A different perspective on the Vietnam service issue...
Kerry More Commanding as Chief?
The Bush vs. Kerry Vietnam debate.
John Kerry's frontrunner status among Democratic hopefuls for president has once again, as during the 2000 campaign, placed a spotlight on President Bush's military service during the Vietnam era. It has done so on two levels. First, did Mr. Bush meet all of his obligations as a member of the Texas Air National Guard? The charge here, recycled from 2000, was catapulted into the campaign by the odious Michael Moore, who in the course of endorsing Wesley Clark, called President Bush a "deserter."
Second, and more seriously, does President Bush's decision to join the Air National Guard mean that he is less qualified to lead the nation in war than John Kerry, who served bravely in combat during the Vietnam War? Both were Yale graduates who came from privileged backgrounds. But while Senator Kerry was commissioned as a naval officer, sought dangerous duty as a Swift Boat commander in Vietnam, was wounded three times, and awarded a Bronze Star and a Silver Star, Bush managed to gain a coveted spot in a stateside Guard unit. Does this matter? If Bill Clinton's avoidance of military service was fair game during the 1992 presidential campaign, why shouldn't George Bush's choice of stateside service over Vietnam be a topic of debate as well?
THE CASE AGAINST DUBYA
The first question is the easier one to answer. The particulars of the charges are to be found in an e-mail circulated by MoveOn.org, which seems to be based primarily on The Lies of George W. Bush by David Corn of The Nation. The message claims that he sought to fulfill his military obligation in the National Guard, which made Vietnam service unlikely. Competition for slots was intense, resulting in a long waiting list. Bush took the Air Force officer- and pilot-qualification tests on Jan. 17, 1968, and according to the MoveOn.org e-mail, "scored the lowest allowed passing grade on the pilot aptitude portion."
The well-circulated e-mail, posted on Michael Moore's website, continues:
2. He, nevertheless, was sworn in on May 27, 1968, for a six-year commitment. After a few weeks of basic training, Bush received an appointment as a second lieutenant a rank usually reserved for those completing four years of ROTC or 18 months active duty service. Bush then went to flight school and trained on the F-102 interceptor fighter jet. Fighter pilots were in great demand in Vietnam at the time, but Bush wound up serving as a "weekend warrior" in Houston, where his father's congressional district was centered.
A Houston Chronicle story published in 1994, quoted in Corn's book, has Bush saying: "I was not prepared to shoot my eardrum out with a shotgun in order to get a deferment. Nor was I willing to go to Canada. So I chose to better myself by learning how to fly airplanes."
3. Sometime after May 1971, young Lt. Bush stopped participating regularly in Guard activities. According to Texas Air National Guard records, he had fewer than the required flight duty days and was short of the minimum service owed the Guard. Records indicate that Bush never flew after May 1972, despite his expensive training and even though he still owed the National Guard two more years.
4. On May 24, 1972, Bush asked to be transferred to an inactive reserve unit in Alabama, where he also would be working on a Republican senate candidate's campaign. The request was denied. For months, Bush apparently put in no time at all in Guard service. In August 1972, Bush was grounded suspended from flying duties for failing to submit to an annual physical exam. (Why wouldn't he take this exam from a doctor?)
5. During his 2000 presidential campaign, Bush's staff said he recalled doing duty in Alabama and then returning to Houston for still more duty. But the commander of the Montgomery, AL, unit where Bush said he served told the Boston Globe that he had no recollection of Bush son of a congressman ever reporting, nor are there records, as there should be, supporting Bush's claim. Asked at a press conference in Alabama on June 23, 2000 what duties he had performed as a Guardsman in that state, Bush said he could not recall, "but I was there."
6. In May, June and July, 1973, Bush suddenly started participating in Guard activities back in Houston again pulling 36 days at Ellington Air Base in that short period. On Oct. 1, 1973, eight months short of his six-year service obligation and scheduled discharge, Bush apparently was discharged with honors from the Texas Air National Guard (eight months short of his six-year commitment). He then went to Harvard Business School.
CLEARING THE RECORD
The MoveOn.org e-mail errs in a couple of places. First, many officers received commissions after attending Officers' Candidate School (OCS), which, during the Vietnam era, normally ran 10 to 12 weeks. And while fighter pilots may have been in great demand when George W. Bush was in the Texas Air Guard, he was assigned to a unit that, for whatever reason, was not deployed. It would have been very unusual for Lt. Bush to deploy individually to Vietnam. For one thing, it would have entailed more flight training, since he would have been flying something other than the F-102 in Vietnam.
A recent e-mail from FactCheck.org, the Annenberg Political Fact Check, corrects many of the other falsehoods circulated by MoveOn.org. FactCheck.org points out that these charges have been around since Bush's campaign against Al Gore, "when a Boston Globe story appeared saying the newspaper could find no record of Bush attending required Air National Guard drills for a full year in 1972-73." But an analysis of the facts paints a different picture.
The FactCheck.org e-mail cites the news outlets that pursued the story about Bush's Guard service. According to the Globe account, Bush served the equivalent of 21 months on active duty over the next four years, including more than a year of flight training. The Globe quoted Bush's flight instructor, retired Col. Maurice H. Udell, as saying "I would rank him in the top 5 percent of pilots I knew."
The Globe also said that "those who trained and flew with Bush...said he was among the best pilots in the 111th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron. In the 22-month period between the end of his flight training and his move to Alabama, Bush logged numerous hours of duty, well above the minimum requirements for so-called 'weekend warriors.'"
When Bush moved to Alabama in May of 1972, he was supposed to report for duty at the 187th Tactical Recon Group in Montgomery Alabama. But the unit's commander at the time, retired Gen. William Turnipseed, was quoted by several news organizations as saying he had no recollection of Bush showing up. "I had been in Texas, done my flight training there. If we had had a first lieutenant from Texas, I would have remembered," the Globe quoted him saying. This is the source of the charge that Bush was AWOL (Absent Without Leave).
But while Bush himself later was quoted directly by the Dallas Morning News as admitting he missed some weekend drills while in Alabama, he claimed to have made them up afterward. "I was there on a temporary assignment and fulfilled my weekends at one period of time," he said. "I made up some missed weekends....I can't remember what I did, but I wasn't flying because they didn't have the same airplanes. I fulfilled my obligations."
FactCheck.org reports that while records are lacking for that period, the Associated Press quoted two friends who worked with Bush in the Blount campaign as saying they recall him attending Air National Guard drills in Alabama. Bush returned to Houston after the campaign, says FactCheck.org, but never resumed flying. "He spent 36 days on duty back in Houston in May, June, and July of 1973, the Globe reported, making up for weekend drills he was too busy to attend in Alabama
Bush requested and was granted special permission to end his six-year hitch eight months early. He was released in October 1973 to allow him to attend Harvard Business School.
FactCheck.org points out that other news organizations also concluded that Bush had fulfilled his obligation to the Air National Guard. George Magazine reported in October of 2000: "It's time to set the record straight.... Bush may have received favorable treatment to get into the Guard, served irregularly after the spring of 1972 and got an expedited discharge, but he did accumulate the days of service required of him for his ultimate honorable discharge." And according to the New York Times of Nov. 3, 2000, "a review of records by The New York Times indicated that some of those concerns (about Bush's absence) may be unfounded . . . . A review by The Times showed that after a seven-month gap, he appeared for duty in late November 1972 at least through July 1973." Finally, the Washington Post concluded after reviewing the record, "it is safe to say that Bush did very light duty in his last two years in the Guard and that his superiors made it easy for him."
VIETNAM AS INSTANT QUALIFIER
But while the AWOL charge may be absurd, the question remains: Since John Kerry went to Vietnam and George Bush didn't, is Kerry more qualified to be a wartime president than Bush? Terry McAuliffe seems to think so. "I look forward to that debate when John Kerry, a war hero with a chest full of medals, is standing next to George Bush, a man who was AWOL in the Alabama National Guard," McAuliffe said. "George Bush never served in our military in our country. He didn't show up when he should have showed up."
Despite their anger at Sen. Kerry for his actions as an ally of Jane Fonda after the war, some Vietnam veterans agree. One, a Marine who received the Navy Cross for heroism in Vietnam but who opposed the war in Iraq put it this way in an e-mail to me. "The real question is who is more dangerous for the well-being of the country, Kerry or the people around Bush none of whom, as you will recall, came out from under the bed while we were getting shot at.... I think you're going to see a lot of people who would never have supported Kerry under other circumstances deciding to do so in the coming months."
I can only speak for myself, but I believe many other Vietnam veterans would agree: Whether one served or not in Vietnam is important, but it is only one factor among many. I have always admired John McCain, but I thought that Bush's policy positions were superior; therefore I supported him during the battle for the 2000 Republican nomination.
In an NRO piece I wrote last June, I made some points that I believe still apply. If military experience were a prerequisite for success as a wartime president, then Confederate president Jefferson Davis should have easily outshone Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Davis was, after all, a West Point graduate, a hero of the Mexican War, secretary of war during the administration of Franklin Pierce, and a U.S. senator who served with distinction on the Senate Military Affairs Committee.
Lincoln's only military experience was as a militia officer during the Black Hawk War. It was not particularly distinguished. As a congressman, he poked fun at his own military experience to mock the attempt by the Democrats during the presidential race of 1848 to turn Lewis Cass into a war hero comparable to the Whig candidate, Zachary Taylor:
By the way, Mr. Speaker, did you know I am a military hero? Yes sir; in the days of the Black Hawk war, I fought, bled, and came away. Speaking of General Cass' career reminds me of my own. I was not at Stillman's defeat, but I was about as near it, as Cass was to Hull's surrender; and like him, I saw the place very soon afterwards....If Gen. Cass went in advance of me in picking huckleberries, I guess I surpassed him in charges upon the wild onions. If he saw any live fighting Indians, it was more than I did; but I had a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes; and although I never fainted from loss of blood, I can truly say I was often very hungry.
Finally, it is important to look more closely at what George W. Bush was actually doing as an officer in the Texas Air National Guard. If Bush looked more convincing last May on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln in a flight suit than Michael Dukakis looked in a tank in 1988, it is because the former was, after all, a fighter pilot. Many individuals strive to become fighter pilots. Only a few succeed. The implication that President Bush lacked courage because he joined the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War misses an important point. Although he did not see combat, piloting a high-performance aircraft is an inherently dangerous undertaking, from start to finish. Flying a jet fighter when someone is not shooting at you is only marginally less dangerous than when someone is shooting at you. It is not for the faint of heart.
The fact is that previous combat experience or not, President Bush has acquitted himself well as a wartime commander-in-chief. Like Lincoln during the Civil War, he has been single-minded in his pursuit of U.S. security since 9/11. He has weighed options, assessed risk, and made often-unpopular decisions. As a wartime commander-in-chief, President Bush has operated successfully at the level of statesmanship, which, as Winston Churchill once remarked, constitutes the summit where true politics and strategy meet. Sen. Kerry may have demonstrated bravery on the battlefield of Vietnam, but for many of us, he forfeited our comradeship by what he did upon his return. But even if he had not, the performance of our most successful wartime presidents illustrates that combat experience does not in itself qualify one for presidential leadership during a time of war.