The Iraq war and the politics of grief

In America and Britain, the grief of parents who lost sons or daughters in Iraq has become a potent political weapon - much more so than in other recent wars.

In my view, these moms and dads have been badly let down by both sides of the war debate. The war's authors have offered little justification for the sacrifices made by loved sons and daughters in Iraq, which has allowed the families' raw grief to fester into public anger - and the war's opponents have sought cynically to exploit the families' sorrow for political ends.

Currently, Cindy Sheehan is camped outside President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas. And she's determined to stay put until the president tells her exactly what "noble cause" her 24-year-old son Casey died for in Iraq. Before that, Michael Moore devoted the second half of his blockbuster documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11" to Lila Lipscomb's quest to find out why her son, Michael, died in Iraq.

Here in Britain, Rose Gentle took Tony Blair to task after the death of her son Gordon in Basra last year. She told the newspapers that "my son was just a bit of meat to them." Reg Keys, whose son Tom died in southern Iraq when he was 20 years old, ran against Mr. Blair in his constituency of Sedgefield, northeastern England, in the general election in May. One of the most memorable moments of election night was when Mr. Keys made a passionate speech about Iraq with Tony and Cherie Blair standing just yards behind him. He and others have set up a campaign group called Military Families Against the War.

How has the grief of families become, in the words of a Scottish newspaper columnist, a "significant political force on both sides of the Atlantic"? In wars gone by, the sorrow felt by parents was no less intense than that experienced over Iraq, yet it was rare for personal grief to go so public.

Today, doubt and uncertainty - and even shame - about the Iraq war from the top of society down has turned families' grief into bitterness, and even public rage. In the past, bereaved families took comfort in the belief that their son or daughter died for a greater cause; traditional notions of honor, patriotism, and duty would have given their loved one's death on the battlefield some meaning.

Now, families have few ways to make sense of the deaths in Iraq. The casus belli that their sons and daughters gave their lives for - the need to get rid of Saddam Hussein's deadly WMD - turned out to be false.

And how could such deaths be seen as a source of pride, as they might have been in earlier periods, when even our leaders seem embarrassed by the Iraqi debacle? The Pentagon ban on releasing photographs of returning military coffins suggested it is ashamed of the war dead, seeking to sneak them through the back door and hurry them into the earth without anybody noticing. (That policy was changed last week - more than two years after the war began - in a settlement of a Freedom of Information suit.) President Bush has been criticized for failing to attend the funerals of slain servicemen and women.

Ceremonies that in earlier times might have given meaning to death in a war zone were explicitly avoided this time around. Blair said the coalition's victory in Iraq would not be celebrated "in any spirit of elation, still less of triumphalism." There was no postwar victory parade in Britain, after everyone from the prime minister to the queen to even the chief of defense staff agreed that it might appear "arrogant or patronizing [toward] the Iraqi people."

What are families to make of this? When even our leaders seem uncertain about the war - when they turn shamefaced from the dead and refuse to recognize their sacrifices with any kind of parade - it is not surprising that the families feel bereft, confused, and angry. Without those old crutches of duty, victory, or pride, the death of their loved ones must seem as meaningless as if they'd died in a car accident or in a brawl outside a bar. That is why mothers such as Cindy Sheehan ask Bush a very simple question: "Well, why did my son die?"

There's another reason grief has become a "significant political force" - some in the antiwar movement are exploiting it. As the Los Angeles Times said of Sheehan's camp-out in Crawford, "leading liberal and antiwar activists [are] parachuting in to try to make her their long-sought voice." Michael Moore made Lila Lipscomb's grief into an international issue. Antiwar author Naomi Klein has described the image of a grieving mom or dad as "the mother of all antiwar forces."

There is something deeply cynical and morbid - and I say this as one who was implacably opposed to the war - about these attempts to further publicize and politicize the families' grief. It's almost as if some in the antiwar lobby want the families of the dead to do their dirty work for them, as if it is enough to point to a weeping mom to make the case against war. They are relying on images of hardship and sorrow rather than making the hard political case against Western military intervention abroad.

On one side, warmakers have left military families to work through their grief alone and confused, and on the other, antiwar forces push these families further into the spotlight. This is a sorry substitute for a serious political debate about Iraq - and it is likely only to exacerbate families' grief.

Brendan O'Neill is deputy editor of the online magazine .

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