27 Dec

Peg Mullen: Cornfield Protest

“We have been dying for nine long, miserable years in Vietnam in an undeclared war,” it read. “How many more lives do you wish to sacrifice because of your SILENCE?”


ANTIWAR PATH The future activist with her son Michael in 1944.

Peg Mullen was at her sewing machine making a new set of drapes when the men showed up with their message. It was February 1970 in Black Hawk County, Iowa — a bright Saturday morning on the empty rural road where she lived. A fresh layer of snow sat on the cornfields; the sky seemed perversely clear. Gene, her husband, a gentle, white-haired man who farmed by day and worked nights at a nearby John Deere factory, was doing his weekend chores outside when the two men walked up the drive. One sergeant, one local priest. Both silent. Gene knew, but he didn’t know. The question, when he asked it, was almost inaudible: “Is my boy dead?”

It was Peg who read the official note, while Gene beat the walls, while he yelled. He made a motion to throw a chair through a picture window, but thought better of it. Finally, he sat at the kitchen table, put his head down and sobbed. The oldest of their five children — Michael — had been killed two nights earlier on a hilltop near a village in Vietnam called Tu Chanh, a victim of what the government called “friendly fire,” his heart pierced by shrapnel from a misdirected howitzer blast fired by an American artillery unit nearby. All this happened in the dark, in the jungle, at 2:50 a.m. Michael, who was 25 and previously a graduate student in biochemistry, was asleep in a foxhole.

Peg Mullen hadn’t liked the Vietnam War from the start, but she was also a churchgoing Iowa farm wife busy raising children, cattle, hogs, corn and soybeans in what she called a “conservative community in the heartland of America.” She knew virtually nothing of the antiwar protests that were happening on the East and West Coasts. Her opposition was, until this point, relatively quiet. She would later chastise herself for the obedient way she allowed her son to be drafted and sent to war.

C. D. B. Bryan (who died this month) wrote in “Friendly Fire,” his book about Michael’s death, that Peg’s grief was not a teary grief. It was an “arid furied Medean grief, one in which anguish is indistinguishable from rage.”

An angry mother is, of course, most dangerous to her enemies. Peg Mullen started calling the Pentagon relentlessly, demanding more information about the circumstances of her son’s death. She called newspaper reporters and her senators; and anybody in Black Hawk County who tried to console her simply got an earful about how the war needed to end. In town, people started avoiding her. She prided herself on not crumpling, on keeping military officials on the telephone long after they wanted to hang up. She imagined they stood around asking one another: Why isn’t this woman behaving like a grieving mother is supposed to?

After Michael’s coffin landed at the airstrip in Waterloo, Iowa, she spent a night sitting numbly alone on the davenport in her living room with her son’s body close by. Really, how was she supposed to behave?

“In Vietnam today,” Gen. William C. Westmoreland wrote in the pro forma condolence letter, “brave Americans are defending the rights of men to choose their own destiny and to live in dignity and freedom.” Peg Mullen read it and scoffed, the same way she scoffed when another bland letter of sympathy came a week later from Michael’s battalion commander, Lt. Col. Norman Schwarzkopf. She began writing letters almost weekly to President Richard Nixon. When an aide responded, sending one of the president’s speeches on Vietnam, Mullen said she returned it with a note: “Send it to the next damn fool.”

The Mullens refused a military funeral for their son. They refused the posthumously awarded Bronze Star and Good Conduct Medal. When they buried Michael in the family plot with their surviving children gathered around them, Gene — himself a veteran — insisted on putting a token flag over the coffin. “I was ready to burn it,” Peg wrote later in a memoir.

She also started counting bodies. Seven other Iowa boys died in Vietnam the same week Michael did. When she contacted the families, she learned that most had also been told their sons’ deaths were, like Michael’s, classified as “nonbattle casualties.” This could mean a lot of things, including that a soldier died of battle wounds in the hospital, according to Bryan’s book, but most important to Peg, it meant that the death might not register in the military’s official casualty count, released weekly to the public. As the Mullens viewed it, the government was trying to play down the bloodshed. Meanwhile, Nixon, bolstered by the support of what he famously called a “great silent majority” of Americans, was quietly preparing to send troops into Cambodia.

A check in the amount of $1,844.40 arrived — Michael’s death-benefit pay — calculated by some faceless bureaucrat in Washington. Peg and Gene let it sit on the kitchen table for several weeks, a dormant slip of paper that made them ill. Peg finally called up a manager at The Des Moines Register with a question: how big an advertisement could a person buy with $1,844.40?

Their half-page ad was printed in the front section of the newspaper in Des Moines on Sunday, April 12, 1970. It was Peg and Gene Mullen’s message to the silent majority, addressed specifically to their fellow “fathers and mothers of Iowa.”

“We have been dying for nine long, miserable years in Vietnam in an undeclared war,” it read. “How many more lives do you wish to sacrifice because of your SILENCE?” The words were followed by a stark image: 714 small black crosses in neat rows, one cross for every soldier from Iowa who had died in Vietnam.

With this, Peg Mullen’s fury spooled outward into the world. Across Iowa, people clipped the ad out of the paper and hung it in windows and on bulletin boards. One woman wrote to the Mullens and said she was sending the ad to Nixon and to her congressmen. Another wrote and said, “It’s time the mothers unite.” In Chicago, the syndicated radio host Paul Harvey started talking about the power of the Mullens’ ad on the air. He did a television broadcast, using their message and black crosses as a backdrop.

Peg Mullen spent three, four hours a day at her typewriter, which she kept next to her sewing machine, answering the letters that poured in or reaching out to grieving families she read about in the newspaper. She corresponded with mothers whose sons had been killed, mothers of P.O.W.’s and mothers of sons who came home unrecognizable for their trauma. To a woman who was feeling guilty because her son evaded the draft, she wrote that she regretted not working harder herself to keep Michael out of the war. She urged the mothers to be public, to wear their anger alongside their sorrow. “I always reminded them that their son belonged to them,” she wrote, “not the military.”

Talking on the party line that the family shared with three neighboring farms, she did a call-in show on WBZ radio in Boston, broadcast up and down the East Coast. When someone phoned in and asked what women could do to stop the war in Vietnam, she replied, simply, “March.” A month later, partly inspired by Mullen, a delegation of mothers from around the country held a vigil in front of the White House to protest the war.

When in 1971 Richard Nixon visited Des Moines for a farm conference, Peg Mullen was there among several thousand others — a diminutive, gray-haired woman wearing a long coat and scarf wrapped over her head for warmth. She was holding up an improbably enormous poster, hand-lettered: “55,000 Dead, 300,000 Wounded — My Son, Just One.” Nixon emerged from the state Capitol building and was booed by the crowd, his car pelted with snowballs. Mullen found herself being clubbed with a nightstick as a police officer tried unsuccessfully to wrench the poster, her message, out of her hands.

“No power on earth,” she wrote later, “could take that sign from me.”

For years to come, Vietnam veterans turned up on the doorstep at Peg and Gene’s farm, knowing they were good country people who understood the impossibility of being both angry and silent. Peg fixed them coffee, served food. Other veterans called on the phone, sometimes at 2 or 3 in the morning. She listened to them all, sitting in her reclining chair, these men who were wounded, bewildered, drugged and sometimes half-dead inside their own grief and fury.

It was enough to keep her outraged for a lifetime, even after she became a grandmother, after she and Gene left the farm for a mobile home in Brownsville, Tex., and finally after she lost Gene to a weak heart in 1986. During the gulf war in 1991, Peg Mullen, then 74, could be found marching in protest every Saturday morning in front of the Brownsville Post Office. She was furious about the second invasion of Iraq and in 2005 followed the news of Cindy Sheehan, another mother-turned-activist, who sat waiting outside President George Bush’s ranch, demanding a face-to-face meeting and an end to the war. “I would give my right arm to be there,” Mullen, who was 88, said at the time, “I mean, somebody’s got to stop this thing.”

Sara Corbett is a contributing writer.

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She is my heroine. We must follow her example and protest, protest, protest.
We are again killing and destroying for our own self-interest, not for the sake of the Afghans. And just because the justifications are beautifully phrased and expertly delivered does not change their obscene nature. We have to face this: Obama, on whom we placed so much hope, is leading us into another killing field.

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