Bushs War Against the Military

Ian Williams

George W. Bush so often invokes his nom­i­nal title of com­man­der in chief” at vet­er­ans’ ral­lies, on mil­i­tary bases and dur­ing pres­i­den­tial debates that he now appears like some lat­ter-day caudil­lo. But his claims to be a com­man­der of any kind in any seri­ous way are a fig­ment of his imagination.

Dis­count­ing that he sent Amer­i­can troops into Iraq on false pre­tens­es, a real com­man­der would fight for the wel­fare of his troops. But Bush has demon­strat­ed a con­sis­tent unwill­ing­ness to do so, and as a result many high-rank­ing offi­cers have endorsed Ker­ry, includ­ing retired Navy Adm. William Crowe and for­mer chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. John Shalikashvili.

Bush has failed the mil­i­tary on almost every lev­el. While Hal­libur­ton and Boe­ing went to the bank this year with about $10 bil­lion each, under­manned U.S. forces went into Iraq with­out armored vests and dri­ving unar­mored vehi­cles. The fatal results were hid­den from pub­lic view as the dead were secret­ed home and the Depart­ment of Defense (DOD) obscured and jug­gled the num­bers of maimed and wounded.

Once back in the Unit­ed States, vet­er­ans found no fed­er­al wel­come mat laid out for them. By April this year, one in six vet­er­ans of Iraq and Afghanistan had filed ben­e­fits claims with the Vet­er­ans Admin­is­tra­tion for ser­vice-relat­ed dis­abil­i­ties. These fig­ures do not include those troops still serv­ing and are twice the num­ber the DOD Web site says suf­fered Non-Mor­tal Wounds” in those con­flicts. Today, one-third of those claims, almost 10,000, have yet to be processed. Fur­ther, Bush’s 2005 bud­get will cut 540 staff mem­bers of the Vet­er­ans Ben­e­fit Admin­is­tra­tion, which is the office that han­dles the claims. The out­reach depart­ment that lets vets know of avail­able ser­vices also was instruct­ed in a 2002 memo by a deputy under­sec­re­tary in the Vet­er­ans Health Admin­is­tra­tion to run in silent mode to flush out peo­ple who had not made claims out of ignorance.

Even if the war wound­ed suc­ceed in get­ting dis­abil­i­ty pay, in 2003 Bush threat­ened to veto a bill that allowed vet­er­ans to col­lect dis­abil­i­ty pay and pen­sions simultaneously.

In 2003, his admin­is­tra­tion also tried to cut com­bat pay from $225 to $150 a month and the fam­i­ly sep­a­ra­tion allowance from $250 to $100. And most cal­lous­ly of all, the frat brat who ducked a war that killed 48,000 Amer­i­can troops threat­ened to veto a pro­pos­al to dou­ble the $6,000 pay­ment to rel­a­tives of sol­diers killed in action.

That is typ­i­cal of the way in which Pres­i­dent Bush, who loves to dress up in uni­form, treats those who actu­al­ly wear one. As a June 30, 2003, Army Times edi­to­r­i­al con­clud­ed: Pres­i­dent Bush and the Repub­li­can-con­trolled Con­gress have missed no oppor­tu­ni­ty to heap rich­ly deserved praise on the mil­i­tary. But talk is cheap and get­ting cheap­er by the day, judg­ing by the nick­el-and-dime treat­ment the troops are get­ting lately.”

In his ghost­writ­ten 1999 biog­ra­phy A Charge to Keep, an indig­nant Bush wrote: Near­ly twelve thou­sand mem­bers of the armed forces are on food stamps. I sup­port increased pay and bet­ter ben­e­fits and train­ing for our cit­i­zen sol­ders. A vol­un­teer mil­i­tary has only two paths. It can low­er its stan­dards to fill its ranks. Or it can inspire the best and bright­est to join and stay.” Despite four years to do some­thing about it, more than 250,000 mil­i­tary fam­i­lies did not get Bush’s much-vaunt­ed child tax cred­it because their bread­win­ner earned less than $26,000 a year. And in his 2005 bud­get, Bush pro­pos­es only that com­bat pay not count toward eli­gi­bil­i­ty for food stamps — for which no less than 25,000 mil­i­tary fam­i­lies are eligible.

The U.S. Army pay scale is about half that of the British, which is why there is a major cri­sis in mil­i­tary recruit­ment. Senior offi­cers talk about a seri­ous cri­sis” in recruit­ment for the reg­u­lar forces. In addi­tion, the Iraq war has put heavy demands on reservists and guard units. For the first time in 10 years, the guard failed to meet its recruit­ment tar­get. In one Indi­ana unit, for instance, the reen­list­ment rate has dropped from 85 per­cent to 32 percent.

You would think that the Bush admin­is­tra­tion would be solic­i­tous of the foot sol­diers who car­ry out its impe­r­i­al ambi­tions. But this admin­is­tra­tion is mil­i­taris­tic, not pro-mil­i­tary. Most of its mem­bers sed­u­lous­ly avoid­ed com­bat and uni­formed ser­vice of any kind in pre­vi­ous wars and most cur­rent enlist­ed per­son­nel come from small town, blue-col­lar Amer­i­ca, pre­cise­ly the peo­ple whose voic­es are among the least heard. It is no sur­prise that Labor Sec­re­tary Elaine Chao’s pro­pos­als for cut­ting back legal enti­tle­ment to over­time pay this year includ­ed all those who had learned their skill in the military.

All of this pen­ny-pinch­ing may seem strange in light of Bush’s des­per­ate attempts to asso­ciate him­self with the mil­i­tary. But when he dons a flak jack­et, the pres­i­dent is not look­ing to win over those GIs who have just had their term extend­ed on stop-loss orders, but those TV-view­ing vot­ers who put the mil­i­tary on a pedestal as the guar­an­tor of Amer­i­can virtues.

Ian Williams is the author of Desert­er: Bush’s War on Mil­i­tary Fam­i­lies, Vet­er­ans and His Past, now avail­able from Nation Books.
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