I woke up when a Gold Star mother with curly graying hair was at the mike, talking about her stepson who was killed in Fallujah last November 12.
“David was shot in the throat by someone defending their country,” she said.
It was a riveting statement. When her speech was done, I walked up and asked her if we could talk about the role of Gold Star families. We sat on a park bench. Her name is Tia Steele. David Branning was her stepson. “You know, when you feel all alone, it’s just hard,” she said. “Cindy’s been working hard for a long time. She’s been away from home for months and weeks at a time. Now she’s got incredible support. Bill Mitchell [a Gold Star father] told me that a long time ago Cindy was at an event, and he said to her, ‘Why don’t you talk?’ She said, ‘Oh, no, I wouldn’t know what to say!’ Well—Cindy found her voice. That’s her path. No question about it. But we all have an obligation.”
Steele told me about her son. His biological mother had died when he was 11; he’d resolved always to rely on himself. At 17, he read Atlas Shrugged. “And you know how a book like that affects you when you’re 17?” He was determined to test himself and enlisted in the Marines though his parents had reservations. The family was on hard times. His father lost his job as a data analyst around that time. David let his parents drop him off at boot camp, and the recruiter came up to them with a giant smile and a handshake. “You’ll never have to worry about him again.” David had joked about buying his parents a yacht before long. But war changed him. When his things came home, there was a copy of War and Peace in it, dog-eared from being read. He was 21.
Steele has a photograph of David in Fallujah, taken the day before he died. In the photograph, David isn’t David. It looks as though he is sitting in someone’s house they had occupied. “David wasn’t the kind that wanted to sit in someone else’s house [without permission]. Oh my God. I see it in his face. David was a person of soul and spirit.”
He and another boy were killed a day or two later, when they kicked someone’s door in.
Dusk had begun to descend. The speeches kept going. Ellsberg went to the mike and said his line about the next Patriot Act making this one look like the Bill of Rights.
A guy with curly hair edged up to me. “Who’s he?”
I tried to explain. “How old are you?”
“Thirty-two. I was in the first Gulf War.”
“How do you feel about this one?”
A girl with a long ponytail went jogging right through the demo, right past the podium, on her iPod run. Like we were Scientologists or something. That’s one reason this isn’t going to be Vietnam again. No one has the attention span. Who wants to sit through all those speeches again? The best answer to Ellsberg’s grim scenario is that it’s the old paradigm. We hadn’t perfected television in Vietnam, let alone the Internet. In 1965, antiwar protester Norman Morrison burned himself to death outside Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s Pentagon office, and more than 30 years later, McNamara finally admitted how much this had disturbed him. He was able to repress that confession through all the years of murder in Vietnam. Such moments play differently today. TV craves emotional immediacy, and it’s majority-oriented. TV will ignore a disturbing trend as long as it can, but when it stops ignoring the issue, it will demand immediate response. It will speed up the Vietnam curve. Cindy Sheehan was just a taste.