After Cindy Sheehan's son died in Iraq, her protest outside Bush's Texas ranch became a symbol of opposition to the war. Duncan Campbell joins her as she brings her campaign to Britain
Friday December 9, 2005
When Casey Sheehan joined the army in May 2000, he was assured that he would never see combat. Four years later, he was killed in Iraq. Over the summer, his mother, Cindy, pitched a tent in front of George Bush's Texas ranch. Others joined what was to become known as Camp Casey. Soon, Cindy Sheehan, a housewife and mature student, was the face of the opposition to the president's Iraq policy - and a target of virulent abuse from right-wing commentators. Now she is in Britain for the first time, joining the anti-war movement here.
"This is the 21st century - killing is barbaric," she says on a taxi ride from Heathrow into central London, having just flown in from New York. "I don't buy into the fact that George Bush and Tony Blair can't be called terrorists because they are elected officials. This occupation of Iraq is killing innocent people by the thousand."
Cindy, who has three surviving children, is weary. She's had to cram her six-foot frame into economy class for the trip, and, besides, her life has become an exhausting series of meetings, rallies, interviews, speeches and anti-war campaigning. She has come a long way from her old life in Vacaville, California - not the sort of place normally associated with political activism. Camp Casey has closed down, at least for the winter, but Cindy remains a powerful symbol of the anti-war movement. Here is a mother who lost her eldest child in a war that was declared, she believes, on dubious grounds. She wants to make sure that the government is called to account.
Her son Casey signed up in the final months of the Clinton era, at a time when there seemed to be little possibility of war in foreign fields. "His recruiter told him that even if there was a war, he would never see combat because he had scored so high in the entrance exam - he'd only be in a support role," says Cindy. "He was a good soldier, he liked being in the army. He only went to Iraq because his buddies were going and they all feel a responsibility for each other."
She has since met many of his fellow soldiers and the sergeant who tried to talk Casey out of going on the mission that killed him. "Casey just said,` 'Where my chief goes, I go', and he left and he was killed. I get feedback from the troops all the time and 99.9% say, 'Keep on doing what you're doing because it's a nightmare here and we want to come home and it's only people like you in the peace movement that give us hope'."
During this trip to Britain, she will address Saturday's International Peace Conference (organised by the Stop the War Coalition), and will also meet members of the Scottish parliament and fellow activists, including Britons who have lost their sons or brothers in the war. Then it will be back to her new home in Berkeley and on with the work for her new book - about how one person can have a political impact by just getting on with it.
She is very unimpressed with Bush's rationale for the war. "He keeps coming up with the same inane speech as though that's going to rally people back to support him. As for his 'national strategy for victory' - wouldn't it have been nice if they had started to plan for that before they invaded in the first place and killed so many brave young Americans like Casey? It's gratifying that America is now opening its eyes and I'm not so wacky and out there by myself any more. We are not the 'extreme' people any more. Look at the polls, George Bush, you're the one who's at the extremes."
The Democrats have also largely been a disappointment, she says, not least Hillary Clinton. "She's very wishy-washy, she's playing the middle because she wants to be president and I look at all the politicians who want to be president and they are basically playing the middle, too," she says. "It obviously didn't work for John Kerry, and I told him: 'If you had come out strongly against the war and said you would start bringing the troops home, you would have won in a landslide'. But he has this memory that he did come out strongly against the war! Howard Dean [the unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic Party nomination] told me the war is a hard issue. No, it's not. Our kids are there being killed and they're killing innocent Iraqis for lies. It's not brain surgery."
Cindy's campaigning work leaves her no time for anything else, she says - something that her other children have had to adjust to. They have been very supportive, though, and recently went to dinner with her and Jane Fonda, another supporter, and Fonda's daughter. Joan Baez has been a frequent and supportive visitor to the camp, as have a surprising array of Republicans, she says. She is not surprised to have been the target of the conservative Fox news channel and others on the right, but is gratified that the mainstream media have given the camp some coverage. "They had been very creative in not covering the anti-war movement up until then."
Cindy is 48, too young to have been involved in the anti-Vietnam war movement. "I remember there was a lot of violence on campuses, which was kind of frightening to me." She is hopeful that the current movement will continue beyond the end of the war in Iraq, and she has been in touch with Iraqis who have lost children fighting on the other side.
"I don't blame the people who killed Casey but the people who brought us into this, who lied and deceived the world," she says. "But the anti-war movement is growing at all levels. Congress is starting to talk about bringing the troops home and you never saw any of that before."
The non-stop campaigning has taken its toll, she says, and Cindy feels in need of a good massage: "I really feel I'm carrying the whole world on my shoulders," she says.
There has been talk of her entering politics herself, but at the moment it does not appeal. "An illegal and immoral war isn't a political issue, it's a matter of life and death, and everybody has to do the right thing no matter what party they are in."
Then she is off for a couple of hours sleep in Muswell Hill, north London, before addressing yet another meeting, and shaking the hands of yet more politicians.