A Conversation with Iraq War Activist Cindy Sheehan

Alex Chadwick speaks with Cindy Sheehan, the mother of an Army specialist killed in Iraq who has been staging a weeks-long vigil outside the president's ranch Crawford, Texas. Sheehan is calling on President Bush to explain what "noble cause" her son died for — and her actions have divided the community of families of U.S. service members who've died in the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Today, the 60th anniversary of the Japanese surrender that ended World War II, President Bush has gone to a naval air station in San Diego to give a speech to World War II veterans. The president is connecting that war and sense of mission to the war we are in now: Iraq. Over the coming weeks, this program is going to listen to a number of voices on this war: those who believe in it; those who are against it; and those who are fighting it. We're going to begin today with one of the more controversial voices in the growing national debate about Iraq--that of Cindy Sheehan. She is the woman who set up a peace vigil outside President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas. Her son, Casey, an Army specialist, died in combat in Iraq last year.

In the last month, Cindy Sheehan has become the face of the anti-war movement. She's demanding that the president meet with her, though she did see him in the company of other families last year. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll that's out today, 53 percent of those polled support Ms. Sheehan's demands for this meeting; 42 percent do not. Most also say her protest has not changed their views on Iraq. I spoke with Cindy Sheehan from Crawford yesterday.

What do you think of everything that's happened over this last month? You've become the center of a lot of attention.

Ms. CINDY SHEEHAN (Fallen Soldier's Mother): I think that it has really been a good thing because it's opened up a dialogue on the war, and people are putting their money where their mouth is. We've had thousands and thousands of people come from all over the world to be here at Camp Casey, and I think a peace movement has galvanized and something big has started here in Crawford.

CHADWICK: You've attracted a lot of attention from people who don't like what you're doing as well. There are complaints that you also misrepresent military families--that is, that many...

Ms. SHEEHAN: Well, I never said I spoke for every military family. I never said I spoke for every Gold Star family. I said I speak for me and my son. But we've had a lot of military families and Gold Star families here supporting me and standing behind me. You know, I don't begrudge them their freedom of speech or their freedom of expression or their freedom to peacefully assembly. I wish they wouldn't begrudge me mine.

CHADWICK: President Bush has said that he recognizes your right to do what you're doing, to be an activist, but that to get out of Iraq now would be to create a worse situation than exists now, that this would be a real step back.

Ms. SHEEHAN: Well, his invading a country that was no threat to the United States of America was a huge step back, and I believe our military presence there fuels the insurgency, and his justification for the war now is we have to continue killing Americans and Iraqis 'cause we've already killed so many, and I think that is the most insane and immoral reason to continue a war ever.

CHADWICK: Even people who are critical of the president--very critical of the president--say that you shouldn't just get out of Iraq, that the Iraqis just aren't capable of staving off this insurgency on their own and that for a stable, healthy political and national situation to develop in Iraq, Americans have to be there longer.

Ms. SHEEHAN: I disagree. We do not need our military presence there. Like I said, it's fueling the insurgency. And for us to think that we have to help Iraq rebuild their country, that's very arrogant and racist. You know, I've had a lot of Iraqis tell me, `You know, we were doing math and engineering before your civilization was even thought of. We've handled a lot of problems. We can handle these problems.' And we caused these problems; America caused the problems they're having now.

CHADWICK: America didn't cause the situation of Saddam Hussein.

Ms. SHEEHAN: Oh, we didn't? We propped him up and sold him weapons for years. We propped him up in his war against Iran, and I have to wonder for the rest of my life if my son was killed by a weapon that America sold to Saddam. Another thing is Saddam was a bad man. But that's not why the president told us that we were invading Iraq. He told us it was because Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that Iraq had something to do with 9/11, and both of those were lies. He never said anything about Saddam. He never said that we were going to spread freedom and democracy; it's just an ever-changing ephemeral mission. And now the mission is to kill more people because so many people have already been killed.

CHADWICK: Do you honestly think that that is the president's mission: to kill more Ameri...

Ms. SHEEHAN: Well, he says we have to complete the mission because we have to honor the sacrifices of the fallen. I don't want any more people killed just because my son is dead.

CHADWICK: Let me ask you again, if I may, about your relations with these other families, because there in Crawford you've put out white crosses to represent the dead, the soldiers who have been killed in this war there. And some of the families whose children have been killed there have come and said that, `You can't use my child as a political symbol, that you can't do that.' These must be painful instances--painful confrontations for you and for them.

Ms. SHEEHAN: Well, I just disagree. I think whatever side of the war you fall on that those are a memorial to our children, and it's not a political symbol. We're trying to honor our children. I mean, what we're doing is taking all of the crosses and memorials and gravestones and put them in one place, and you know, we respect their wishes; if they want their names removed, we remove them. But you know, I really think once a soldier is killed in war he becomes property of America also.

CHADWICK: You've been against the war for a while. For...

Ms. SHEEHAN: I've been against the war since before we even invaded Iraq.

CHADWICK: But you've been actively against it, speaking against it, touring around talking to people. But things haven't really ignited until you set up Camp Casey...

Ms. SHEEHAN: Right. Right.

CHADWICK: ...named for your son. What do you think happened?

Ms. SHEEHAN: You know, I really haven't had time to think about that yet. So I haven't really had time to reflect on it and really realize what happened. But like you said, I have been going around the country for months, and I've been, you know, meeting with people and I've been speaking in front of crowds, and I've just seen a growing dissatisfaction. And at the end of my talks, people have been saying, you know, for the past couple months, `Cindy, what can we do?' And I think this finally has given people a voice and given people something to rally around and something to do, and people were ready for it.

CHADWICK: Anti-war leader and grieving mother Cindy Sheehan, speaking with us from Camp Casey, a tent site named in her son's honor that sits three miles down the road from the president's Texas ranch. They break camp tomorrow and begin a national bus tour that will end in an anti-war rally in Washington in about a month.

DAY TO DAY's series of Iraq conversations will continue. Tomorrow, Kayla Williams, an Army veteran of Iraq, and the author of a new book about her experiences in the war.

NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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