To make the perfect faux headstone, start by picking out a 1-by-12-foot piece of wood. That'll be enough for six of them, according to Bill Perry of Delaware Valley Veterans for America. Then, prime it, paint it, drill two holes in the bottom and slide in the penny nails that'll enable the makeshift marker to stand upright. Log on to icasualties.org, find the names and photos of soldiers who've died, laminate a name plate and affix it to the wood.
Repeat 606 times and you'll have commemorated the 3,636 American soldiers who've died in Iraq and Afghanistan as of 10 a.m. Tuesday. It was then that Perry and about a dozen compatriots took over the field next to Independence Visitor Center and started setting up about 600 graves to serve as a backdrop for an afternoon visit from Cindy Sheehan, the apparently re-commissioned anti-war mom who, a day earlier, both announced she'd be running against Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and got locked up in the Capitol, where she was harassing legislators into voting to impeach a man she considers a warlord.
As Perry wiped the wages of a microwave sun from his brow with one forearm, he used his free hand to set up the grave commemorating the life of 23-year-old Sgt. Andrew W. Brown, First Battalion, 509th Infantry, of Pleasant Mount, Pa., who'd been killed Oct. 8, 2004.
"The Congressional Democrats, the so-called 'Peace Party,' has failed to honor their constitutional oath," he said. "All they think about is wanting a big issue to run on in '08 and '10 and '12. They want the status quo so they can win elections. It's a disgrace."
A disgrace, indeed, but it wasn't the only one on display. Across the street, tourists lined the platform overlooking the Washington House site and listened to archaeologist Cheryl Laroche talk about the "dichotomy of people here learning about liberty and freedom while trampling over the slave quarters."
Among those listening was Michael Nutter, who took a tour in advance of July 31, when the site will be sealed off while officials decide how best to proceed with memorializing it. Moments earlier, responding to a Fox 29 reporter's stop-snitching question, Nutter noted, "We can't become slaves to violence. People fought hard and died to bring liberty and freedom to this country."
Then, the suit-sporting almost-mayor donned a hard hat, and went down a ladder into a site where people were slaves to the empowered. When he came back out, Nutter seemed moved. "The issue of race is still something we have to come to grips with," he said. "There's more discussion of it on that platform, among people who don't even know each other, than we're having among ourselves in this city."
He was then asked what's worse: a president who kept unwilling slaves around the house, depriving them of human dignity, or one who sends battalions of slaves to an oath off to carry out what some consider the bloody, dirty work he hid from.
"They're both atrocious," he said. "It's a weird juxtaposition of what ultimately is inhumanity to our fellow man. Obviously, we've got to learn lessons from our past."
Which brings us back to Sheehan, with whom Nutter said he disagreed on impeachment. ("What we need to be focused on is making sure our troops get the support and equipment they need to be safe, a reasonable exit strategy, and finding a way to rehabilitate our relationships around the world," he said.)
The scene had all the trappings of '68, pitting guitar-strumming hippies and their orange "Impeach" bumper stickers against vets in patch-covered denim handing out pacifiers. Cops and Park Service police were on hand to keep a semblance of peace. They couldn't.
Take Chris Hill, national director of operations for a pro-troops group called Gathering of Eagles, for example. About 15 minutes into the protest, he'd taken all he could take.
"You're a disgrace to the uniform, Bill," he screamed, prompting an elderly protester to punch him square in the chest, which prompted a police officer to pull Hill away. "Those guys do not deserve to be used as a political prop!"
Hill, an Army vet, conceded that "it's us who gave them the right to dishonor us" before giving me the most logical explanation as to why we can't pull out that I've heard: The first wave would see 160,000 military members reduced to 80,000 infantrymen, who'd then cover their whole withdrawal by guarding convoy routes and airstrips. "We'd start losing a whole fucking platoon at a time," he said. "After we left 'Nam, [millions of] civilians were killed. You think Al-Qaida in Iraq is going to go back to making rugs? Every time [these protesters] do something like this, it shows up on Al-Jazeera, it becomes a recruiting tool. What we need to do to bring our boys home with honor is give them what they need so they can come home winners."
I'd have loved to ask Sheehan what she thought of that but, disgracefully, after trying to talk over airhorns, taunts and "Impeach" cheers, she was ushered away from a photo-op that accomplished absolutely nothing. Which, in times like these, is the biggest shame of all.