Bush's National Guard Story

My position on the whole Vietnam war/draft dodging issue is this: I don't begrudge anyone for trying to avoid service in that horribly misguided war except those who supported the war and refused to go and fight in it. For those who were against the war and avoided service, whether it was through conscientious objector status, going to Canada, getting deferments, faking health problems, or just plain burning their draft cards and refusing to go, thereby risking arrest, I admire their commitment to principle. For those who went and fought, regardless of how they felt about the legitimacy of the war, I admire their courage even if that was not the decision I would make. And whatever anyone did during that war, including many of the atrocities that were committed, I think the blame should lie with the old men in Washington who put hundreds of thousands of scared young men into a horrible situation where they could not tell friend from foe, not with those young men themselves. So I'm willing to forgive nearly anyone for what they did in that situation.

The only ones I exempt from that forgiveness are those who supported the war, but refused to go and fight in it, or refused to send their sons to fight in it. I can think of no more obvious example of false and fraudulent patriotism than this. Those who fought against the Vietnam War, who tried to get our government to stop sending men to kill and die for nothing, were patriots. Those who fought IN the Vietnam War, whether they supported it or not, were patriots. In both cases, they were doing what they thought was right for their country. But those who supported the war but refused to put their lilly white asses (or their sons') on the line for that belief didn't give a damn about what was best for their country, only what was safe and expedient for them.

So along comes the story about Bush and the National Guard, and two memos that were released on Wednesday night. I don't think anyone could seriously doubt that Bush's father pulled strings to get him in to the Air Guard so he could avoid going to Vietnam. That has long been on the record, with Ben Barnes, then Lt. Governor of Texas, having testified under oath that he had called the commander of the Air Guard to secure a spot for Bush at the request of Sid Alger, a close friend of the elder George Bush. If you want proof that that much is true, just look at the pathetic response from Ed Gillespie, the chairman of the Republican Party, to Ben Barnes' appearance on 60 Minutes:

"And tonight on CBS, longtime Democratic operative Ben Barnes -- a friend of, major contributor to and Nantucket neighbor of Senator Kerry's and vice chair of the Kerry Campaign--will repudiate his statement under oath that he had no contact with the Bush family concerning the president's National Guard service. (Anyone surprised that Barnes would contradict a statement he made under oath probably doesn't know his long history of political scandal and financial misdealings.)"

A brilliant example of the political lie in action. Start with the suggestion that he is biased, end with impugning his integrity, and in the middle tell a big whopping lie. The fact is that Barnes has always said that the request to get Dubya a spot in the guard came from Sid Alger, a family friend, not from a member of the Bush family. He said that in his testimony in 1999, and he will say so again. There simply is no inconsistency there. But the fact that Gillespie had to give such an idiotic and dishonest response to Barnes' accusations clearly indicates that there was no actual substantive response to be made. In other words, there's really no good response to the accusation that Bush got into the air guard because strings were pulled, because that accusation is true.

And by the way, Barnes also said that he made such calls on behalf of numerous sons of the rich and famous. The Texas Air Guard at the time included a large number of them, including the son of Lloyd Bentsen, who had defeated the elder Bush in a Senate race, and numerous members of the Dallas Cowboys. So this was just the way things worked - the sons of the poor and middle class were sent off to kill and die in an unjust and unjustified war, while the sons of the rich and powerful stayed home in cushy assignments, bravely defending Dallas against a Vietcong invasion.

Anyway, now that we've established that Bush got in to the Guard by pulling strings, now we've got evidence that he got out of the Guard the same way. There is a famous gap in his records from mid-1972 to mid-1973, where he didn't show up for drills in Texas and was suspended from flight status because he failed to show up to take a physical. These newly released memos from his commanding officer Killian paint a clear picture of political manipulation:

Using only last names, one of the newly disclosed documents points to sharp disagreement among Bush's superiors in Texas over how to evaluate his performance for the period from mid-1972 through mid-1973.

"Staudt has obviously pressured Hodges more about Bush," Killian wrote on Aug. 18, 1973. "I'm having trouble running interference and doing my job -- Harris gave me a message today from Grp regarding Bush's OETR and Staudt is pushing to sugar coat it. Bush wasn't here during rating period and I don't have any comments from 187th in Alabama. I will not rate." Grp refers to a military unit and OETR stands for officer efficiency training report.

The memo concludes: "Harris took the call from Grp today. I'll backdate but won't rate. Harris agrees."

At the time, Walter B. Staudt was commander of the Texas National Guard; Lt. Col. Bobby Hodges was one of Bush's superiors in Texas who two years earlier had rated Bush an outstanding young pilot; and Lt. Col. William D. Harris Jr. was another superior of Bush's.

The reality is pretty clear here. The commander of the Texas National Guard was putting pressure on Bush's superiors to backdate documents on Bush's records to make it appear that he had appeared for duty, and to give him a rating for the period that he had missed. But his commanding officer, Killian, was refusing to give a rating to an officer who had not appeared for duty. And remember what this meant - if he had failed to satisfactorily do his duty in the guard, he went on inactive status and was therefore immediately eligible to be drafted and sent to Vietnam.

Also remember that these memos show that what Bush has been saying about the subject for years, and as recently as his interview with Tim Russert in February of this year, has been dishonest. In that interview, he lied when he said that they had released his military records in 2000 (they hadn't, and still haven't, everything that has been released has come out through FOIA requests, most recently from AP). And he also apparently lied when he said that he fulfilled his duties. If he fulfilled his duties in 72 and 73, why was there so much political pressure necessary to get his superior officers to fake the dates and ratings in his military records? The answer, obviously, is that he was lying.

Postscript: One of the things I find most amazing is how frantic some Bush supporters are to pretend that Bush was not the beneficiary of strings being pulled. But this pretense flies in the face of reality that is much larger than Bush, and that there is more than ample evidence for. The sons of the rich and powerful, as a rule, simply did not go to Vietnam (there are very few exceptions, Al Gore being one of them, but even in Vietnam he got the cushiest and safest possible duty and was never in any real danger), despite the fact that, on the whole, they were supportive of the war effort. Colin Powell addressed what everyone knows was the truth in his autobiography:

"I am angry that so many of the sons of the powerful and well-placed 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 their country."

No sane person denies that this was true. But in order to protect Bush from this charge, they have to pretend against all the evidence that he was the exception, that while hundreds of other rich kids from prominent families got special favors to keep them out of combat, he, alone among his peers, did not do that. This despite the longstanding testimony of Barnes, the fact that he got advanced in front of hundreds of applicants, the fact that he scored abysmally on his pilot aptitude test before admission, and the fact that everyone accepts that strings were pulled for virtually all of his peers.

If you want to make the argument that this was the norm, so it's really not a big deal, fine. If you want to make the argument that what happened 30 years ago isn't relevant to what has happened since then, fine. But if you're going to pretend that what obviously happened didn't happen, you're like the guy pissing on someone else's shoes and then telling them it's raining.


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FYI, there's a claim running around some blogs that the two "newly discovered" memos are forgeries. Stripped of all the rhetoric and apologetics, the claim of forgery seems to hinge on two points:
1) both memos are printed in a proportionally spaced font. In 1972, most typewriters used Courier or some other monospace font. It seems odd (to say the least) that the colonel in question would have bothered with switching to a proportional font for a simple memo for the file, when monospace was perfectly adequate.
2) the fourth line of the August 18th memo includes a superscripted "th" in "187th". No standard typewriter typeface in use in 1972 included half-size superscript characters, nor were any necessary. But most modern word processors convert abbreviations like "th" to half-size superscript letters by default. There are a couple of other similar trivial points, like the use of a "right single quote" as opposed to an apostrophe, which is also inconsistent with a 1972 typewriter but is default in a word processor like MS Word.

I haven't decided yet whether I believe the claim of forgery. The August 18th memo can be seen here: http://www.cbsnews.com/htdocs/pdf/BushGuardaugust18.pdf . Indeed, it is in a proportional font, and it does contain the anomalous superscript. OTOH I've yet to see any attempts at counter-arguments, and the sites where I found this have well-known rightist biases.

-- JSW

By Jon Woolf (not verified) on 09 Sep 2004 #permalink

Just to clarify, although parents can certainly encourage (or discourage) their son to join the military, the choice is ultimately that of the son. You can't 'send your son' to war. Maybe real patriots like Bush Sr. (who joined early 'way back in WWII) pulled strings for their sons reluctantly and with no small disappointment.


This has been brought up so many times in the last 5 years, and every time the public has made it clear they don't give a shit if Bush served 'honorably' or not. Every time the Dems bring it up it seems to backfire and have a negative impact on the campaign. Case in point, if the documents do turn out to be forgeries, it completely cleans the slate of all the known instances of not reporting for medical checks or duty.

I really wish we could get off the Vietnam crap in this cycle. It has been a disaster strategy from day 1.

Re: Staudt and the August 18, 1973 memo...

Actually, at the date of the memo, Walter Staudt had been the ex-commander of the Texas National Guard, and an honorably discharged veteran, since March 1, 1972. For what it's worth.