Saturday, September 25, 2004


Under Fire

Are there any Republicans – Bush administration Republicans – in foxholes?


There’s been a lot of smoke and mirrors about the candidates' military service, between the Liar, Liar Pants on Fire Swift Boat Veterans, and the Republican Conventioneers Purple Hearts Club Bandaids, and Rathergate, all of which have horribly confused issues in the public mind. But here’s a simple test that will make the whole thing crystal clear.

Ask yourself this:

If I’m in a foxhole in a combat zone, and enemy soldiers are shooting
at me and trying to kill me, and the only guy who can help me is the guy right next to me in the foxhole, who would I want that to be?

A) John Kerry (turned boat around and went back into firefight to
pull U.S. soldier out of the water)

B) George W. Bush (got powerful dad to pull strings to get him into
Texas Air National Guard)

C) Dick Cheney (got student deferment because "going to Vietnam was not
a priority for me")

D) Donald Rumsfeld (two-time Secretary of Defense, but lifetime

E) Paul Wolfowitz (has read a lot about war)

(Answer below.)

Setting aside all the murk and furor around "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" and "Rathergate," two facts remain undisputed.

(1) John Kerry went to Vietnam, served in a combat capacity in a combat zone, got himself SHOT AT by ENEMY SOLDIERS WHO WERE TRYING TO KILL HIM, and by all credible accounts, performed courageously under fire. (2) George W. Bush used his powerful father’s influence to get a cushy placement in the Texas Air National Guard in order to guarantee that he would NOT have to go to Vietnam in a combat capacity and get himself shot at by enemy soldiers.

Now, my dear reader -- pause and breathe. What we make of the two UNDISPUTED FACTS for electoral purposes is another matter, and I’ll get to that. But for one moment, let’s just have these facts firmly in mind before we start going nutso.


Now for analysis. I for one do not believe that military service is the single most important qualification to be president. I voted for Clinton (went to Europe, smoked pot) against George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole (World War II combat veterans), because I’m a liberal and I believed that Bush and Dole would have made lousy presidents. For me, military service is a minor factor. Although the president is commander in chief of the armed forces, I have this quirky view that civilian control of our armed forces is important to our democratic constitution.

Furthermore, in past (Sept. 22) and future separate posts, I explain further why I think the whole presidential personality thing is overblown.

But the fact is there are people who believe that military service is an important qualification to be commander in chief. I suspect that many "undecided voters" believe this, because undecidedness often reflects an inability follow and understand serious political issues. I suspect that the most vocal believers in military service as a qualification for the presidency are right wing political hacks who get real noisy when it’s Clinton (Europe, pot) against Bush Senior or Dole (WW II), but then go all "Alice in Wonderland" on us when the combat boot is on the other foot.

In 1972, Karl Rove’s spiritual forebears somehow managed to portray democratic challenger George McGovern as a draft-card-burning hippie even though McGovern flew over 50 combat missions as pilot of a B-24 bomber during World War II. (Lest you think that was "safe" duty, the average life expectancy of a B-24 pilot was something like 35 missions.) Nixon donned the uniform (in WW II) but (not unlike "W") skulked around far far away from combat, yet he was somehow more fit to be commander in chief according to Republican militarists.

Bush’s brain, Karl Rove, has managed this time – primarily through his front organization, Swift Boat Veterans who Either Have a Long-Standing Grudge Against Kerry or will Simply Do Anything for Undisclosed Rewards – to turn Kerry’s combat service into a political liability. There is no doubt about it, Rove is an evil genius. What’s so disgusting about that, and the "Purple Heart" bandaids, is the particularly dishonorable brand of hypocrisy. Republican candidates are more than happy to have their candidates collect the veterans endorsements, and soak up the heroism by association with past and present medal winners. They – and this includes Bush and Cheney – go around saying how much they honor those who have served, etc., and yet their conventioneers put on the Purple Heart bandaids and their surrogates shamelessly trash Kerry, who did serve, because he’s running against them. Clinton supporters in 1992 didn’t make fun of George H. W. Bush’s WWII service by pointing out that his combat experience consisted entirely of getting his plane shot down and his ass fished out of the ocean. The man put himself in harms way in combat, and deserves our respect. If you’re the Republicans in 2004, why not just say John Kerry served his country honorably during the Vietnam War, but we don’t believe that is relevant to his qualifications for Presidency?

The 2004 Republicans don’t say that because they want it both ways. They want "War Hero" to matter because they think it works for them. If they have a combat veteran for a candidate, they want to use it, and if they have a cold war or a hot war to make into a campaign issue, they want their guy at least to look like a war hero, pictured on an aircraft carrier wearing a flight helmet saying, "Mission (in Iraq) Accomplished."

If you do believe that we have to look for personality clues in our presidential candidates, then the respective war records of Bush and Kerry are relevant in the following two ways.

1) Calm under fire. Arguably, the president should be someone who can keep his head and exercise sound judgment under intense pressure. A soldier in combat is faced with potentially numerous decisions under what may be the most high-pressure situation in human experience. Again, I’m not saying that this qualifies someone to be president, but Kerry turned his boat around, went into a firefight and fished a Green Beret out of the river. Bush, in contrast, has never been under fire.

2) Appreciation for war. None of our war leaders in the Bush administration are combat veterans. Bush – cushy, safe Texas air national guard. Cheney – "going to Vietnam was not a priority of mine." Rumsfeld – two-time Secretary of Defense, but lifetime civilian. Wolfowitz – has read a lot about war. Colin Powell is a distinguished vet, of course, but they don’t listen to him. Arguably, a Vietnam veteran whose thinking about that war is shaped by his own combat experience has a better appreciation of the costs and consequences of committing our soldiers to military adventures like, say, Iraq. Perhaps Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz would have been a little less gung-ho if they had ever gotten themselves shot at by enemy soldiers before.

By the way, here’s the answer to the test at the beginning of this post.

If you answered B, C, D, or E, you’re lying. The correct answer is A. Even for Karl Rove.


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