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Memo to Kerry: Criticize, Don't Apologize | The Nation

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Memo to Kerry: Criticize, Don't Apologize

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IAN WILLIAMS

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Ian Williams
Ian Williams is The Nation's UN correspondent. In addition to his work for the magazine, he frequently comments on...

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Senator John Kerry's recent comments to a group of college students that they could work hard in school or risk getting "stuck in Iraq" put the draft dodgers in the Bush Administration in predictable paroxysms of rage. Kerry, who first responded with anger at the GOP's criticism but later apologized, should stop being nice about the Deserter in Chief. He should be reminding voters that the President who has sent more than 3,000 US soldiers and allies and untold thousands of Iraqis to their deaths deserted his post during the Vietnam War.

Kerry should be reminding voters that while he served honorably in Vietnam, a war he disagreed with, almost the entire Bush team dodged the war that they supported. Just as few if any of the legislators now calling for staying the course have any family members out there in Iraq.

He'd do well to bring to voters' attention the continuing arrogance of the President, as revealed to Bob Woodward in Bush at War: "I'm the commander--see, I don't need to explain--I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation."

Finally, Kerry should consider drawing public attention to Bush's own conduct during the Vietnam era, drawn from my 2004 book, Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans, and His Past.

Deserter

When the government was drafting George W. Bush's contemporaries and sending them to Vietnam, Bush joined the Air National Guard in Texas, and ticked the box saying "no" to overseas service: a choice denied most of his contemporaries then, who did not have the Ivy League connections to enter such units. More important, such choices are denied now to the National Guardsmen who were not only called up for service in Iraq but have found their terms extended while they were out in the desert. All over the world, men and women are now dying and being maimed because Bush had lived through "the war of his generation" without hearing a shot fired in anger, and perhaps because "Little Googen," as his indulgent parents called him, has been trying to emulate his genuinely heroic father--without actually risking his life. His father left school at 18 and used his family connections to become the youngest pilot in the Navy.

Soldier of Fortune

Since he has persuaded the vast majority of Americans, if not the citizens of any other country in the world, that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center, perhaps we should not be surprised at Bush's success in passing himself off as a veteran with so many Americans, including many who are actually combat-seasoned veterans themselves.

As the Tet Offensive was winding down, family, friends and his own faith in his entitlement slid him into 111th Tactical Recon Texas Air National Guard. Having plotted the course, young George took the aptitude test for Air Force officers on January 19, 1968, in New Haven, Connecticut. The test showed him with a grade of 25 percent for pilot aptitude, 50 percent for navigation and 95 percent for "officer quality." There were 500 applicants. Bush was accepted immediately.

One suspects that you get 75 percent for "officer quality" by simply answering yes to questions like "Is your family rich and politically connected, and did you go to Yale or Harvard?" Indeed, the tests could not be too hard, because he scored an impressive 85 percent on verbal aptitude. It must have been a multiple choice test, since one cannot really see him getting that score if he had had to write a sentence.

Texas circles knew this unit specifically as "Air Canada," since joining it had all the advantages of fleeing north of the border as far as service in Vietnam was concerned and none of the political or meteorological downside. It was a "champagne unit" since its personnel was so rich and well connected. Another comrade out of arms was the son of Lloyd Bentsen, which is one reason why the Texas Dems have pushed this issue over the years.

In the unlikely event that the ghosts of Santana and Zapata would rise on the Texas border to reclaim the Lone Star State for the United States of Mexico, the Texas National Guard may have seen some tough fighting. But there was no way they were going to Vietnam--hence its popularity. As Colin Powell said in his memoirs, before joining Bush's Cabinet, "I can never forgive a leadership that said, in effect: These young men--poor, less educated, less privileged--are expendable (someone described them as 'economic cannon fodder'), but the rest are too good to risk."

Powell added, presciently and inconveniently, "I am angry that so many of the sons of the powerful and well placed managed to wrangle slots in Reserve and National Guard units. Of the many tragedies of Vietnam, this raw class discrimination strikes me as the most damaging to the ideal that all Americans are created equal and owe equal allegiance to their country."

Bush's first solo flight was hymned by the PR office of the unit, "George Walker Bush is one member of the younger generation who doesn't get his kicks from pot, or hashish or speed. As far as kicks are concerned, Lt Bush gets his from the roaring afterburner of the F-102." One cannot help wondering about the significance of the omissions in that press release. Did the PR drafter know something, since booze and cocaine are conspicuously absent from the pilot's alternative kick list? Certainly, veteran correspondent Helen Thomas reduced White House spokesman Scott McClellan to incoherent evasion in February 2004 when she asked him if the President had been ordered to do community service. McClellan wriggled, squirmed, tried counter-attacking, and was being so obviously evasive that the rest of the press corps joined in trying to get him to either say yes or no or that he would approach the President to answer the question. The failure to respond should perhaps be set next to the refusal to deny categorically the use of illegal drugs before 1974, and perhaps also his sudden conversion to charitable work in inner cities at a time when he was supposed to be flying with the Guard. One does not have to be too partisan to smell a fish here. We do not know its size, or its species, or even where it is lurking, but you do not need the nose of a conspiracy theorist to smell it.

Was George W. Bush a deserter? Almost certainly in the legal sense, but certainly in the moral sense. He took active and multiple steps to avoid physical risk in "the war of his generation," to which he lent political support.

Absent without leave? Certainly. He went missing in Alabama when he asked to be posted there so he could campaign for a family friend. He failed to report for duty and defied a direct order to attend a medical examination. In doing so he made himself unfit for his duty, flying, every bit as surely as if he had "let off a shotgun next to his ear," as he complained other people did to avoid conscription. The only credible person who saw him on a base for a year was a dentist who examined his teeth. Once. Contemporary National Guardsmen are now in custody for refusing to return to Iraq. Sgt. Camilo Meija served a year in military prison for refusing to return to war. Bush never went.

James Madison in Political Reflections (1799) described two "momentous truths" in politics: "First: That the fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defense against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers from abroad. Secondly: That there never was a people whose liberties long survived a standing army." One cannot help wondering whether Karl Rove and Bush the Younger may not have read this and taken it as more in the nature of sound political advice than a principled warning!

While the Founders envisaged unscrupulous monarchs, chief executives or generals using the army to seize power, it is not so much the actual Army but its prestige that the modern-day putschists abuse. They are what Christopher Hitchens calls the "braver sort of Pentagon intellectuals," who are too cerebral to wave flags but quite happy to encourage the habit in others, and their comrades in the White House, such as Dick Cheney and his entourage, not to mention the Civilian in Chief himself.

In the name of those hyped-up external dangers, they have made it almost blasphemous to question the finance, purpose or conduct of the armed forces or of the President who has done so much to destroy the lives and living standards of serving military and veterans alike.

There should be hoots of derision every time Bush and his chickenhawk entourage play soldiers. As Peter Ustinov said, most kids play soldiers when young, but most grow up. Thanks to Bush, lots of children across the world are growing up without a parent. And some will never grow up at all.

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