Cindy Sheehan: History and its Footnotes

Byron King springboards from a discussion of President Bush’s Crawford ranch reading list to an examination of the opinions and importance of anti-wat activist Cindy Sheehan.

“Through it all, the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic meant that the undertakers’ horses were busy. There was in Pittsburgh, my grandmother told me, a palpable sense of panic as people began to hear stories of doctors refusing to see patients, and police officers refusing to enter silent houses. Food stores in some locales simply shut their doors, because of the owners’ fears of public contact and the passing of disease. Along many miles of river frontage, the operators of coke ovens and steel mills banked their furnaces, as the supply of labor tightened. Trains ran late, because skilled personnel were home abed, sick or dying. There were shortages of coffins, as well as of gravediggers.”

“NO ONE STARTS A WAR — or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so — without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” So said Karl von Clausewitz in his great treatise, On War , first published in 1832.

What prompted me to think about Clausewitz was a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, describing the three rather impressive books that U.S. President George W. Bush is reading during his five-week stay at his ranch in Crawford.

What with a war going on in Iraq and U.S. soldiers being killed or wounded almost daily, one might wonder about the propriety of the commander-in-chief taking so much time away from the White House. Should he not be holed up in the Oval Office, burning boxes of midnight candles while selecting bombing targets, like former President Lyndon Johnson used to do during the Vietnam War?

Well, come to think of it, maybe we are better off if El Presidente stays in Texas, reads a few good books and gets some exercise riding his bicycle. Besides that, in this day of broadband communications, the watch-station of the nation’s chief executive is wherever he happens to be standing. So I am sure that our president can be as much in the loop of immediate events as his duties may require.


If the president had bothered to ask me, I would have recommended that he read up on Clausewitz, available in a fine English translation by Peter Paret and Michael Howard from Princeton University Press. But I cannot fault the c-in-c for his choices of summer reading, which by any academic standards — even those of Yale — makes for quite an impressive book list.

According to the LA Times, one of the three books President Bush has chosen to read this month is Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky. The other two books on the presidential reading list are The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History by John M. Barry and Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar by Edvard Radzinsky.

Cindy Sheehan: Salt: A World History

I have read Kurlansky’s book about salt, which is a solid, nicely written chronicle of the rise and fall of what once was considered the world’s most strategic commodity. For almost all of human history, possession of salt was synonymous with personal or national wealth. The pursuit and movement of salt created many of the ancient world’s trade routes and greatest cities, not to mention several chapters of biblical tales and allegories.

Over many millennia, people prospected the Earth in search of salt. Merchants guarded their sources of the precious substance. If the Old Testament God was angry, He might just turn someone He did not like into a pillar of salt (too bad that He does not do that any more, at least not nearly often enough for my taste…).

Governments taxed salt, and even used it to pay soldiers. The Latin root of the word salt, “sal,” is whence derives the modern word salary. Just as with petroleum in the present time, nations went to war over salt in the past. I do not doubt that President Bush will read the book and understand the historical parallel.

In the early and mid-19th century, salt became a common commodity as people applied more and more energy to its extraction. Another way of saying this is that an increasing abundance of salt was concomitant with the so-called Industrial Revolution, which was in truth an “Energy Revolution.” That is, people applied energy derived from ancient fossil fuels — first from coal, then from oil and gas — to increase the physical power at their disposal, whether for focusing heat energy or otherwise to create mechanical motion.

As with most other things that mankind now takes entirely for granted, the application of fossil fuel energy greatly facilitated the process of evaporating and transporting salt. The formerly scarce product became abundant. In one key application, the use of energy derived from fossil fuel led to the extensive use of refrigeration, and thus reduced the value and necessity of salt as a food preservative.

This being an article published in Whiskey & Gunpowder, I cannot fail to note in passing that it was Col. Edwin Drake who, in 1859, applied to the search for oil near Titusville, Pa., the techniques that he saw in use back then, in the salt-well drilling industry near Pittsburgh. Thus did the technology of extracting salt lead directly to the dawn of the oil industry, and to its eponymous age.

I have not read the second book that President Bush is reading, The Great Influenza, although I have read a number of other writings and historical accounts of that event. The great flu pandemic of 1918 is said to have originated, as they all do, in the duck ponds and pig wallows of Asia. The disease spread like wildfire across the world.

Hundreds of millions of people were sickened by the flu, and there are estimates that upward of 30 million people died from the disease, out of a world population of less than 2 billion at the time. A similar mortality rate in today’s world population would kill off the equivalent of Western Europe or of the United States and Canada combined.

My long-deceased grandmother once described to me the impact of the 1918 flu epidemic on the Pittsburgh working-class neighborhood in which she lived. The disease struck not just the very young and old, but also at those in middle age and in otherwise good, and even robust, health. Friends, neighbors, colleagues by the dozens simply keeled over in sickness, with a fever, severe joint aches and diarrhea. These symptoms often were precursors that led to a rather gruesome pneumonic death.

My grandmother told me the sad story of a family that lived across the street from her, in the old Knoxville section of Pittsburgh’s Mt. Washington. The husband was outwardly healthy when he returned home from work one Friday afternoon. In a scene right out of classic Americana, the man of the house was happily greeted on the front porch by his wife and children. They all waved to my grandmother, and went into their home. They closed the front door, and never came out alive. They were all found dead of the flu on Monday morning.

This story was repeated, in one form or another, across the thresholds of hundreds of thousands of American homes, and millions more across the world. It was as if the Angel of Death had taken wing across the Earth, striking down rich and poor, strong and weak, young and old.

Through it all, the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic meant that the undertakers’ horses were busy. There was in Pittsburgh, my grandmother told me, a palpable sense of panic as people began to hear stories of doctors refusing to see patients, and police officers refusing to enter silent houses. Food stores in some locales simply shut their doors, because of the owners’ fears of public contact and the passing of disease. Along many miles of river frontage, the operators of coke ovens and steel mills banked their furnaces, as the supply of labor tightened. Trains ran late, because skilled personnel were home abed, sick or dying. There were shortages of coffins, as well as of gravediggers. And Mr. Bush is reading all about it. Good for him.

The author of the book about the influenza, John M. Barry, told the LA Times that the Bush administration has sought his advice on the potential for another pandemic like the 1918 outbreak. Author Barry said he had been consulting with senior administration officials since the release of his book, in February 2004. According to Barry, the Bush administration has been investigating what steps public officials should take to lessen the severity of a flu pandemic.

One of the central themes of Barry’s book is that the 1918 flu outbreak was exacerbated in America by the administration of then-U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, which actively attempted to minimize its significance. In particular, the Wilson administration wanted to avoid undermining the U.S. efforts in the Great War, later renamed World War I. “One lesson is absolutely to take it seriously,” author Barry told the LA Times . “I think (the Bush administration is) doing that. The Clinton administration I don’t think paid much attention to (biological pandemic) as a threat.”

Cindy Sheehan: Alexander II

Moving on to the third book on the president’s list, Mr. Bush’s choice of Alexander II apparently reflects his interest in political leaders who served during times of extreme political transformation. According to the LA Times , President Bush has in recent years read biographies of George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Theodore Roosevelt, Richard the Lion Heart, and Peter the Great.

Edvard Radzinsky’s biography of Alexander II is not due for release until November 2005, but publishers on occasion make exceptions and, as a courtesy, provide advance copies of a particular book to a sitting president of the United States.

Alexander II ruled Russia from 1855-1881, and was known as the “Tsar Liberator” because he freed 23 million Russian slaves in 1861, which happened to be two years before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

But Alexander II’s governmental reforms were also his undoing. His well-intended, humane efforts toward the serfs of Russia provoked a political backlash from the hard-line old guard. These latter folk saw their entrenched privileges begin to disappear, and hence this led to a loss of critical support for the tsar.

On the newly invented left of the political spectrum, the tsar’s reforms merely served to raise unwarranted and unsustainable expectations. Unfulfilled expectations contributed directly to the rise of several radical political movements that used targeted violence to accomplish its aims, including a wave of horrific killings and brutal bombings. These movements included, most famously, the anarchists and the socialist revolutionaries who were, at root, psychopathic criminals with a lot of attitude.

When Alexander II decided to rein in the process of political reform, the violence intensified. While his contemporary Abraham Lincoln had waged a very uncivil war in America to confirm and establish the power of the federal government, and ostensibly to maintain a national union, Alexander II had to fight an unprecedented war on terrorism across the vast continental reaches of Russia.

“We, Russia, created the first great terrorist organization in the world,” author Radzinsky told the LA Times . “We (Russians) are the father of terror, not Muslims.” (Russians like to tell you that it was a Russian who invented the locomotive, or the airplane, or the telephone. I do not know that I would brag about how my ancestral nationals invented terrorism.)

After surviving six attempts on his life, in 1881, Alexander II was assassinated in St. Petersburg by a group of anarchists who tossed homemade bombs at him while he was riding in his carriage. His body was broken and ripped to shreds by the explosions. The anarchists had plotted the attack for weeks, while coincidentally operating out of an apartment across the hall from the writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Author Radzinsky told the LA Times that he assumed President Bush was drawing connections between Russia’s 19th century terrorists and the terrorists of today. “Very noble young people who dreamed about the future of Russia became killers, because blood destroys souls,” Radzinsky said. “That for me is the most important lesson.”

“Blood destroys souls,” says the author? Perhaps it does. On that subject, I am inclined to demur to the Russian.

But another scholar of blood, Gen. Clausewitz, had a slightly different take on it. “It is, of course, well known that the only source of war is politics — the intercourse of governments and peoples.” The great theorist continued, “We maintain . . .that war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means.”

So is it blood that destroys souls? Or if “war is simply a continuation of political intercourse,” is it at root politics that destroys souls? And what is politics but a philosophy of human interaction, “the intercourse of governments and peoples,” which is, distilled to its essence, rooted in ideology?

Return to Clausewitz, who wrote: “If war is part of policy, policy will determine its character. As policy becomes more ambitious and vigorous, so will war, and this may reach the point where war attains its absolute form. . . . Policy is the guiding intelligence and war only the instrument, not vice versa.”

So according to Clausewitz, ideology informs policy, and policy determines the character of war.

Back to the present and the future, I think it is no accident that Mr. Bush, whose central event of his presidency is and will always be the war in Iraq, is reading books on the history of salt, the history of a pandemic disease, and transformational politics. It follows from Clausewitz. All of these things have to do with honing the president’s sense of history, refining his ideology, and informing his ability to make policy.

Frankly, I have to admire Mr. Bush’s intellectual curiosity, if the three books he is reading are really on his book list and not just a figment of some political spinmeister. President Bush will do a heck of a lot more for his brain if he reads up on salt, the flu pandemic, and 19th-century Russia than if he reads most of what passes for current political news reporting.

Cindy Sheehan: “Bush Refuses to Meet with Cindy Sheehan”

In my cynical moments, I can imagine Mr. Bush climbing into the air-conditioned, armored comfort of “Limo 1,” stretching out in the back seat, and reading one of those history books while the chauffeur drives him up and down the road just outside of the ranch. He can keep his presidential nose in the book as he kicks up dust and whizzes past one Cindy Sheehan, a citizen of California who is currently residing in a dry ditch near the access road to the ranch.

President Bush has been criticized by many of the media pundits for not meeting with Ms. Sheehan, the mother of a U.S. Army soldier killed in Iraq. Actually, the president did meet with her last year at Fort Lewis, Wash. There is a photo of the two of them holding hands. But now Ms. Sheehan wants to meet again with the president. Evidently, once was not enough, although I doubt that she wants to hold hands again.

The typical lead-in to the typical news article about the hardhearted Yale man is something along the lines of “Bush refuses to meet with Cindy Sheehan.” The typical implication is that, first, our president is obliged to meet with her, again, in his role as chief executive, if not as c-in-c. The other implication is “shame on him for not meeting with the bereaved mom.”

And then the typical news article goes on to state that instead of meeting with the bereaved mom, Mr. Bush is using his time at the Crawford ranch to ride his bicycle, if not to talk with Israeli television interviewers about starting another war somewhere in the world. But if you have read this far, you also know that Mr. Bush is reading some good history books.

In case you have not figured it out yet, I think that one has to be careful how close one gets to Ms. Sheehan and her cause. I would say the same thing about anyone getting too close to the lead guitar player of any minor rock band on tour. But in this case, my cautionary advice applies to the Cindy Sheehan Celebrity Gold Star Mother 2005 World Tour. Unlike Eminem, Ms. Sheehan seems not to know when to quit.

Ms. Sheehan’s son, U.S. Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, was killed in Sadr City, Iraq, during an ambush on April 4, 2004. It was, according to the after-action reports, a particularly bad day for our guys, and her son was one of the unfortunate casualties.

Everyone has an opinion about the war in Iraq. You have yours, dear readers. I have mine. Ms. Sheehan’s oft-stated opinion is that “George Bush murdered my son.”


“Murdered” her son? I will bet you that Ms. Sheehan’s deceased son had an opinion, too, about the war in Iraq. After all, this particular young man enlisted in the Army of the United States, and re-enlisted in August 2003. This was after the Iraq war was long under way, and Ms. Sheehan’s soldier-son knew that he was in the deployment pipeline.

In other words, Ms. Sheehan’s son intentionally placed himself within the element of danger that comes with being a member of the U.S. armed forces. (OBTW, feel free to review my biography on the Whiskey & Gunpowder Web site if you are curious about my own military service.) Morally, ethically, and in this case sadly and tragically, Ms. Sheehan’s son assumed the risk that comes from participating in the profession of arms.

“There is only one means in war. That is combat,” said Clausewitz. “Whenever armed forces are used,” he continued, “the idea of combat must be present. . . . The end for which a soldier is recruited, clothed, armed, and trained, the whole object of his sleeping, eating, drinking, and marching is simply that he should fight at the right place and the right time.”

“War is the realm of danger,” Clausewitz continued, and “therefore courage is the soldier’s first requirement.” Also, said the Prussian soldier-theorist, “War is the realm of physical exertion and suffering.” And how right he was.

Later in his opus, Clausewitz said that “War is the realm of uncertainty . . . . War is the realm of chance.” Clausewitz knew of what he wrote, having fought against the likes of Napoleon, and during the Russian campaign, no less. Clausewitz possessed a profound understanding of war, and attempted to explain it to his readers.

“Everything in war is very simple,” wrote Clausewitz, “but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction. . . . . This tremendous friction . . .is everywhere in contact with chance, and brings about effects that cannot be measured, just because they are largely due to chance. . . .”

Could it be said any better? Could war be distilled to its essence with any finer purity? If so, I have not read such an author, nor met such an intellectual chemist.

In words more sad than scientific, Clausewitz summed up the essence of war by saying, “In war more than anywhere else, things do not turn out as we expect.” Not one to leave the thought incomplete, however, Clausewitz concluded, “Perseverance in the chosen course is the essential counterweight.” Once committed, in other words, the political leadership must carry through to some attainable end.

“Perseverance,” however, requires a theory of victory on the part of the leadership. What is the desired end state, and what is the price that a nation is willing to pay? When will we know that a war is over? When the capital city is captured? When the enemy army is smashed? When one’s army has made a wasteland of the enemy’s country and one can now call it victory?

And one must always keep in mind that the enemy has a vote on one’s war plans. Which takes us back to a comment near the beginning of Clausewitz’s book. “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . .the kind of war on which they are embarking.” What are the goals, and how does one know when, or whether, the army has won or lost? These are the deepest and most profound questions of all.

I am discussing all of this because I think it is over the top for Ms. Sheehan to say that “George Bush murdered my son.” She is entirely out of line, and irresponsibly defames both the president and the memory of her lost son. U.S. Army Spc. Casey Sheehan was an American soldier, and an armed U.S. combatant in a war zone. He was ambushed and killed in action by militia forces of a certain religio-political figure named Mr. Sadr in the midst of a nation in open conflict, the underlying merits of which are something quite different entirely.

Along these lines, the Vietnam War was initially a “grand effort” of the Big-Government Democrat World Improvers, with all of their Wilsonian hubris to “make the world safe for democracy.” Just as the Iraq War was/is a “grand effort” of the Big-Government Republican World Improvers, with all of their Wilsonian hubris to “make the world safe for democracy.”

The underlying intellectual, political, and policy problem in all of this seems to be an unjustified and self-destructive American hubris about the merits, or not, of applying its national military power to matters distant from its shores and borders.

Cindy Sheehan: The Neo-Antiwar Movement

Whether she understands it or not, Ms. Sheehan has allowed herself to get caught up in the whirlwind of the Neo-Antiwar Movement, a warmed-over version of the episode from the 1960s. Tragic family loss aside, Ms. Sheehan is quite a catch for this Movement. She brings to the table her credibility as the mother of a deceased soldier. And she also shamelessly waves her son’s bloody shirt, while she officiously appoints herself as a one-person Nuremberg Tribunal.

But Ms. Sheehan is only one of more than 1,800 similar mothers at this stage of armed hostilities, and with many more mothers of the wounded and the maimed stretched across the map of our fair land. Does another mother who lost a son but still “supports” the war, have equal credibility with Ms. Sheehan? Or do we only care about war-protesting moms these days?

I believe that to satisfy some inner need that is over and above that of maternal loss, Ms. Sheehan is allowing herself to be “handled.” She has retained a “publicist,” although a better description might be to call him a “flack” or a “barker.” And Ms. Sheehan has worked hard and actively to leverage her bloody-shirt credibility into the elevated status of a minor celebrity. She was one of the founders of Gold Star Mothers, and is more than glad to tell you all about it. At length, I might add.

But Ms. Sheehan’s efforts have descended to the level of a tawdry campout, a caricature of a scouting jamboree in a ditch in front of the Bush ranch. She is sucking down all of the publicity that attends to being the only news story in a small, hot, Texas prairie town (hey, GWB is busy reading books about history, according to the LA Times ).

Ms. Sheehan is not just a celebrity now, but a full-blown media commodity. Despite the fact that her husband has filed for divorce from her, she seems to love it. But I do not know if she knows any better. In my most charitable moments, I see her as an image of maternal pathos, an inwardly weeping woman going off the deep end in transferred grief, but with a crowd of attentive reporters there to urge her on.

The other day I saw a photo in Toronto’s The Globe and Mail . I do not know if the U.S. newspapers carried it. But the photo was of Ms. Sheehan down upon bended knee, with her head bowed in silent prayer, holding a cross with the name of her fallen son written thereon. And she was literally posing, like a fully-clothed Playboy Bunny, as dozens of photographers were moving about and trying to catch her in “just the right light” for the money shot that they can sell to the Associated Press wire, if not to People Magazine. It was sordid. It was disgusting. Out of respect for the dead, I was embarrassed for her fallen son.

It was the death of Ms. Sheehan’s son in combat that provided her with her newly found status as a commodity celebrity-bereaved mom. And in that posed photo, she was just doing her small part to flash some more of the same media soft porn that passes as modern celebrity culture.

President Bush is reading books about the story of salt, the history of the 1918 flu pandemic, and the life and times of Alexander II. “George Bush is refusing to meet with Cindy Sheehan,” the headline goes. All the while, Ms. Sheehan, camping in her ditch, is securing her position as a footnote of history.

Until we meet again…

Byron W. King
August 22, 2005