On September 11, 2001, I lived in downtown Manhattan near the World Trade Center. After I heard the bang, I was stuck on the phone for several hours reporting from my fire escape for CBC and BBC. And then, as soon as I could, I headed toward the towers, zigzagging round lower Manhattan to evade the police lines and get as close as possible.
Lots of reporters were behaving in similar ways, and so were thousands of citizens who wanted to help, from ironworkers to doctors, nurses to firemen. And where was George W. Bush? He was zigzagging across North America on Air Force One, trying to stay away from any potential targets. Satellite pictures show it clearly. With all other flights grounded, his contrails left a metaphorical yellow streak across the continent. And now, we are invited to vote for him for his steadfastness in the face of terror and because he is a resolute Commander-in Chief in the war against it.
But in reality he is the leader who pulled the troops from the hunt for Osama- bin Laden, the self-proclaimed perpetrator of September 11, and sent U.S. and allied armies after Saddam ‑Hussein, who is indeed guilty of many things but is indubitably innocent of any involvement in the World Trade Center attacks.
At the Republican National Convention in New York, Bush was compared to Churchill and to FDR — as if the war leaders in 1945 suddenly called off the war in Germany, leaving Hitler running free in the Bavarian Alps, and sent the Allied Forces chasing after Juan Peron in Argentina.
This should come as no surprise to anyone who has looked at the military record of George W. Bush. With a candor that has since disappeared, he told the Houston Chronicle in 1994: “I was not prepared to shoot my eardrum out with a shotgun in order to get a deferment. Nor was I willing to go to Canada. So I chose to better myself by learning how to fly airplanes.”
At the height of the Tet Offensive, when American troops were up against the wall, when the Viet Cong had taken Hue and the American Embassy in Saigon, Bush Clan clout got him into the Texas Air National Guard, despite lousy scores on his pilot aptitude test. Ironically, the unit was known locally as Air Canada because it offered all the benefits of a flight north of the border, without the weather and legal problems. To make doubly sure, he ticked the box saying “No” to overseas service.
In 1972, he went to Alabama and in effect did the same as firing a shotgun next to his ear. After several years of highly expensive flight training, he “failed to accomplish” his flight medical exam, grounding himself as a pilot.
Of course, hundreds of thousands of young men were trying to get out of Vietnam. But Bush then Younger was different. He not only supported the war, he actively campaigned for political candidates who supported it as well. As with Dick Cheney, he had “other priorities.” In fact, Bush’s career is an eloquent depiction of the power that class wields in American society — and the power the class system’s beneficiaries use to delude people into believing it does not exist.
As Colin Powell said in his memoirs — before joining Bush’s cabinet — “I can never forgive a leadership that said, in effect: ‘These young men — poor, less educated, less privileged — are expendable (someone described them as ‘economic cannon fodder’), but the rest are too good to risk.”
Powell added, presciently and inconveniently, “I am angry that so many of the sons of the powerful and well placed … managed to wrangle 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.”
We have now surpassed 1,000 American casualties in Iraq, and Powell’s complaint is even more true. Only eight out of 535 legislators in Washington have children in the military. Half the garrison over in Iraq are members of the National Guard who did not get the option to refuse service overseas.
And while Bush failed to turn up for duty in Alabama (he was campaigning for a Republican candidate), other Guardsmen who did not report were dragooned off for active duty in Vietnam. But the congressman’s son was covered, and the records disappeared for decades.
The scion of East Coast WASP plutocrats who passes himself with some success as a Texan cowboy and self-made businessmen is a draft evader and deserter who parades as a veteran and commander in chief. And in this Bush benefited from the best affirmative action program there is: money.
In Texas, they may call “walking” “swaggering,” but they do know when someone actually walks the walk. When he squirmed his way out of his Guard service early, the University of Texas Law School turned down young Bush because of low grades. He had to go to Harvard, where the family money could provide the raw class discrimination that Powell used to get indignant about.
He has evaded and lied his way through life since. In the public eye he has presented himself as a self-made entrepreneur when at each stage of his life he has been wrapped in the cocoon of the local Texan establishment and his family’s WASP hives in the Skull & Bones and similar covens. They have been there to pick him up when he fell, which was often, and to cover for him when he erred, which was frequently.
His most dangerous charade is his current one. A government controlled by militarists is in some ways more dangerous than one controlled by the military. Since 9/11, Bush has wrapped himself in the flag. He continually refers to himself as “commander-in-chief,” and dresses up, whenever he can, in quasi-uniform. Indeed, he prefers to speak to handpicked military audiences, not the to unruly citizenry off base.
It is a continuation of the same role he had at his Andover prep school — cheerleader for the football team in which his job was to wear funny costumes and lead an appreciative crowd in shared chanting. More sinisterly, you have to look to Fidel Castro or Saddam Hussein to see someone with a similar appreciation for military tailoring and martial backdrops.
After looking closely at his record and behavior, I still don’t know whether what we are seeing is dangerous self-delusion or rampant hypocrisy — or some more perilous combination of the two. One can see why he thinks the Almighty is on his side — so much of the concrete documentation of his sleazy behavior in the Guard seems to have disappeared into oblivion. And who could fail to see God’s hand at work in the way the easily rebuttable lies of the Swift Boat Veterans have been aired incessantly while the irrefutable facts of Bush’s hypocrisy go without mention?
Whatever the editors and producers think, the facts of Bush’s service evasion are important because he has never apologized, nor has he changed. As his pseudo-autobiography puts it, his slogan is “Faith, Family and Friends.” His rich family and friends have indeed been faithful to him, and he has returned their favors a hundred-fold.
And meanwhile more than 1,000 Americans and perhaps 20 times that many Iraqis have died.