News & Politics

Soldier of Fortune

A third of George Bush's public speeches have been in a military venue, often in uniform. There is nothing this draft-dodging, Ivy League jock loves as much as playing commander-in-chief.
Editor's Note: The following article is an excerpt based on Ian Williams' new book, "Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans, and His Past."

On a bright and clear afternoon on May 1st 2003, the U.S.S Abraham Lincoln cruised an hour's sailing off-shore from San Diego, California, with its 6,000 crew members marshaled on its four-and-a-half-acre deck. A Navy S-3B Viking roared past, not once, but twice, and then finally circled around to land on the carrier's flight deck, snagging the wires that stopped the plane and its participants from tumbling into the cold Pacific Ocean. The nominal co-pilot had actually been prepared for just that watery contingency – in the White House swimming pool, since the Viking's precious cargo was none other than President George W. Bush.

As the plane snapped to a halt, the assembled crew, and the peak time cable TV viewers, could see that "Navy 1" was emblazoned on the body of the aircraft and that just below the co-pilot's cockpit window, assiduous Navy sign painters had stenciled "George W. Bush Commander-in-Chief." In his chic olive-colored flight suit, combat booted, looking every inch the warrior, with his doffed helmet tucked under one arm, Bush raised his other in salute to the cheers of the sailors gathered under a huge banner declaring "Mission Accomplished."

The Republican obsession with the military has never been as deep or more contrived than under Bush, who has tried to exorcise his somewhat ethereal military career by appearing whenever he can in front of made-to-order audiences at military bases or veterans' rallies. The phrase "commander-in-chief" is rarely off the president's lips, especially when he speaks to the military. Nor does he often miss an opportunity to don some form of uniform to further underline his military title.

In eighteen months, more than one in three of his speeches and policy pronouncements have been at military bases and veterans' gatherings. Not for him the unscripted happenstance of Town Hall meetings with voters or un-choreographed press conferences with inquisitive reporters; he is much happier surrounded by people in uniform, snappily saluting and calling him "Sir" and cheering dutifully whenever he pauses.

President Bush's 2003 May Day flight was an outstanding, but by no means isolated, example of Bush's abuse-by-association of the military. He had tried for a double the day before, attempting to conscript both God and the military on his side by hosting 150 military chaplains for a prayer breakfast in the White House. Just as typical was his staged ceremony on July 1 2003 at the White House, where he welcomed thirty reenlisting service people. "Like many thousands of other soldiers, sailors, airmen, coastguardsmen and marines who reenlist this year, these men and women are answering the highest call of citizenship. ... As commander-in-chief, I assure them, we will stay on the offensive against the enemy."

Bush's dress-up pattern was set long ago, as far back as 1970. While campaigning for his father against Lloyd Bentsen, the future President wore his National Guard flight jacket, which is, of course, an uncanny precursor to that flight onto the deck of the U.S.S Abraham Lincoln. Dressed in military duds, he would then, as now, attract approbation in a way that a less sophisticated, less well-connected, long-haired draft evader would never do, which is why it is a wardrobe choice he now returns to often, from the decks of a battleship to the parade grounds of forts and camps all over America.

A random trawl of the newswires and Defense Department White House archives produces the same dazzling pattern of military camouflage. On August 14 2003, the President was telling it to the Marines, at Miramar Marine base in California, "I am proud to be the commander-in-chief of such a fabulous group of men and women who wear our uniform." In November, he was at it again, issuing a proclamation of National Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve Week, "in honor of employers across America who have shown their support for our National Guardsmen and Reservists. ... These companies have the gratitude of our nation, they have the gratitude of the commander-in-chief." Oh how he loves that title.

His speech on the first anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq was also before a "conscripted" audience at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. There, 20,000 men and women of the 101st Airborne paraded with little handheld flags in their hands and jumbo size banners flying overhead, to provide a backdrop to the President's latest photo-op. For the occasion, the president himself, once again, wore a signature military jacket with "George W. Bush, commander-in chief" over his heart.

Of the many military bases, Fort Hood is the president's favorite, more so since it is conveniently close to his dude ranch in Crawford, Texas. It is also the biggest base in the United States, home to over 40,000 troops. Bush went there during the lead-up to the war in January 2003 to gee up the soldiery in the huge camp, while appropriating the title he loves so much. "Wherever you may be sent, you can know that America is grateful, and your commander-in-chief is confident in your abilities and proud of your service," he told them.

The Department of Defense's web site says the speech produced "more than twenty Hoorahs" for the President, who wore a fetching olive green windcheater emblazoned with the Presidential seal and "Bush, U.S. Army" across his chest. In a way, he looked like Paddington Bear, who also had to be labeled in case he was lost, not least since the commander-in-chief blended so well with the ranks of military personnel dutifully lined up behind him.

Bush was back that April, greeting returning prisoners of war and attending Easter Services in the Church there. That meant he missed the Easter Egg Roll at the White House, which was equally military in spirit. "The youngsters in attendance were children of military families, including the sons and daughters of U.S. troops fighting in Iraq" said the GOP news service. At the Fort Hood Easter Services, the "commander-in-chief" met with two recently returned POWs from Iraq, and threw an arm around the shoulder of one of them, Senior Warrant Officer David S. Williams.

There were not as many waiting to greet him at Easter 2003 as on his New Year visit: By then half the 40,000 troops normally housed at the base were in Iraq missing their Easter eggs. When the Washington Post checked into the neighborhood early in 2004, thirty-five of them were never coming back – all but one of them killed after the President had made his "formalization that tells everybody we're not engaged in combat anymore," the previous May.

Unctuously, in the face of such casualties, the first lady returned to Fort Hood on March 8, 2004, and told a group of military wives that she knows what it's like "having your life turned upside-down because the man you love wants to serve the country he loves." At least she did not wear combat fatigues for the occasion.

Since he has persuaded the majority of Americans, if not the citizens of any other country in the world, that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center, perhaps we should not be surprised at George W. Bush's success in passing himself off as a veteran with so many Americans, including many who are actually combat-seasoned veterans themselves.

Apart from the obvious political benefits of "passing," there are deeply personal reasons why George Bush has wrapped himself in quasi-uniform, which he wears with the same grin of a six-year-old presented with a cowboy suit for Christmas.

From one way of looking at it, all over the world, men and women are now dying and being maimed because George W. Bush had lived through "the war of his generation," without hearing a shot fired in anger. "Little Googen," as his indulgent parents called him, has been trying to emulate his genuinely heroic father – without actually risking his life. Bush's Freudian self-delusion is apparent in Bob Woodward's friendly account, "Bush at War." In the days after September 11, Bush tells Rove, "just like my father's generation was called in World War II, now our generation is being called ... I'm here for a reason."

Bush the Elder, however, was a genuine war hero who left school at 18 and used his family connections to become the youngest pilot in the Navy. But when the government was drafting his contemporaries and sending them to Vietnam, his son joined the Air National Guard in Texas, and ticked the box saying "no" to overseas service: a choice denied most of his contemporaries then, who did not have the Ivy League connections to enter such units. (More importantly, such choices are denied now to the National Guardsmen who were not only called up for service in Iraq, but have found their terms extended while they were out in the desert.)

Bush the Younger is very much the product of his family's move from Yale to Texas after his WWII service. In the East, you were rich because of family but with a concomitant sense of noblesse oblige. In the South, you were rich because God loved you, personally. The resulting combination seems to have stripped out any of old money's sense of obligation in favor of a doubled meme for a sense of entitlement, allowing him to enjoy the benefits of playing soldier without taking any of the risks involved in actually being one. It makes for a draft-dodging president who once told Woodward, "I'm the commander – see, I don't need to explain – I do not need to explain why I say things."

This breathtaking arrogance exemplifies essential qualities that define George W. Bush: the sense of privilege for being born rich; the sense of exaltation that God has chosen him to be rich; and the sexual thrill of being commander-in-chief. To get the same combination of lightweight intellect and ruthless appreciation of power, we have to return, as so often in this administration, to Lewis Carroll, who seems to have anticipated our current president' philosophy in Humpty Dumpty: "The question is, which is to be master – that's all."
Ian Williams writes on the United Nations for Alternet. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus, The Nation, and Salon.