Bush’s Military Past

Bush’s Military Past

This article was adapted from Williams’s new book, Deserter: George W. Bush’s War on Military Families, Veterans, and His Past . Click here to purchase a copy.


Even allowing for the usual military-bureaucratic incompetence, records relating to George W. Bush’s National Guard Service have a suspiciously low survival rate, so there has been understandable incredulity about the recent revelation that a crucial quarter’s pay records from 1972 did not survive the Pentagon’s alleged attempt to transfer the microfilm to a more durable medium. That incredulity was enhanced rather than allayed when they eventually were discovered behind whichever filing cabinet they had been dropped.

At issue is whether Bush was, technically at least, a deserter in his fourth year of National Guard service, when he requested a transfer to Guard duties in Alabama so he could assist a Republican senatorial campaign there.

Bush asserts that he turned up and did his duty. However, no one on the base remembers seeing him, including the commanding officer and several other officers who say they were actively looking to network with the hot-shot Texan with the influential father–but waited in vain.

The paper record does show that he was ordered to report for a flight medical exam in July 1972, but that Bush “failed to accomplish” it, and that in September he was ordered to report for an inquiry into why he had not passed. His memories of these momentous events which grounded him and made him unfit for flight duties seem very hazy.

The White House says that since the plane he flew was about to be phased out of service, he felt he did not need to maintain his pilot rating. Normally, the Armed Forces do not take kindly to such executive decisions being made by junior officers–and in reality, the Texas Air National Guard was still flying the Delta Dagger that Bush was trained on even after he had gone to Harvard Business School.

The difficulty is the classic one: how to prove a negative. But there is clearly a dog that is not barking here. For example, the “failure to accomplish” his medical examination could mean either that he did not turn up, or that he did and failed it–in which case the answer may lie in medical records that the Bush Administration has refused to disclose.

It may or may not be significant that mandatory drug testing was introduced in 1972, and that Bush spokespeople have maintained that he had not used narcotics since 1974–while maintaining a discreet silence about what happened before then.

Bush could, if minded, produce W2 forms from the IRS that would show his Guard earnings while in Alabama. He has not. The White House has occasionally released a flood of documents seemingly intended to confuse the issue. The one tangible record that has emerged is that in January of 1973, Bush turned up for a dentist’s visit in Alabama–which is intriguing in itself since he was supposed to be back in Texas by then. The dentist is the only military person in Alabama with a credible memory of Bush attendance. Or rather, he affirmed that it was his signature on the examination card although he had no specific memory of peering into the mouth that later launched the Iraq War.

In fact, even when the allegedly destroyed microfilm could not be found, the information on it was not really missing at all. Joseph Nobles, who blogs as Bolo Boffin, discovered each quarter’s record also replicated the three previous quarters. By comparing adjacent records, Noble deduced that while 1st Lt. Bush claimed a few non-active duty days in Alabama, on one of which we know he was at the dentist, he returned to Texas with zero active duty days in the previous year. The rediscovered data confirmed what Nobles had deduced, and Bush’s failure to show up for active duty. He was then booked for almost full-time duty for three months, presumably in an attempt to clear the books before giving him early discharge for Harvard Business School (his second choice, since the University of Texas Law School turned him down).

The disappearance of Bush’s federal payroll records mirror the evidence of Texas records going down the memory hole. According to Lt. Col. Bill Burkett Rtd, of the Texas Air National Guard, in 1997 he heard his superior officer, Major General Daniel James, on the speakerphone with George Bush’s chief of staff, Joe Allbaugh, and communications director, Dan Bartlett, arranging the sifting of Bush’s military records.

Burkett also claimed that soon after he overheard Assistant Adjutant General Wayne Marty, in discussing the then Governor Bush’s records, caution “make sure there’s nothing in there that’ll embarrass the governor.” Burkett said he later saw files and photocopies of pay and performance records–and the name on at least one of them was “Bush, George W., 1LT.”

Another officer, George Conn, originally verified much of Burkett’s story. He has since retracted his memories of the specific conversations and events, a retraction that unkind souls have suggested may be due to his current position as a civilian defense contractor in Germany. Although he strongly qualified his retraction by affirming that “Lt. Col. Burkett is an honorable man and does not lie,” the White House seized upon the quasi retraction to back up its case.

In some ways this is almost irrelevant. The core issue is that George W. Bush, who campaigned eagerly for Republican pro-war candidates, joined the National Guard, ticking the box to refuse overseas service, at the height of the Tet Offensive, in what Senator Robert Byrd has called the “War of His Generation.”

He did so with the aid of nepotistic influence, jumping a long line, despite a 25 percent score on his pilot aptitude test–and despite a series of driving convictions that should have required a special waiver. He was commissioned an officer despite having no pilot experience, no time in the ROTC, and without attending Officer Training School.

And then he went missing for a year, and as a reward was allowed to terminate his service early so he could go to Harvard Business School.

His use of the National Guard to escape Vietnam should have inhibited him and his party from successively attacking the patriotism and martial virtues of triple amputee Senator Max Cleland and John Kerry–having earlier pointed fingers at Bill Clinton. But going AWOL, to the extent of deserting for a year even from this surrogate service, makes him doubly vulnerable. Which may of course account for the seeming fungibility of his paperwork, even though, in truth, these people have no shame.

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