By Chris Simunek photos by Pot Star
THE BEST LITTLE WAR HOUSE IN TEXAS
As Pot Star and I leave the urban sprawl of greater Waco and turn down the two-lane highway that leads to Crawford, I finally get a glimpse of the Texas that Davy Crockett took a dozen or so bullets for—green prairies bisected by the occasional stream, dotted with farmhouses and heavy machinery. Crickets sing, goats chew grass under what little shade they can find in their barbed-wire-enclosed fields. Cows stare into the void in bovine contemplation, patiently waiting to be turned into food and clothing.
It’s been a while since I last saw Pot Star (Christian name: Chris Eudaley), so upon my arrival in Texas, I drove to his hometown of Fort Worth and rescued him from beneath a pile of beer bottles and empty pizza boxes. “C’mon man, grab your camera,” I said, kicking a path through the refuse on his lawn. “We’ve got work to do.”
I’ve come to Crawford to catch a glimpse of Camp Casey, the site of the vigil held by “peace mom” Cindy Sheehan. Vowing to remain camped in a ditch across from President Bush’s “Prairie Chapel Ranch” until he explains to her personally what the “noble cause” was that her son Casey gave his life for in Sadr City, she’s now in the last few days of her protest before she packs up and heads across the country on the “Bring Them Home Now Tour,” which, thanks to magazine lead times, will be well over by the time you read this.
Pot Star and I get a good laugh at the sign that welcomes us to Crawford—the beaming visage of Dubya giving us the thumbs-up, holding his wife, Pickles, tight at his side. Shortly before our visit, one of the locals had plowed his pickup truck through “Arlington West,” the field of white crosses that had been placed along the road leading to the Bush ranch in honor of the soldiers killed in Iraq. Now, on the last weekend before Cindy and her brigade leave town, it seems as though every person within a hundred square miles who has ever muttered “Don’t mess with Texas” through a clenched jaw has come looking for a piece of the peace mom from Vacaville, California.
The center of town consists of a simple crossroads with two gas stations, a souvenir shop and not a bar in sight.
“McLennan is a dry county,” Darryl Dehart informs us. He’s wearing a veteran’s cap and standing next to a sign that reads Peace House Heroes, above pictures of Joseph Stalin, Fidel Castro, Chairman Mao and the red devil whose legions he’d been called upon to battle in the early ‘70s, Uncle Ho. I ask him if he sees any similarities between Cindy’s protest and those from the flower-power era.
“It’s the same people doing the same drugs,” he laughs. “What she’s done to her son is a disgrace. He was on his second tour. He reenlisted. I think he would be very ashamed of his mother. I’m ashamed for him. Most people who have been in the military are.”
Across the street, there’s a garish souvenir shop called the Yellow Rose. As a public service to those fine Americans who might be walking by in a state of uncontrollable patriotism, they’ve parked a massive replica of the Liberty Bell for people to beat on at will with a sledgehammer.
As we pull into a filling station to gas up, there are yellow ribbons wrapped around the pumps.
“In Texas, we pray that the oil gets home safely, too,” Pot Star remarks.
I’m pumping gas into the vehicle when I look over at a teenage girl holding a sign that reads We Support Our President. She gives me a glowering stare and then flips the sign to the back, where it says Hippies Go Home.
“I’m not a hippie, I’m a journalist,” I tell her. She rolls her eyes as if to say, What’s the difference?
FLOWERS IN THE DUSTBIN
We arrive first at Camp Casey II, a small stretch of farmland that was donated by a sympathetic rancher after the vigil had outgrown the confines of the roadside ditch where it had begun August 6. The ditch was a logistical nightmare from the start, with cops threatening to shut the thing down anytime one of the anti-Bush folks dared to violate county safety codes by setting foot on the road. Then there was the sun, the chiggers, the local boys driving by and shooting at the stars. With Camp Casey II, Cindy’s folks suddenly had a headquarters—food, a media center, a stage and sound system—all beneath a large white revival tent that offered some relief from the 100ÂºF-plus temperatures.
Within the confines of this square acre, the level of reverence that is accorded Cindy brings to mind that accorded, say, Jay Gatsby or Mother Teresa. People ask to be photographed with her like she’s Mickey Mouse working the floor at the Magic Kingdom. The atmosphere beneath the tent is brimming with the energy of shared purpose, the promise that this could be the start of something big. It’s not that she’s a great public speaker, or that she has a viable plan for the removal of American troops from Iraq; she is, simply, The One We’ve All Been Waiting For.
Before the invasion, the antiwar movement was dominated by groups for whom political dissent had become a lifestyle—the George Soros people, the Mumia crowd, the Ramsey Clark socialists, the IMF anarchists, the political theater groups, Al Sharpton, Ron Kovic, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Harry Belafonte, Patti Smith, et. al. Not to detract from their efforts, or from the impassioned speeches that I watched a lot of them deliver, but collectively, they didn’t make up the sort of crowd that was going to stir the sleep of the Silent Majority.
And that’s why they love Cindy. She’s a Christian. Her son was an altar boy and an Eagle Scout. He died fighting a war that had been sold to the American people under false pretenses. In the grand Irish tradition, Cindy Sheehan has managed to channel heartbreak, outrage and a seemingly limitless amount of energy into a grassroots movement that has, in little over two weeks, catapulted her from a relatively unknown grieving mother to the new face of the antiwar movement.
As with Camp Casey I, there’s a display of white crosses out front, next to a small camp where a group called Iraq Veterans Against the War have staked their claim. These are all young folks—mostly men and a few women—who’ve witnessed the war firsthand. Standing with Sean O’Neil, 23, a corporal in the Marines from Fremont, California, who did two tours in Iraq, I ask him why he joined the Marines in the first place.
“I enlisted when I was 17,” he says. “I come from a well-to-do background, but I didn’t really want to be a spoiled rich kid with a silver spoon in my mouth. So I figured I wanted to go do something real, something that was going to make me a man. There’d be a little action and adventure in it, and I’d grow up.”
“What made you flip on this whole thing?”
“Just the experience. Like, I didn’t have a problem going into Iraq, because I was under the impression that I was defending America. But what I saw just left a bad taste in my mouth. The lack of WMDs . . . I should back up. We did look all over the place, and believe you me, everyone wanted to be the guy to find the sarin gas lab and get a medal or whatever. Everyone was really keyed into this mission.
“On my second tour, I saw that nothing had been built—no hospitals, schools, sewage systems—electricity was always down, [drinking] water was still coming from the Euphrates. I was like, ‘We’ve been here a year. You can build a chow hall the size of a Wal-Mart in the span of a month, but you can’t give these people fresh drinking water?’ So that’s my gripe. If we had gone there and we didn’t find WMDs but it turned into this major humanitarian aid mission where we were just building stuff for the Iraqis nonstop, I could get behind that. I could overlook the fact that we were misled, because then some good would have come out of it. But the fact is that there’s complete anarchy and chaos and there’s no good coming out of it. That’s why I am here.”
I ask him about his plans for the future and he tells me he is going to college to study political science. “I’m never going to be blindsided again.”
There’s a small press conference near the road. Cindy, wearing a T-shirt that reads What Would Jesus Bomb? introduces US Army Specialist Tomas Young, who fought with the same division as Cindy’s son Casey and who was shot and paralyzed from the chest down as he drove through the heart of Sadr City in the back of an open, unarmored truck.
“I also would like to demand a meeting with the president,” Tomas begins somewhat nervously, “because he really owes me some explanations why soldiers who [like me] volunteer to go over and fight for this country and who have lost the ability to walk, plus a lot of other important medical functions, why it is that I am not worth the funding for stem-cell research, which could possibly give me that ability to walk and do other things that I used to do that I would like to do.”
He concludes by saying, “I’d like to point out that I’m not going to be on the bus tour or waiting here much longer. I have to go home for medical reasons. I just wanted to put out there that he can come find me if he wants to meet with me, or he can put his word out to all you fine people, as I’m sure he won’t.”
Cindy jumps in to tell everyone that Tomas has just gotten married and is here on his honeymoon.
After requesting an interview with Cindy, I’m corralled into a small group of reporters for a short roundtable discussion. I begin with the one question I have for anyone in favor of packing up and leaving Iraq.
“Many people think that if the troops were brought home, Iraq would descend into civil war. . . .”
“And what’s happening now?” Cindy shoots back. “Our military presence there is fueling the insurgency, and we do not need a military presence there because that’s called an occupation and we need to pull our troops out, we need to close the permanent bases that we have there, and we have to give assurances to the Iraqi people that we don’t plan on staying there permanently.”
“Do you believe America has any responsibility for keeping stability in Iraq due to the fact that America created this situation?”
“I absolutely think that we need to put a multinational face on it, a mostly Arabic face, mostly Iraqi face. We need to give them back their jobs and we need to give them anything they need to rebuild their country. But they don’t need our military presence there to do so, because there’s no rebuilding going on because the country’s not secure.”
I’m not going to tell Cindy or anyone else that people should continue to risk their lives for a mission that, as far as I can tell, was doomed from the start. On the other hand, what do you do? Send the Iraqis a fruit basket with a letter of apology? The UN has a lousy record when it comes to keeping the peace in countries where large groups of people are determined to kill each other. In this situation, to move forward, stand still or crawl back would all have disastrous consequences. That’s why it’s called a quagmire.
Toward the end of the day, movie star Martin Sheen arrives and leads the group in a Rosary, a prayer series in the Catholic tradition. The Rosary is built around repeated recitations of the “Hail Mary,” an ode to a mother whose son was condemned to death by the politicians of the day, a woman whose lone offspring George W. Bush cites as his favorite philosopher.
Listening to the familiar lines, I wonder if, when George W. Bush gets down on his knees and tries to decide what the man on the cross would do in his situation, it has ever dawned on him that Jesus wouldn’t have been dumb enough to invade Iraq in the first place.
I ask Pot Star what he thinks.
“I think we’ve found the only safe place in Texas where you can partake in some serious Bush-bashing and eat free potato salad at the same time,” he announces, then makes a beeline for the salad bar. The total absence of alcohol at the event is having a strange effect on both of us.
OVER THE RAINBOW
Pot Star split back to his day job in Fort Worth, leaving me solo for the last night of the vigil. Killing time in a Waco hotel room, I flip back and forth between the dueling horrors of Hurricane Katrina on CNN and Paul Anka crooning a version of Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life” on some daytime talk show. Paul slithers around the stage, licking his lizard lips, shooting jerky, reptilian finger-snaps at the band. When the song is over, he dedicates the performance to the sufferers down in New Orleans.
Driving toward Crawford, I’m listening to the news on the radio while the fast-food signs along Highway 35 pass by in a blur. There’s a curious item about someone stealing the ruby red shoes that Judy Garland wore in The The Wizard of Oz from a museum in her hometown of Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Everyone in the Judy Garland community is wondering who would take them and why.
From where I’m sitting, the suspect with the biggest motive in the crime is George W. Bush, because the only way he’s ever going to extricate himself from the twin quagmires of Iraq and Katrina is to shove his feet into those shoes, click his heels and repeat, “There’s no place like home,” until he wakes up.
I cruise over to Camp Casey I to catch a ceremony planned for the removal of the crosses in Arlington West. There’s a short press conference featuring a few members of Gold Star Families for Peace, a group founded last January by Cindy and several other people who’ve lost family members in the Iraq war. They are calling for the immediate withdrawal of American troops, the reconstruction of Iraq and an explanation as to why Bush doesn’t ship the twins off to Fallujah if the cause in Iraq is so “noble.”
I talk to Bill Mitchell from Atascadero, California, one of the founding members of Gold Star Families for Peace. Wanting to show me some photos of his son, he invites me back to his car. As we walk, he tells me a story that I’m certain will replay in his mind, the same exact way, every day for the rest of his life.
“My son Mike Mitchell was killed in Sadr City, Iraq, on 04-04-04,” he explains. “He was part of the First Armored Division, had been there 11 months. On Saturday, April 3rd, he turned in his equipment. He was one week from Kuwait, two weeks from Germany, three months from his wedding date.
“I was headed to Arizona. I stopped at my daughter’s house. Got up Monday morning. Someone put a phone in my hand, they said it was the United States Army. They wanted to know where I was. They wanted to send someone over to talk to me. Three weeks before, my son had reenlisted. So I asked the lady, ‘I don’t suppose you are calling me to congratulate me on his reenlistment.’ She goes, ‘No.’ So I ask, ‘Is my son dead?’ She goes, ‘Mr. Mitchell, I can’t tell you anything over the phone.’ So I said a little bit louder, ‘Is my son dead?’ ‘Mr. Mitch–’ ‘IS MY SON DEAD?’ And I just kept saying that louder and louder until finally, very meekly, she says, ‘Yes.’
“I took the phone and threw it,” he says with a tone of finality. “That pretty much turned my world upside down.”
At the car, Bill shows me some photos of Mike—graduation shots, family portraits—an all-American kid. “My son died the same day as Casey Sheehan. I only have one picture of Mike and Casey together.”
He hands me a photo. At first, I’m not sure what I’m looking at. It’s a cargo hold of some sort; a few soldiers are loading boxes and there are rows of American flags.
“Which one is Mike?” I ask, looking at the soldiers.
“I don’t know,” he says, and then it hits me. Coffins. It’s a photo of flag-draped coffins being unloaded from a plane.
“Mike was very positive, so full of life. This is America’s loss. America needs to wake up and find out that some very special young men and girls have died in this war based on lies. This is not one woman against the war machine. We have 80 members who are not happy that their loved ones were killed. What this vigil here has done, we’ve finally got a dialogue going in America about this war.”
Back at Arlington West, a Marine bugler plays a mournful version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the sun begins to set over the prairie. The wind kicks up, bringing with it the essence of sage and cow manure. Hats are removed, hands cover hearts. I look over my shoulder at the pro-Bush camp and see that they too are standing at attention. For those two minutes or so, everyone within earshot is on the same page, regardless of whether their state is red or blue.
We’re all invited to help take down the crosses. One by one, we walk to the roadside plot, pull a cross from the ground, remove its name tag and place it in a pile.
As for George W. Bush, the man who brought us all together at this particular moment in time and space, he’s a short distance away, finding out that the levees in New Orleans are no match for Hurricane Katrina and that he’s just fathered a whole new batch of ghosts. I imagine there is someone there reminding him that his federal budget had diverted money that was allocated for fixing the levee system to his various Homeland Security follies. If you believe the National Enquirer, he’s tossing back a “Texas-sized shot of straight whiskey,” while we’re here in the ditch carrying his crosses for him, stone-cold sober.