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Why Bush’s Vietnam War Record Matters

Chen Zhao

Recently, questions have surfaced regarding President George W. Bush’s service, or lack thereof, in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. After graduating from Yale, Bush enlisted in the National Guard in a unit referred to by some as the “champagne unit,” so dubbed because of the unusually large number of wealthy or politically connected individuals in the unit, including Bush.

The president supposedly served from 1968-1973, during which time he never went to Vietnam or flew in combat. However, in 1972, he requested to be transferred to the Alabama base in order to work on a political campaign there. It was during that time that Bush seems to have disappeared from the radar screen of the National Guard. There is an entire six-month period during which he received no payment, meaning he did not once report for duty. According to the Democratic National Committee, two Ellington Air Force Base commanders said in 1973 that they could not evaluate Bush’s performance there because he had failed to appear for an entire year. The story is still developing, as the Bush White House has begun releasing documents pertaining to the allegations and various individuals concerned with the matter are coming forward.

The important question that comes out of this whole fray is whether these allegations actually amount to something of importance or this is just a petty political maneuver by the Democrats in this crucial election year.

Democrats are certainly going to milk this for all it’s worth. After all, John Kerry, the likely Democratic nominee, is a decorated Vietnam War veteran, with three purple hearts, a bronze star, and a silver star. To veterans, Kerry’s almost too-good-to-be-true record will make Bush’s seeming deception about serving his country seem pathetic. The importance of this issue to the Democratic campaign does not render it a mere product of strategic maneuvering.

The swarming accusations raise important points that should not be dismissed as political mudslinging. First of all, Bush was presented as a character candidate in the last election. Republicans liked to contrast him with Clinton and all the awful connotations that come with that name -- sex, lies, affairs, and more. Any sort of dishonesty regarding military service certainly undermines Bush’s character and begs questions about what other lies he has told. Also, Bush’s questionable record in the National Guard makes Republicans look like hypocrites for making such a big brouhaha in the two presidential elections of the 1990s over Clinton’s lack of military service and his letter thanking an Arkansas official for allowing him to not be drafted to Vietnam because he conscientiously objected to the war.

Perhaps most importantly, President Bush has sent tens of thousands of young men and women from this country to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. The war in Iraq and the Vietnam War are similar in that both provoked severe domestic criticism of the justifications for going to war in the first place. If President Bush would not go and fight for his country in Vietnam, how could he possibly justify sending so many others to go die for this country now? It doesn’t help that the questions surrounding the supposed weapons of mass destruction that the administration used as cause for initiating the war have heated up in recent days.

Joining the National Guard during the Vietnam War was just a convenient way for Bush to avoid being sent to the jungles of Vietnam. Trying to avoid the draft is not necessarily condemnable in and of itself. Bill Clinton avoided the draft and Howard Dean conveniently found a medical excuse to not get drafted. However, these men were conscientious objectors to the war. Nobody should have to fight in a war that he or she does not believe in. Bush, however, mentioned on Meet the Press that he supported the war. It seems, though, that while he was comfortable with other young men being shot at for the benefit of his country, he himself did not find it necessary to join them.

Still, the president claims that there is nothing amiss about his Guard service and that he did adequately serve his country by flying, although never in combat, for the National Guard. If this is true, then he should be able to explain all the holes in the record and why so many who were in the National Guard at the time say that he just disappeared. To date, he has been completely and disappointingly unable to do just that.

President Bush himself made this issue fair game by making national defense and military issues so central a part of his agenda. Last year, Bush converted a speech announcing the end to major combat in Iraq into a flamboyant, extravagant, and expensive show. Sitting in the co-pilot’s seat of a Navy jet, the president made a grand entrance as the pilot made a tail hook landing onto the USS Abraham Lincoln. After that grandiose gesture and other swashbuckling military posturing, as well as the deployment of hordes of American troops to Iraq, where the ever-increasing death toll now stands above 500, Bush cannot dismiss these questions about his own military service. He himself has made military service a front and center issue for this election year.