Bush and Service in the Texas Air National Guard
I have not said anything about the controversy concerning George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard. The controversies have mainly centered on whether he lied about some minor arrests (one for a prank involving stealing a wreath at Yale) or tickets when he applied; or whether he received a special favor in getting into the national guard at a time when a lot of guys were being drafted and sent to Nam; or whether he was absent without permission when he went to Alabama in 1972 to help with the political campaign of Winton Blount.
I don’t think these issues are really that important. A lot of guys in the national guard report that their duties were often ill-defined and that it wasn’t that unusual for some of them to gradually lose touch without necessarily being disciplined. On the other hand, sometimes a guardsman was severely disciplined by being transfered to the active military and shipped off to the war.
I can’t criticize Bush for being AWOL because I was a bona fide Conscientious Objector during the Vietnam War. I wrote my draft board that I didn’t believe in killing people, and in rural Loudoun County Virginia they must have been so stunned that they just folded and gave me the card. Had they not done so, I was contemplating my options, which included jail (I used to listen to Joan Baez’s comments about her imprisoned husband, David Harris, wondering if I would get to meet him on the inside) or Canada. I think I remember being inclined toward jail if it came to it. I have a dear friend who went to Canada and never came back. I used to read Gandhi and King and try to pronounce Satyagraha.
I struggled almost daily in 1968-1975 with these issues. I was upset and depressed about it. I argued with my father, a 20-year man in the army signal corps. (What comes around goes around; he was diehard opposed to the Iraq war, whereas I had more ambiguous feelings about the whole thing). I joined a hunger strike at Northwestern and subsisted on liquids for almost a week, but went off it when I almost fainted.
What I can criticize Bush for is that he doesn’t seem to have cared about the war one way or another. That is what bothers me. An eminent diplomatic historian, once told me the story of being at Harvard when Pearl Harbor hit. Those young men were from privileged families. He maintained that the vast majority of them immediately joined the military to fight for their country. They had, he maintained, a sense of honor about it. Note that Kerry enlisted in 1966. He went on to be wounded three times, getting 3 purple heart medals. He also won a silver star for a daring raid, and a bronze star for pulling a crew member back on the boat (he had fallen overboard) during a firefight. The chart here says it all about the lives of Kerry and Bush in that period.
So, W. either believed in the war effort or he did not. If he believed in it, he should have gone to fight. If he didn’t believe in it, he should have joined those of us protesting against the goddamned thing. He did not do either one. He doesn’t seem to have been interested. From all accounts he was partying pretty heavily, and then he wanted to get Winton Blount elected, so it wasn’t conveeeenient to be stuck in the Air National Guard in Texas. Almost 60,000 young men were killed in that slithering python of a war, their bones ground to dust. They were my contemporaries. And it is alleged that 2 million Vietnamese died. (The apologists for the war on the Right, who no doubt will eventually start reenacting it on weekends, keep complaining that we weren’t allowed to go all out to win the war; what are they arguing for–outright genocide?)
And that is why I don’t think Bush is wise to try to slander Kerry as a fellow traveler of Jane Fonda. Because John Kerry was the sort of man who cared about principle. When he was in the Navy, he fought bravely for his country. When he got out, he exercised his right as a civilian to campaign against the continuation of a rotten war. He cared. He cared deeply, to the core of his soul, and he risked everything in both cases. In both cases he stood up for what he thought was right and best for America. (Just to show how fair I am, let me point out that Bill Clinton at that very time was trying to figure out how to “stay politically viable” and be against the war; his ambition at that early age is both admirable and a little frightening. There is no evidence that Kerry worried about his anti-war activities hurting his political viability in the future, even though he had political ambitions and his stance did prove a liability).
When I teach military history, I make it a principle not to criticize an officer in a war zone for things like being overly timid. I lived in Beirut during the first years of the civil war there, insisting on being there to do community service for my religious group, so I know something about war. But I haven’t fought in a war, and have no idea how I would react under that kind of pressure. It should be remembered that even a hero like John McCain, about as far from a pushover as you could imagine, did crack under North Vietnamese techniques and signed a denunciation of the war.
So it is all right if Bush wants to debate Kerry on social issues like who gets how many tax cuts. But I’d advise Bush to drop the Vietnam issue with regard to Kerry on similar grounds. Bush never fought in a war. We don’t know how he would do on a real battlefield. He may or may not have been as distinguished a warrior as Kerry. For all we know, the experience of seeing his buddies die uselessly in the mud might have driven him so to speak into Jane Fonda’s arms, as well. Bush and his spinmeisters have no standing to criticize Kerry in this regard. You have to take a stand on principle and suffer for it before you get that right.