No matter how we feel about her or the war, the time has come for Americans to thank Cindy Sheehan.

The Californian mum of a soldier killed in Iraq has been the biggest burr under President George W. Bush’s saddle since the war started. Her protest outside Bush’s Crawford, Texas ranch has captured the imagination and fury of the American public and has almost single-handedly awoken the moribund anti-war movement.

And for that, everyone should thank her.

You see, we Americans have really become an odd lot in the last 30 years or so. We’re so scared of offending people or speaking truth to power that most of us have self-regulated our public posturing to such a degree that people like Bill O’Reilly and Al Franken are now thought to be the spokespeople for millions who won’t speak out on their own.

It’s akin to public debate by proxy. My spokesperson can run circles around yours, therefore my position is correct. This, plus the rise of the political media punditocracy, has turned the process of formulating public opinion in the U.S. into something like rooting for your favourite football team.

Of course, the other major factor in all this reticence is the powerful pull that patriotism, and the desire not to appear unpatriotic, have on the American public.

So taking all that into account, if you are a typical American who is itching to write a letter to the editor of your local paper about how disquieted you are about the war but fear of public disapprobation has stayed your writing pen, thank Cindy Sheehan.

Now people all over America can use Sheehan as either a symbolic figure of their anti-war feeling or of their hatred for the misguided traitors who have betrayed their country in a time of war.

Ah, extremism, thy name is America. Canadians have a tendency to hash out matters like same-sex marriage without blowing things or each other up and for that you should all be eternally grateful.

And it does seem hard to believe when one remembers the ’60s that Americans have turned so docile on matters of war and death. Part of that grew out of the clever propaganda of the right that talked often about how returning soldiers from Vietnam were spit on in airports. The fact that no single documented case has ever been proven of that happening did nothing to stop this myth from burrowing into the American consciousness.

So wherever we roam in the world and whomever we blow up to get the job done, don’t ever appear to be “not supporting the troops,” because after all, they are you and me.

And for the propagandists, the second part of that equation is that if you support the troops then, logically, you must support their mission.

Cindy Sheehan has blown an artillery crater sized hole in that argument.

Now as I write this, a caravan of the usual suspects — pro-war stump thumpers supported by right wing money (yes, that street runs both ways) are on their way to Crawford to confront Sheehan and her “ilk.” They’re delivering the message that she does not speak for them — “them” including the parents of dead U.S. service members who still support the war and Bush.

Again for that we should be eternally grateful for Sheehan to serve as the lightning rod for a confrontation that should have happened in the spring of 2002.

We were still a confused and angry lot of people back then. The President had a strong case for Afghanistan and we felt good about that. Then Bush and Co. pulled the Iraqi rabbit out of the hat. The case was made, but something just didn’t seem quite right. But Bush was our wartime leader and we had no reason to doubt the yellowcake uranium stories or the WMD inspired mushroom clouds over Washington.

And so a cowed public and Congress wrote the blank check for Bushco’s adventure in Iraq. Three years later we’re having buyer’s remorse.

But until Cindy Sheehan went beyond complaining to the media and took her complaints to the front yard of the President’s ranch, no one else had been willing to go this far and put so much of themselves at risk.

And now, despite our best efforts to dance around the elephant in the living room, despite our desires to avoid the acrimony of the Vietnam era, things are now going to start getting messy. Names will be called, protesters will clash, and the fence sitters will be forced to take sides at long last.

Thank goodness. So thank you Ms. Sheehan for enduring the hate of the right — the cries of “traitor” from people like Bill O’Reilly and the accusations of “pimping your dead son” from the likes of conservative author and columnist, Michelle Malkin. All of America owes you a debt a gratitude for the slings and arrows you are enduring to take this protest to the President’s front yard.

Because at long last, we need to get dirty in this country — we need to confront the gaping maw of militarism that plagues our thinking from the War Room to the boardrooms. We need to confront the comfort of our lies and the pain of the truth. We need to look in a mirror — every one of us — and ask ourselves what people like Sheehan’s son were really fighting and dying for.

Those who oppose looking in that mirror are getting very angry and even violent. Let them. They will discredit their cause in the same way Bull Connor discredited the Southern way of life when he turned his dogs and hoses on peaceful protesters.

But we’ve avoided the pain of public debate for too long. This clash is long past due. Whether it cleanses or poisons the American body politic is hard to predict now. But with our avoidance has come the price of complacency.

Thank you, Cindy Sheehan.

Keith Gottschalk

Keith Gottschalk

U.S. Keith Gottschalk has written for daily newspapers in Iowa, Illinois and Ohio. He also had a recent stint as a radio talk show host in Illinois. As a result of living in the high ground...