In Stupid White Men, Michael Moore claimed that Bush went AWOL during his service with the Texas Air National Guard. In his new film Fahrenheit 9-11 he asks members of Congress to sign their children up to the US military.
Essentially Moore is arguing that Bush is a spoilt "frat" boy who goes AWOL but as President sends young kids to die, and Congress is full of other rich people who support a war where Bush sends young people to die. It’s a pretty tired and indeed flawed argument - statistically members of Congress are more likely to have children in the US military than your average American - nevertheless the military service of elected officials is back in vogue. In fact John Kerry is basing his campaign for presidency on his time as a junior naval officer. How times change.
In Italy in 1945 Bob Dole was shot in the back and arm going to the aid of another soldier. He spent years in hospital and lost the use of his right arm. In the 1996 election campaign, when Republicans tried to compare the military service of Dole and Clinton, the Democrats claimed it was a smear campaign. They made the same claim in 1992, when Clinton’s record was compared unfavourably with George H W Bush’s gallant service. Indeed Senator John Kerry said, “We do not need to divide America over who served and how.”
But today Kerry with his "band of brothers" and references to Vietnam constantly reminds voters he went to war, Bush did not. That is to say, Kerry was a war-hero, while Bush had his father pull strings so he could hide in the National Guard.
Bush did spend time in the Texas Air National Guard: 18 months full-time service, training to be a fighter pilot with the remainder of his service part-time. At one stage Bush expressed an interest in rotating through to South Vietnam. This was probably a function of being in an environment where the only talk was of war and flying. However with Bush’s single engine jet being phased out, there was no demand for him in South Vietnam. In his 20s Bush seemed justifiably proud of flying fighter jets, provocatively wearing his leather flight jacket at Harvard, a brave or foolhardy act in the early 1970s.
It is reasonable to assume that Bush would have gone to Vietnam had the opportunity arisen, but he also took a path that made service in Vietnam less likely - he did not, for example, join the army ROTC at college. But should Bush be condemned for wanting to be a pilot over an infantryman? There is nothing dishonourable about Bush’s service; flying fighter jets is quite an achievement (fighter pilots are the first to tell you so). Those who claim that Bush went AWOL or was a deserter display nothing more than their complete ignorance about part-time military service and their antipathy towards George Bush. However, there is nothing distinguished or special about Bush’s service - but the same could be said of the vast majority of servicemen and women.
Even accounting for the outrageous inflation of US honours and awards, Kerry has a distinguished record of service. Some Democrats use Kerry’s military service as cloak to hide the Democrats inherent weakness with national security. Michael Moore’s endorsement of Wesley Clark was an example of the same phenomena. People who otherwise care nothing for military service or national security suddenly gushing over a man in uniform is like conservatives fawning over a social worker candidate in an election campaign centred on social issues.
Kerry’s record also makes it easier for Democrats and critics of Bush to argue that Bush and his cabinet know nothing of war. They are rich men eager to send young men to their deaths. Kerry has been to war and therefore will be wiser. Of course this is nonsense.
Richard Armitage served four tours in South Vietnam and Colin Powell was a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Donald Rumsfeld, caught between Korea and Vietnam, was a navy aviator in peacetime. Transport Secretary Norman Mineta also served in the years between Korea and Vietnam. Tom Ridge received the Bronze Star for valour in Vietnam, interestingly not as an officer, but as an infantry sergeant. Veteran Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi also saw active service in Vietnam. Health Secretary Tommy Thompson served in both the National Guard and the Reserve in the early 60s and Bush was neither a deserter nor draft dodger.
The Bush cabinet aside, the argument of old men who’d never seen war eagerly sending young men to war is bunk. Neville Chamberlain had not fought in WWI, but was reluctant to fight a second. Winston Churchill had been a subaltern in two wars and a battalion commander in WWI and was keen for the second. Many of the anti-appeasers, like Eden and Macmillan, had been junior officers in WWI - indeed Eden won the Military Cross. The Australian Liberal governments of the 1960s that committed Australian troops to Malaya, Borneo and Vietnam, were filled with men who’d seen battle, not a few with awards for gallantry.
Bad history aside, in making his military record a campaign centrepiece, Kerry also made it a target. A group calling itself "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" (SBVT) has publicly attacked Kerry's record. Indeed every officer above Kerry in his immediate chain of command has publicly opposed his bid for the presidency and some 250 other Swift veterans have signed an open letter questioning his fitness to serve as Commander-in-Chief. It is clear that many of those veterans are motivated by Kerry’s characterisation of US servicemen in the early 1970s.
SBVT has been dismissed as being part of a great Republican “smear” campaign. Maybe it is. But by the same token, criticisms of Bush’s record must be part of a Democratic “smear” campaign. Kerry said Bush had questions that needed answering; equally SBVT certainly asks some questions of Kerry that he may need to answer. However at the end of the day, Kerry served in Vietnam and he was awarded a Bronze Star and Silver Star, regardless of how he got the 3 Purple Hearts. That’s a “good war” in any one’s book.
But ultimately the question is, so what? A brave junior officer doesn’t always make a great president or prime minister anymore than they make a great general or admiral. A former junior officer may have all the strategic sense of a Fairfax journalist. And the reverse may equally be true; a great president might have been an appalling junior officer.
Bush recently said, "I think Senator Kerry served admirably and he ought to be proud of his record. But the question is who is best to lead the country in the war on terror?”
Last year while reading extracts from Douglas Brinkely’s book on Kerry’s time in Vietnam, I decided that the experience had left him uncomfortable with American power; too Hamletesque and too disillusioned to be President. That might be fine for the mid 1990s, but right now I’ll take the former National Guard pilot who spent his weekends flying or boozing in the mess.