For most Americans, the war in Iraq can seem a surreal diversion, distant and vague, something that plays out on television.
There are the near-daily reports from Baghdad and Falluja, reports of car bombs and casualties, of politics and the wrangling by Iraqis over a new constitution.
We've been lucky enough to be spared any real connection to what has been a bad mistake, a deadly mistake forced on us by an administration so committed to war that it was willing to fudge the intelligence.
That's what makes Cindy Sheehan's vigil outside President George W. Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch so compelling. Unlike most of us, Sheehan has directly felt the impact of this war, her son, Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, one of the more than 1,800 Americans killed in Iraq. That's why, as I write this in mid-August, she is sitting vigil outside the ranch, waiting for a meeting with the president, a meeting that appears unlikely to happen.
Spc. Sheehan's story has become a familiar one. The 24-year-old from Vacaville, Calif., enlisted while in college and then reenlisted after American troops toppled Saddam Hussein. According to CNN, Spc. Sheehan, a Humvee mechanic, volunteered for the mission on which he was killed.
In the story of the quiet, committed altar boy, the former Boy Scout who enlisted hoping to become a chaplain's assistant, there are echoes of far too many other stories, far too many other young lives lost to a war that should never have been waged.
Every day we read of the deaths, of those like Marine Lance Cpl. Chase Johnson Comley of Kentucky, killed by a suicide bomber in early August while his battalion was conducting combat operations near Amiriyah, or Army Spec. Toccara R. Green of Maryland who was killed in Al Asad a week later.
There have been more than 1,830 of them since May 2003 -- with 31 coming so far this month, one of the bloodiest months of the war.
I don't know how these soldiers felt about their missions in Iraq. I can only assume they believed in what they were doing and that we owe them and their families a huge debt for the sacrifices they have made.
And we owe them answers.
That's why Cindy Sheehan spent her time camping out outside the president's ranch. She wanted to know why her son died.
It's the same question that Susan Niederer wanted answered late last year when she interrupted a campaign fundraiser that featured First Lady Laura Bush. Ms. Niederer -- mother of 1st Lt. Seth Dvorin, who was originally from my town and was killed in Iraq in 2004 -- stood at the fundraiser and asked Ms. Bush, "When are yours going to serve?"
And it's the same question that the family of Cpl. Comley asked following his death. Cpl. Comley's grandmother, 80-year-old Geraldine Comley, told the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Ledger that she would like to join the Texas vigil. She said she believes the war was waged because Saddam Hussein had tried to assassinate the first President Bush and because the administration wants control of Mideast oil.
"And it irritates me no small amount that Dick Cheney, in the Vietnam War, said he had 'other priorities,'" she told the paper. "He didn't mind sending my grandson over there."
But the president has no interest in talking to people like Cindy Sheehan, Sue Niederer or any of the other angry parents and family members, many of whom have joined groups like Gold Star Families or Military Families Speak Out. He'd rather ride his bicycle and maintain a "balanced life."
In the meantime, the right-wing spin machine has turned its rhetorical guns on Sheehan (and by extension, all the other angry family members seeking answers), attacking her as a flip-flopper, as a leftist agitator and the like. Perhaps she is -- she did star in a MoveOn.org ad opposing the war -- but so what. Does that invalidate her grief or make the question she wants to ask President Bush any less deserving of an answer? No, of course not.
Cindy Sheehan has touched a nerve that may finally rouse us from our media-induced slumber, bringing the debacle in Iraq home for all of us to see. Maybe she can help bring the troops home, as well.
Organizations working with veterans and families of American soldiers to end the war in Iraq include:
Bring Them Home Now! c/o Veterans for Peace, 216 S. Meramec Ave., St. Louis, Mo. 63105; email firstname.lastname@example.org; www.bringthemhomenow.org;
Gold Star Families for Peace; Web, pages.zdnet.com/trimb/id278.html;
Iraq Veterans Against the War, PO Box 8296, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101; phone, 215-241-7123; email email@example.com; www.ivav.net;
Military Families Speak Out, PO Box 549, Jamaica Plain, Mass., 02130; phone, 617-983-0710; email firstname.lastname@example.org; www.mfso.org;
United for Peace & Justice, PO Box 607, Times Square Station, New York, NY 10108; phone 212-868-5545; www.unitedforpeace.org;
Veterans for Peace, 216 S. Meramec Ave., St. Louis, Mo. 63130; phone, 314-725-7103; fax 314-725-7103; email email@example.com; www.veteransfforpeace.org.
Hank Kalet is a poet and the managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press in central New Jersey. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.