Columns » Ernest Dumas

Enough about Lt. Bush

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Enough is enough. It is past time to forgive George W. Bush for a faint patriotic impulse and any failures of nerve that he suffered 30 odd years ago when he was trying as hard as he could to avoid taking bullets in Vietnam. Most of the country long ago came to terms with the reality that many of its most ambitious young men of the time had been either sunshine soldiers or else not soldiers at all if they could help it. Voters after all chose Bill Clinton, who sublimated his worries about losing future political viability and ducked military duty, over decorated Vietnam vets in 1992. Many of us admittedly may find it too easy to be philosophical about Bush's lackadaisical attitude about his National Guard obligations. We did the same, and got our honorable discharges, too, just like he did. (Just to be sure, I am here and now forswearing any future claim on political office.) I joined the U.S. Army Reserve in 1962 at the age of 25 because the state Selective Service director ordered the head of the Union County draft office to put me at the top of the October draft list. I was covering politics for the Arkansas Gazette and may have come to someone's attention. Although Cold War tensions were high and President Kennedy would soon take us to the brink of war over Russian missiles in Cuba, the United States was at peace. Still, I didn't want to interrupt my career for two whole years. A couple of years after I returned from active duty the monthly drills began to seem pointless. Like tens of thousands of others I stopped going, that is until Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara announced that non-drilling Reservists and National Guardsmen were liable to be called to active duty and sent to Vietnam, which by then (about 1967) had become a full-bore war. At 30 - or any age - I didn't want to go and returned for my last few drills, obtaining promotion to corporal and, notwithstanding all the missed drills, my honorable discharge from the Army at the same time. If George W. Bush skipped drills when he claimed to be in Alabama working for a pro-war Republican Senate candidate, I can hardly criticize him. Still, it would be easier if he were frank about the whole thing, including his reasons for finagling a Texas Air National Guard slot that was supposed to go to someone else. Bush says he didn't do it to avoid fighting. He just aspired to be a National Guardsman. Asked about his Guard service by Tim Russert on "Meet the Press," he said, "I would have gone if my unit had been called up, by the way." He would have had no choice, of course. Everyone in the Guard knew with near certainty that their units would not be called. Of the 2.5 million who went to Vietnam, only 8,700 were Guardsmen. They didn't fly the obsolete planes in Vietnam that Bush trained on. The Guard in 1972 was different from the all-volunteer military service of today, when any Guardsman may expect to be on the front line in a war. Dan Quayle, the mirror of George W. Bush in other ways, would be a good model for the president for honesty, too. On the same "Meet the Press" program in 1988, after George H.W. Bush picked him for vice president and the string-pulling that got him into the Indiana National Guard became an issue, then-Senator Quayle explained bluntly: "Obviously, if you join the National Guard, you have less of a chance of going to Vietnam. I mean, it goes without saying." The most troublesome question for the president is not to what extent he evaded the duty to attend all the training that was his obligation for avoiding the draft but the influence that was used to get him a slot in the Texas Air Guard, which by 1968 was highly coveted. His daddy's connections, as it was long ago reported, succeeded in jumping him over 500 men who were on the waiting list for a Texas Air Guard slot, many with better qualifications than Bush but faceless and poorer. It had to be George W. Bush, son of the former president, and Danny Quayle, the former vice president - the two most famous examples at the time - that Gen. Colin Powell was talking about when he wrote in his 1995 book "My American Journey": "I am angry that so many sons of the powerful and well placed and many professional athletes (who were probably healthier than any of us) managed to wangle slots in Reserve and National Guard units. Of the many tragedies of Vietnam, this raw class discrimination strikes me as the most damaging to the ideal that all Americans are created equal and owe equal allegiance to our country." If Colin Powell was big enough to overlook the pampering and favoritism that allowed Bush to avoid being shot at and then to go to work for the president and squander his own reputation for integrity in the service of the president's need to find a compelling reason for war, then those of us with lesser cause need to be philosophical about it, too. OK?

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