By Susan Van Haitsma
Every village has its cemetery, its collection of spirit inhabitants who invoke memories of village history and remind the living that death and remembrance of the dead are essential to the natural order of things in human society. But cemeteries usually are found on the edges of town, away from the goings-on of daily life.
The memorials of carefully arranged and named crosses, stars of David and crescents comprising ‘Arlington South’ in Camps Casey I and II are not relegated to the edges, but instead form the heart of the community that has sprung up near Crawford, Texas this month. Memorial crosses hug the three original tents of Camp Casey I and line the road leading to the camp. The field of crosses at Camp Casey II adjoins the large community tent and is the first thing visitors encounter as they approach from the road. In a reversal of the natural order of things, the dead represented by these memorials are societyâ€™s youngest adults. The doctrine of pre-emptive war forces members of a society to do the unthinkable: to sacrifice the lives of their young to protect their own.
After her address at Camp Casey II on Saturday, Cindy Sheehan stepped into the cheering audience to greet supporters. As she shook my partnerâ€™s hand, she studied the image on his T-shirt: a line of people with arms linked and the message, â€œGuns donâ€™t protect people â€¦ people do.â€ She said, thoughtfully, â€œI like your shirt.â€
One of the many gifts Cindy Sheehan and her energetic supporters have given the country this August is a living, breathing example of what an alternative to war looks like. Itâ€™s an alternative led and shaped by women with a message focused on children. Behind the stage under the big tent of Camp Casey II, the handmade cloth banner spanning exactly the width of the tent states in bold, pink, block letters: MOTHERS SAY NO TO WAR. During the rally on Saturday, a long banner held by about 25 persons in rotating crews in front of the crosses read in bold, blue letters: SUPPORT OUR TROOPS, BRING THEM HOME ALIVE. Many smaller signs displayed around the camp contained similar messages: â€œHands off Godâ€™s hildren.â€ â€œGreed is not a lesson for our children.â€ â€œWar leaves all children behind.â€
The village that has grown at Camp Casey contains the essential elements of what is life-giving and life-sustaining: food, water, shelter, clothing (mostly T-shirts), health care, education, communications systems, spiritual direction, visual art, music and dance. Itâ€™s all there, sprouting from the earth, brought into being by hundreds of people pooling talents developed in their own communities around the country. People have come with children and pets, often staying longer than intended. â€œIt felt so much like family, I couldnâ€™t bear to leave,â€ said a friend who spent the night in her car with her daughter so they could stay an extra day.
The remarkable kitchen at Camp Casey II has served thousands of wholesome, delicious meals made by volunteers with donations of food. Marveling at the lunch served one weekday, a Codepink volunteer said, â€œI eat better here than I do at home!â€ Bottled water is delivered by the caseload and regular announcements remind older visitors especially to drink at least one bottle an hour during the heat of the day. A medical tent has been staffed with volunteer professionals. Trained counselors also have been available. A special tent has served as a chapel, hung with symbols representing a variety of faith traditions. Tables and chairs were rented to accommodate the crowds under the large tent, and on Saturday, every table contained a vase of fresh flowers.
This village has embraced all ages and abilities. Chartered busloads arriving at the camp from Houston, Austin, Dallas and San Antonio on Saturday were greeted and cheered. Calls were frequently made from the stage requesting volunteers for various camp tasks, and people jumped up, ready to be of service. At one point, overflow volunteers who answered the call for an ice brigade formed a line behind the ice handlers and applauded.
Visitors listened to speakers, read materials and engaged in discussion. Nonviolence training was held. Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) described experiences in Iraq that led them to speak out against the invasion and occupation. Said one young veteran from the Camp Casey stage as he surveyed Saturdayâ€™s crowd, â€œThis is the single largest patriotic gathering Iâ€™ve seen in my life.â€
If President Bush really wants freedom, democracy and compassion to spread around the world, he would do well to observe the phenomenon just outside his gate. Noble causes require noble means. The Camp Casey community has been characterized by good organization, flexibility, hospitality and an abiding sense of care.
At dusk on Saturday, taps were played in the field of crosses at Camp Casey II. Earlier, Joan Baez had sung â€˜The Ballad of Joe Hillâ€™, concluding with the line, â€œI never died, said he.â€ The large canvas portrait of Casey Sheehan waved in the wind. From a field of crosses grew a village filled with life that has become its own answer to war. Guns donâ€™t protect people â€¦ people do.
Susan Van Haitsma is active with Nonmilitary Options for Youth in Austin, Texas