Thursday, August 26, 2004
Does the president deserve to wear this uniform? Yes.
A GREAT BIG MESS. It seems as if the world has narrowed down to just two topics: swift boat vets and the Olympics. There have been some nice moments in the latter, but not very many in the former. So as to be on the record, InstaPunk has a few observations to make about the unseemly Kerry circus. First, we think Kerry has brought this controversy on himself in several ways. He thought he could play both ends against the middle, which is always a dicey proposition but almost suicidal in a case like this one. He believed he could appeal to defense-minded patriots with his combat record in Vietnam while retaining the support of the peaceniks with his anti-war activism in the 1970s. The divide between these two groups is not a fuzzy gray area but a cultural cleavage that has festered in this country for 30 years. When you play such ends against such a middle, the natural result is that you fall into a very deep chasm. That's where he is now. He has also, over the years, seemingly gone out of his way to make his vulnerabilities in the current controversy worse. Unlike every other combat veteran we've met, Kerry has not been modestly taciturn about his wartime exploits. Instead, it appears that he has been continuously garrulous about his heroism in every mass medium he has access to: speeches on the floor of Congress, television and radio shows, books, and even 8 mm film (directed by himself). Before the current blow-up, we had already formed a picture of Kerry as a man who would buttonhole strangers at parties, on airliners, and in doctor's waiting rooms to tell them about his service in Vietnam. Now he seems befuddled that the whole case being made against him rests on his own abundant written and recorded verbiage on the subject. He reminds us of the hopeless bore who is suddenly dismayed that anyone has ever listened to him long enough to take issue with what he says. Well, it can happen, particularly when a big bore runs for the Presidency.
We are also struck by the Democrats' reaction to the swift boat vets. Yes, they have to defend their candidate, but their strategy looks silly on two counts. Trying to smear 250 combat vets because they are (perhaps) smearing one combat vet seems a bit elitist, recalling the anecdote from Kerry's Massachusetts critics which depicts him as constantly asking inconvenient others, "Do you know who I am?" It turns out that smearing a combat vet is unacceptable only when the vet is named John Kerry. The simultaneous effort to pin the whole affair on the Bush administration seems equally arrogant. At the Democratic convention, John Edwards essentially dared the world to seek out Kerry's wartime compatriots to find out who Kerry is. When a bunch of them step forward with a less than pretty picture of who Kerry is, why are the Republicans expressly at fault? If we're to accept the whole mythic ethos of "band of brothers," how are we supposed to believe that any of the brothers would betray one of their own at the behest of a presidential campaign operative? Unless Kerry actually regards the whole "band of brothers" thing as a useful fiction. Even so, accusations of partisan dirty tricks can do nothing whatsoever to conceal the one fact that is clear in this whole mess: most of the men who served with Kerry in Vietnam do not like or respect him. Karl Rove and George W. Bush did not create that fact, and they cannot make it go away.
Kerry's whining demand that Bush make the swift boat vets shut up would have more resonance if he had forthrightly condemned the endless Democrat bashing of Bush's record in the Texas Air National Guard (ANG). He didn't. He was -- and still is -- fully prepared to accept the benefits of lefty smearing of Bush. He didn't object when Moveon.org compared Bush to Hitler, and his objection to the renewed smearing of Bush's ANG service is a transparent ruse. Make sure that the ad runs and then condemn it as if the same charges hadn't already been made and refuted over and over and over again.
Finally, we can't forget that the Democrats launched the first official party attack in the arena of military service. It was Bill Clinton whose convention speech lumped George W. Bush in with himself and Dick Cheney as men who sought to avoid service in Vietnam. Since Clinton is a confessed draft dodger, it's a mite much for him to claim President Bush as a comrade-in-non-arms. This kind of loose talk makes us want to revisit Bush's military service in the context of the swift boat controversy.
Some of us are old enough to remember the Vietnam War era. We knew people who tried to avoid service in Vietnam. Whatever other motives they had, number one on the list was this: they did not want to get killed. One of the worst ways we can think of to avoid getting killed is volunteering to fly fighter jets. Yet how often has this point been made by any commentator on either side? Even Republicans act as if Bush's ANG service were somehow less than brave and honorable and needs to be excused in some way. InstaPunk knows something of fighter pilots. We reject the notion that a fighter pilot needs to be excused for anything, regardless of whether he served in a zone of war or peace. If you have participated in any of this derision yourself, then provide an honest answer to this question: what would it take for you to strap yourself all alone into a 600-mph chunk of metal, sit on a couple thousand gallons of explosive jet fuel, and fly by instruments at night with another piece of equipment just like yours hurtling along beside you, no more than a few feet away? Would you feel safe doing that, as if you had somehow outsmarted the military's great big death machine? Not sure? Here's what WorldNet Daily reported way back in February 2004, when the lefties were doing their best to bring down George W on the basis of his shameful ANG service:
Flying the F-102, a one-seater jet, was no cakewalk. In fact, it was downright dangerous.
"I was glad to serve, but I just carried a clipboard around; and I tell you, George had a much riskier occupation there in the Guard than I did," said David Perry, who played junior-high school football with Bush at a private academy in Houston.
He says the F-102, weighing in at more than 15 tons at takeoff, was a "flying rock." And it carried just two hour's worth of fuel, with no chance for midair refueling, which meant pilots had to get up and back down relatively quickly or risk running out of fuel.
"That's a risk-taker right there, just going up in that flying rock all the time," said Perry, a staff sergeant who served from 1968 to 1974. "I admire him just for that."
"You risked your life going on any mission in that airplane," he said. "It had some engine problems. It had a gear, called a bull gear, that came apart, and that happened a couple of times to our unit. You lose your fuel control, your hydraulics, your electronics, and it flames out and you're basically a glider, because you can't restart it."
Liles, who worked on the flight line, says he had to ground Bush one night after discovering hydraulic fluid leaking from his plane.
There was also a malfunction in the
F-102's ejection system that could cause a pilot's chest to be crushed
when the seat and parachute were deployed, noted Roome.
The gentleman named Roome quoted above flew with Bush. He didn't
join an organization called 'F-102 Pilots for Truth' and appear in a TV
excoriating Bush's qualifications to be commander-in-chief. He did have this to say, though, in the understated tone we have learned to expect from Chuck Yeager and professional military pilots trained in the U.S.:
"We flew a lot of night missions. We flew in weather together," he said. "Our stock-and-trade was formation (flying). We deployed in elements of two, and we'd have to target in the stratosphere, where we had to snap up to (the target) up above 40,000 feet, or we might have one in the weeds, where we'd have to go down and shadow (it)."
As a wingman, Bush tucked in closely and flew smoothly, he says.
"He was one of my favorite people to ride formation with, because he was smooth. He was a very competent pilot," Roome said. "You sort of bet your life on each other in some of those formation missions, and to me it was always a pleasure to fly with George. He was good."
Bush, who logged more than 625 hours in
the cockpit, ranked in the top 10 percent of his squadron, according to
his performance evaluations.
There's more information here than meets the eye. Now we know that
the F-102 carries two hours worth of fuel (apparently, the F-102 was the Harley Sportster of fighter jets). If Bush flew 625 hours,
that's more than 300 takeoffs and landings. Compressed into, say, a
one-year tour, that would be six flights a week. Even without an enemy
shooting at you, that's more risk than most of us would accept. It
takes guts to be a fighter pilot. Imagine your first solo in an F-102.
You're all alone in a plane you have never flown before. If you screw
up, you may very well die. But there's no other way to learn, which is
unlike virtually every other form of transportation anyone learns to
operate: cars, boats, tanks, helicopters, and most other kinds of planes. Think about it. It beats the first release of the clutch on a motorcycle by about a hundred miles. Put yourself in that moment, then stand up and declare that your president is a cowardly draft dodger for whom you can summon no respect. With the sole exception of his father, George W. Bush is the closest we have ever had in reality to the president fantasized in "Independence Day; The Fourth of July," the movie that drew standing ovations as it earned Hollywood (those guys) a $100 million payday.
Is Bush justified in wearing that flight suit on the deck of the USS
Abraham Lincoln? You bet he is. And shame on those who sneer at any
fighter pilot ever.
There's more in the original
article, which wades through all the various allegations about
Bush's service record and disposes of them pretty convincingly. A few
highlights: he was generally liked, by both officers and enlisted men.
He sought admission to an ANG program that would have sent him to
Vietnam but his application was turned down.
This is the last time -- barring some outrageous legal brouhaha --
that we'll comment on the swift boat thing. There's enough information
out there for people to make up their own minds what they think. That's
as it should be. But we hope that with the arrival of the Republican
Convention, the press and the public can get back to the real issues
that should dominate the campaign. To help this prospect along, we
offer a link to a very lengthy essay by Norman Podhoretz
which takes us all the way back to the Nixon administration and then
through every subsequent administration to the present for the purpose
of helping us understand the nature of the conflict we are now engaged
in -- you know, the one that's happening now, not 30 years ago, and
represents the reason commander-in-chief has become such an important
job title. As we said, the article is long, but it's worth reading
every word. Honestly. (For a capsule characterization of the Podhoretz
essay and another endorsement for reading all of it, look at this.)
And now for a footnote. The pundits keep clamoring about the
irony of a 2004 election campaign that is somehow obsessed with the 30
year old war in Vietnam. It may be unfortunate, but it is not ironic. Vietnam is the
beginning of the schism in our culture that has torn this country into
bitterly hostile camps. It ended but it was never resolved in the
nation's mind. For the first time in its history, the United States
chose to be defeated, to give up, to abandon an ally in extremis.
Giving up is one of those things that can get to be a habit. Oh, it's
too hard... we've given up before... let's just forget about it. It's
also easy to come up with a million good reasons for giving up... why
the objective might not be worthwhile... why our cause might not be
spotlessly pure... why the enemy might not be wrong... why there might
be an easier, less costly, more popular way to achieve approximately (or sort of, kind of) the same
objective. As you read Podhoretz's essay, count the number of times
our country has given up or failed to act vigorously in our own interest since we walked
away from Vietnam a generation ago. And think of the interesting
identities of the two men who are now competing to be
commander-in-chief -- the decorated combat veteran who became a
champion of defeat and the non-combat vet who didn't fight then but is
determined to fight now. Don't these two reflect us in illuminating
ways? Yes, maybe we didn't fight hard enough or for exactly the right things back
then, but we still must decide for certain whether that failure should
prevent us from ever fighting hard and unflinchingly again. Both
candidates face this decision -- if and how to put Vietnam behind us as a
relict of history. We all face exactly the same challenge. Which
candidate we pick will say a great deal about how willing we are to be
controlled by the past.