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.
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