I've received a huge outpouring of e-mail in response to the column I wrote last week about an imaginary conversation between President Bush and Cindy Sheehan.
The e-mail comes from all over the country, from places as far afield as Peoria, Ill.; Fort Worth, Texas; Denver; Charleston, S.C.; Columbus, Ohio; Corvallis, Ore.; and Birmingham, Ala. A good number of the e-mailers were hostile to Sheehan herself, accusing her - in one reader's words - of being a "kook" manipulated by "organizations that have the audacity to call themselves Americans."
Those who worked up such a froth over Sheehan missed the point: I was trying to lay out what the president would say if he gave Sheehan (or the country) frank answers about why 140,000 U.S. soldiers remain in Iraq. So why on earth did the mention of Cindy Sheehan make these folks so mad?
Here's the answer. Sheehan has become a lightning rod for those who fear, and those who want, an honest national debate on Iraq.
The bulk of my e-mailers understood that the issue is bigger than one grieving mother. Some readers want the troops to leave Iraq immediately. Many were unsure whether U.S. soldiers should exit now. Most were frustrated, as one put it, that Bush wasn't talking "straight."
One of the most moving e-mails came from Sherilyn J. Bone in Virginia Beach, Va.
"My son, Spec. Jeremy McHalffey, was killed in Iraq Jan. 4, 2005," she wrote. "So I feel I can comment on Cindy Sheehan's actions without someone saying I don't know anything about it. I wish I were standing beside Cindy today. ...
"Most of all I wish I didn't have to wake up each morning, face each day and just continue to cope, knowing my son is dead. Just like Cindy, I want the president to tell my why?
"Why did my son have to die in Iraq? For lies? Don't just continue to tell me he was a hero; of course he was. Tell me why he had to be a hero in a godforsaken country, trying to protect people who don't want us there.
"I come from a military family. From the Civil War until today, we have had men and women in each generation serving their country in war. My niece is now serving in the Navy. Having made it through Iraq once, and escorted her cousin's body home for burial, she is now waiting to return to Iraq.
"Don't tell me it is unpatriotic to question what doesn't make sense. Let's not all just keep our mouths shut until 50,000 mothers ask why their sons had to die ... another Vietnam. Don't tell me we shouldn't ask. ... And most of all don't tell me this administration cares. This mother doesn't believe it.
"Thank you for saying in your article what needed to be said."
I called Sherry Bone, whose son was a 28-year-old policeman serving in the Marine Corps Reserve. I asked her whether she thought the troops should leave now.
"I never think we should just walk away," she told me. "But how long are we going to go on like this? ...
"If this goes on and on, then what did he die for? If I saw an end in sight, I could accept it, but I don't see anything in sight."
Bone has every right to be confused. The rationale for the Iraq war has changed so many times that the real reason remains murky. The figures on numbers of Iraqis trained to fight (and someday replace U.S. troops) have jumped up and down like a yo-yo. The markers for when U.S. troops can draw down - when Iraqi democracy grows, when Iraqi forces mature, when we run out of reserve units - are vague.
In essence, the president is asking the public to have faith and suspend disbelief. But when so many past rationales for the Iraq war have been junked, a faith-based approach to its future won't keep the American public on board. If a majority of Americans lose trust in Bush's handling of this war, the pressure will grow for a speedy U.S. exit.
I don't think we can leave Iraq yet, lest Iraq become the terrorist base it wasn't before. Yet the polls indicate that Americans won't support a continued presence in Iraq unless they are given more facts about where we are headed.
That is the nerve that Cindy Sheehan hit, this need for - and true believers' fear of - the facts.
By the way, many of Sheehan's detractors accused me of hiding the fact that the president had already met Sheehan. That fact is irrelevant to the situation now. Sheehan met Bush a year ago, when she was part of a larger group and still in shock over her son's death. Iraq hadn't sunk to its current state, nor was the public yet so eager for honest answers about the war.
"I was in shock after my son died," Bone says. "Now I am angry.
"Tell us what it is going to take to win, Mr. Bush."
The president has decided not to talk to Cindy Sheehan. But we all need an answer to the question posed by Sherry Bone.