For what noble cause: Cindy Sheehan and the politics of grief in public spheres of argument.

Author:Murray, Billie

"It is difficult to measure the amount of grief a mother's heart can contain; it is equally difficult to measure the capacity for resistance to suffering that such hearts can acquire."

Dolores Ibarruri in They Shall Not Pass: The Autobiography of La Pasionaria

With the start of the Iraq War in March 2003, the United States witnessed a renewed vigor in anti-war advocacy. In September 2005, this renewal culminated in Washington, DC, when thousands of people from across the country participated in the largest anti-war demonstration since the start of the Iraq War (Dvorak Al). Although the United States had been at war for over two years, the collective voice of the anti-war movement garnered a more widespread hearing in the summer of 2005, in part through the rhetorical efforts of Cindy Sheehan, a forty-eight year-old mother of a soldier killed in the Iraq War. For twenty-five days, beginning in early August, Sheehan camped outside of then-President George W. Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, demanding a meeting with Bush. She wanted to question him about the war that claimed the life of her twenty-four year-old son, Army Specialist Casey Sheehan, who died on April 4, 2004, after volunteering for a force sent to rescue U.S. troops. Specifically, she wanted to question Bush about his claim that the Iraq War was fought for a "noble cause" (see, for example, Bush's 2003 announcement of the end of major combat operations in Iraq given aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, par. 5).

After two years of both war and anti-war organizing, people from across the country were compelled by Sheehan's activities and travelled to Crawford to support her request to meet with President Bush. Although Bush's vacation in Crawford ended without a meeting, Sheehan's protest continued as a country-wide bus tour. As thousands joined her on this tour, Sheehan broadened her focus by requesting meetings with members of Congress. Her public expressions of grief inspired the organization of 1,500 supportive vigils across the nation and an anti-war rally that drew over 100,000 people to the nation's capital. Almost every prominent figure at this rally--including Jesse Jackson; Al Sharpton; singer/activist Joan Baez; and U.S. Congressional Representatives Maxine Waters, Lynne Woolsley, and Barbara Lee--publicly thanked Sheehan during their speeches (Murray, Field Notes). Her advocacy, in short, generated a mass of support, while also provoking controversy and deliberation among members of the media, individual citizens, and political figures.

According to Anne Kornblut, Sheehan's initial protest at "Camp Casey" in Crawford served as a nexus for a scattered anti-war movement (A7). It brought together various anti-war groups-including Iraq Veterans Against the War, Military Families for Change, and Veterans for Peace-and spawned the creation of a grassroots movement called Gold Star Families for Peace (GSFP). These families took up Sheehan's cause and demanded meetings with members of Congress in states throughout the country. Sheehan's rhetorical question, "For what noble cause did my son die?", and her public displays of grief garnered an extensive amount of regional and national media attention. The prominence of media accounts about Sheehan and her anti-war advocacy testifies to their importance as objects of rhetorical study.

Not surprisingly, then, discourses surrounding Sheehan and her activities have attracted attention from other scholars. In their analysis of Sheehan's use of symbolic motherhood as a strategic source of invention, Janis Edwards and Amanda Brozana have argued that "it is the combination of nurturing and more aggressive aspects of motherhood that confers its symbolic aspects with meaningful instrumental value, in terms of social or economic change" (82). Their analysis shed light on how Sheehan's symbolic use of "matriotism" provided her with a claim to authority and political authenticity (Edwards and Brozana 78). However, this strategy can be "problematic in that it prescribes a traditional framework for female identity in service to an expanded discursive, activist role for women in the public sphere" (Edwards and Brozana 94). In her textual analysis of Sheehan's book, Peace Morn, Laura Knudsen made a similar claim, arguing that Sheehan's rhetoric hinged on conflicting gender binaries that control perceptions of motherhood and activism within the peace movement (165).

Although I agree with Knudsen's and Edwards and Brozana's arguments that Sheehan's rhetoric was firmly rooted in gendered discourses of motherhood and activism, I believe Sheehan's rhetoric offers additional opportunities to explore the role of grief, a presumably personal emotion, in public deliberation. In this essay, I argue that Sheehan's displays of grief functioned as a form of public argument by forcing a consideration of the taken-for-granted legitimacy of soldiers' wartime deaths. Despite efforts to confine grief to a personal context, Sheehan's calls for a political response to and public accountability for her grief transgressed the boundaries of public and personal spheres and opened up spaces for public deliberation of wartime issues. Thus, the analysis offered here extends current scholarship on Sheehan's rhetoric, but with an explicit focus on how her displays of grief functioned as public argument and became a central part of public deliberations about the Iraq War.

The claim that grief can function as a form of public argument contributes to a nuanced understanding of what G. Thomas Goodnight has termed the public and personal spheres of argument. Sheehan's question--"For what noble cause did my son die?"--disrupted the cultural legibility of soldiers' wartime deaths and demanded a public response to grief. In what follows, I argue that various media accounts attempted to repersonalize Sheehan's grief through a particular framing of her rhetoric and through comparisons of her to other military families. These accounts utilized what Dana Cloud has termed a rhetoric of therapy, placing the burden of coping with wartime grief solely in the hands of individuals and diverting attention from the political dimensions of soldiers' wartime deaths. Drawing on Bonnie Dow's work on the protests against the 1968 Miss America pageant, I also argue that the media's personalization strategy extended to portrayals of the conflicts among Sheehan, counterprotesters, and Crawford residents as personal, not political, battles. Finally, I argue that grief can be a powerful component of public argument as it transgresses boundaries between public and personal spheres, especially in times of war when public deliberation is often constrained. Sheehan's calls for a public accountability for her grief opened up public spaces for debate and anti-war advocacy.


This analysis draws on discourses surrounding Sheehan's public activities in August and September 2005, beginning with her first publicized protest in Crawford, Texas, and ending with the anti-war rally in Washington, DC. These discourses were found in mainstream media accounts about Sheehan (including comparisons of her to other military families), Bush Administration responses to her activities, and her own rhetoric and public displays of grief. My artifact was constructed from multiple objects, texts, and practices including web and print articles from national and regional news sources, Sheehan's web site, and my ethnographic field notes compiled during my observations at a Camp Casey installation in Washington, DC, at the September 2005 anti-war rally. The inclusion of my field notes follows Aaron Hess's argument that qualitative methods such as ethnographic observation are useful for understanding rhetoric (128; see also Conquergood, Pezzullo). Because most people experienced and responded to the rhetoric surrounding Sheehan through media reports and Camp Casey installations, it is logical to construct the artifact from these sources.

The news articles used for this analysis were compiled via a LexisNexis Academic search for "Sheehan" and included U.S. news sources and transcripts. The date range was set from August 1 to September 30, 2005, the height of Sheehan's public media exposure. After eliminating non-English articles and articles that covered other people with the same surname, 102 articles were left from sources including but not limited to, FoxNews. com, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and two metropolitan regional newspapers in Texas--the Houston Chronicle and the Austin American- Statesman. Drawing on Greg Dickinson, Carole Blair, and Brian Ott's understanding of rhetoric as "a set of theoretical stances and critical tactics that offer ways of understanding, evaluating, and intervening in a broad range of human activities" (3), especially as those activities connect to discourses on what it means to be public, a rhetorical analysis of the artifact was conducted in order to discern themes and determine the effects (intentional and unintentional) of public arguments about Sheehan, soldiers' wartime deaths, and dissent. All 102 articles and my field notes were critically read for this study, although only a select few are directly quoted here as representative of the themes discerned.


Goodnight has argued that "studying the current practices of the personal, technical, and public spheres is a useful way to uncover prevailing expressions of the human conditions ... and perhaps to discover avenues for criticism" (218). Exploring discourses surrounding Sheehan provides a useful way to uncover how symbolic boundaries between public and private spheres of argument have been constructed, reified, challenged, and transgressed. Goodnight has stated that media stories often report personal stories of human tragedy inviting viewers to simply watch "the drama play out" (226). Invitations to action or ways to participate in...

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