President Bush and the National Guard

02/17/04 12:00AM By Jay Parini
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(Host) Commentator Jay Parini finds it ironic that one of the most recent challenges to President Bush centers on his service in the National Guard - especially considering the Guard's greatly increased role in Iraq.

(Parini) A controversy has erupted over the participation, or nonparticipation, of President George W. Bush in the National Guard during the Vietnam War era. The issue was raised by reporters during the last presidential campaign, but it faded quickly. It has resurfaced in the past weeks, as the next election draws near.

Is this an important issue, or are Democrats just making hay with something beside the point to score election-year points?

There would, I suspect, be no issue at all if the U.S. had not attacked Iraq, preemptively, on what now appear to be false pretenses: the infamous WMD that do or don't exist, depending on your party affiliation.

For obvious reasons, character and experience are important in choosing a president. From May of 1971 until May of 1972, Mr. Bush seems to have been remarkably inconspicuous as a National Guardsman. During eight months in 1972, he was certainly in Alabama, attached to a unit of the Guard in that state. He was paid for serving, but there are no records of his attending any drills there - one dental exam notwithstanding - and the White House has not been able to find a single soldier who remembers seeing him. His immediate superiors say that, to their knowledge, he never appeared. He also, according to a report in the New York Times, failed to show up for an obligatory physical required of all pilots in the National Guard, so his rights to fly planes were withdrawn.

This stuff only matters when considering the wisdom of the choices President Bush has made in the past year, and the way he has projected himself, and American power, in the larger world. His actions have threatened American credibility abroad and may seriously have weakened our armed forces, stretching them - especially the National Guard - beyond their capabilities. The Iraq war had led directly to the deaths of over 500 American soldiers. Thousands more will spend their lives in wheelchairs, or suffer in other ways for decades to come, because of Mr. Bush's actions. Tens of thousands of Iraqis - military personnel and civilians - have been brutally killed or injured by this war. The president's past behavior seems relevant in this context, as it calls into question his commitment to truthfulness and his preparation as a wartime leader.

It hasn't helped that Mr. Bush has cultivated an aggressively combative image: dressing up in a flight suit and landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier to proclaim victory and "the end of major combat" in Iraq. He said, on another occasion before a military audience, that if the opposition in Iraq wished to fight, then "bring it on."

Whatever the real truth about his service in the National Guard, I would recommend that Mr. Bush read the 31st chapter of the Tao Te Ching, a classic of Chinese literature. It is the appropriate response to his cry of "Bring it on." The last stanza goes like this:

The wise leader enters a battle gravely, with sorrow and with great compassion, as if he were attending a funeral.

This is Jay Parini, in Weybridge.

Jay Parini, a poet, novelist and biographer. He teaches at Middlebury College.
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