since changed their minds outnumber those.
Have you talked to Myeshia Johnson, or (if not) what advice would you have for her?
I have not spoken to her, I don’t think I would have any advice for her, but just a tight hug, because I know words are not adequate.
Obviously, there is no good way to deliver this horrible news to a loved one. Obviously, the better option is for this not to happen. But assuming we will always find ourselves having to make these calls, do you have any advice for future presidents on how to handle them?
First of all, we never received a “call.” We got a letter from Bush, which we later found out was signed by a signature machine. What can a president say, “Sorry your loved one was killed so the U.S. could make sure that we had complete control over all of (fill in the blank name of country)’s natural resources and so that Boeing, Halliburton, and Raytheon could have massive profits?” Better that the barbarism of wars for profit ends.
How has this latest controversy resonated with you, considering your personal experience?
I feel like we Gold Star Mothers, or families are honored as long as we expound the company line: as long as we take our Gold Star pins and just grieve in silence. My grief was exploited by Democrats and Republican alike to score political points and win elections. And the wars I swore to stop are still going, and have expanded dramatically. It makes me sad all the way around. People are still dying and that’s completely unacceptable.