Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The anguish of the mothers, one generation to the next



The anguish of the mothers, one generation to the next

Susan Reimer

October 12, 2009

When my son graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in May 2006, my husband told friends and family that there would be plenty of tickets for the ceremony.

Susan and her fellow mothers, he told everyone, will be busy handcuffing themselves to the White House fence in protest against the war. They won't need theirs.

He was kidding, but I wasn't laughing.

Peg Mullen, the patron saint of mothers of warriors, died earlier this month at the age of 92. An Iowa farm wife whose son, Michael, was killed by shrapnel from an errant U.S. artillery barrage in 1970, she emerged from the Silent Majority and inaugurated the age of distrust in government that was to follow.

Never before had the mothers of soldiers done more than stand by the grave and accept the folded flags from atop the coffins of their dead children. Peg Mullen responded with rage and disbelief.

She spent his death benefit on ads in The Des Moines Register that included one tiny cross for each of the more than 700 Iowa boys who had died in Vietnam and demanded to know when the parents of those boys would speak up.

She refused a military funeral and a military grave marker for her oldest child. She used the word "killed" instead of "died" on the gravestone she purchased for him.

And she hounded the government, from President Richard Nixon on down to Michael's commander, H. Norman Schwarzkopf, for the truth, eventually meeting with the soldier who had fired the round of artillery that fell tragically short.

A book was written about the Mullen family and Peg's crusade. It was titled "Friendly Fire," and it introduced that phrase into the American lexicon, a synonym for a tragic mistake.

A made-for-television movie starring Carole Burnett was greatly praised, but Peg Mullen never watched it. She did not like author C.D.B. Bryan's portrait of parents propelled by grief. Her anger was righteous, not crazed, and she would eventually write her own book, "Unfriendly Fire: A Mother's Memoir."

Today, Peg Mullen's legacy continues in Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, who camped in the summer of 2005 outside President George W. Bush's Texas ranch demanding (unsuccessfully) to meet with him.

And her legacy lives in Mary Tillman, who also lost a son, NFL star Pat Tillman, to friendly fire, and who demanded of the highest reaches of government the truth - even as that government tried to reap propaganda benefits from his death.

Like Peg Mullen, Mary Tillman would write her own book about her son's death: "Boots on the Ground by Dusk: My Tribute to Pat Tillman."

In the piercing articulation of a grieving mother, she describes how her son died anew each time the government rolled out a fresh lie about the firefight that killed him.

These mothers understood something fundamental about the wars that claimed their sons. Their deaths were not mistakes or tragic accidents because the wars in which they died didn't "just happen."

The wars in which they fought - Michael Mullen in Vietnam, Casey Sheehan in Iraq, Pat Tillman in Afghanistan - were begun by men. By generals and presidents who meant for those wars to happen, who planned for them to happen. There is fault in the making of war, and these women demanded accountability.

To suggest that the deaths of their sons were just a terrible mistakes is to render the sacrifices of these young men (and their families) worthless, and the acts of presidents and generals blameless.

Peg Mullen was 88 years old the summer of 2005, when Cindy Sheehan brought her demand for answers to President Bush's Texas ranch.

She was furious that she was too old and ill to join her.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays.

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] verizon.net


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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