Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Leadership Bowl: Post-Game Wrap

Thanks to everyone who commented on the Leadership Bowl post. Art Deco made some good comments, which I'll address here with some additional observations. That'll serve as the post-game wrap. Art's words in blue, mine in black.

1. Is there any evidence that Mr. Gore was aware that he was assigned a bodyguard?

There is no evidence that Mr. Gore thought the armed fellows who hovered around him were anything besides combat photographers who didn't use cameras.

2. Is it your contention that Mr. Gore should have been expected to be an enthusiast for patriotic sacrifice in combat given that at the time he entered the military the withdrawal of American troops for reasons-of-state ("getting out as a matter of policy and not as a matter of defeat" is how Henry Kissinger put it retrospectively) was the stated government policy?

No, that is not my contention.

3. Most of Mr. Kerry's compatriots in the Mekong Delta appear to have been unimpressed with him, there are indications that he was visibly upset at being told of this posting, the lily of his service may have been gilded, and he has likely lied about aspects of it in the telling, but he remains nevertheless one of a small minority (~3% perhaps) of those men born during the years running from 1939-54 who did spend time in a combat zone. Can we give him credit for that?

Yes, we can, because in my view he came out of the Vietnam era with far more moral credit than George Bush. At least John went to where the North Vietnamese army could shoot at him and where, in fact, they did shoot at him. The impression I got of John Kerry from the Swift Boat website is that he was a more timid, brass-plated version of Winston Churchill, who also used military exploits and connections to further his own career. But John Kerry didn't participate in one of the last cavalry charges in military history, and he didn't spend a year in or near the trenches commanding a regiment on the Western Front. And try as I might, I can't see John Kerry giving and understanding the "blood toil and tears" speech. So that's why I gave democracy the field goal, but not a touchdown.

4. If physical cowardice is one of Mr. Bush's faults, why would he volunteer for service in a National Guard unit where he would be learning to fly fighter planes (of a model with, by some accounts, a poor safety record) and of which some members were in fact posted to Indochina? (Please try to avoid stereotyped answers like, "because he was stupid").

To the contrary, Bush's choice (like all self-interested choices) was very shrewd. He had the lowest possible score on the aptitude test for pilot training. He rightly concluded that, as the son of a sitting Texas congressman, he would have a better chance of selection for pilot duty in the Texas Air National Guard ("TANG") than the U.S. Air Force. I note that TANG F-102 pilots could participate in a program that rotated them to fly in Vietnam. They needed 500 hours of flight experience. During his four years with the TANG, Bush accumulated over 600 hours of flight time -- but only 278 in the F-102. The 278-hour figure includes time spent in the F-102's training-seat variant. Bush joined the ANG because the alternatives were (a) a chance that he'd go straight to combat in Vietnam, or (b) having a record that shows strings were pulled to keep him from having a chance at going straight to combat in Vietnam.

The temptation at this point is to try changing the debate into whether Vietnam-era Guardsmen are cowards. It's a question I won't dignify with an answer (not that Art's asking it, but others might) because it's got nothing to do with the problem I have with George Bush. I know a few Vietnam-era guardsmen, and I'm related to one. Had I been 18 in 1966 I might have joined the Guard myself. I don't have problems with men who want to live in solidarity with a community which lets them remove, or greatly reduce, the chances of fighting in a terrible and witless war. But I would start having problems with them if they wanted to be War Chieftains, fighter-jock presidents doing a carrier landing under a banner that says "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED" and doesn't say "BY OTHER GUYS AT SOME UNDETERMINED POINT IN THE FUTURE."

Yes, and Art's right to point it out, that the quotations from Bush, Kerry and Gore are my own inventions. They're like the last words famously attributed to the Old Guard at Waterloo. History records them as, "The Old Guard dies, but never surrenders!" In fact, the reply to Wellington's surrender offer was Merde!. But the reality and the invention convey the same meaning, and while I don't pretend to have a running transcript of Bush, Clinton, and Gore's speech during the years involved, I think there's enough accuracy in them to absolve me of slander. There is a common trait that binds these men, although it binds Kerry less than the others.

The common trait isn't what we usually mean by "physical cowardice." In my view, "physical cowardice" can refer to villainy, but it can also embrace the ordinary and healthy reaction of any human being to the prospect of fighting in a war. I should be very nervous and unhappy if, finding myself in a military unit, I realized that my commanding officer were incapable of experiencing any trepidation whatsoever at the prospect of injury or death, and wished only to cover himself and my corpse with glory. I should instead like my commanding officer to wish, with at least some sincerity, that he didn't have to issue orders requiring me or anyone else suffer or die before he goes ahead and issues those orders anyway because they are militarily necessary. In that regard, I would not expect to find that my officer was omniscient, or demand from him a guarantee of success, before obeying. War is fighting, fighting means killing, and killing means dying. Bush, Clinton and Gore aren't odious because they chose not to risk death on the battlefield.

The disturbing thing about their choices, the common trait, is not the existence of "physical cowardice." Each of them made the decision that their lives were too valuable, too full of prospect, to be submitted to the outrageous fortunes of combat. Fair enough, perhaps, for a private citizen in a modern state. But it would take a deliberately-enforced naivete to conclude that Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and George Bush were merely private citizens who intended to live quiet lives. They were set on political success, on advancement to positions of leadership, from their early adulthood. While Bill Clinton's ambition was the most obvious, Bush and Gore ran for congress within five years of leaving their military posts. I don't mind the desire for private life or ambition for public office. I mind the idea that a man following the first path should incur no greater risk of harm or suffering than a man who follows the second.

I have no quarrel with men who absent themselves from war, or combat in war, due to reasons of conscience clearly stated so long as they take their lumps in the public arena. That is crucial, for an individual conscience is worthy of respect only to the extent it's honestly directed at the right ordering of society. The acid test of that direction is a man's willingness to suffer at the hands of the community whose right ordering he supposedly desires. Christ took that test, and passed it, not least because He wanted to show us how necessary and expensive a conscience can be. So we should judge Eugene Debs an honorable man, whether or not we think he was right to oppose World War I, because Debs went to jail for opposing it.

Clinton, Gore, Bush -- they didn't take that test. From what I know of their lives, it seems they were oblivious to the whole matter or, at best, regarded it as a nuisance to be negotiated by dodges that would make a tax lawyer blush. And it is not right, it is not fitting, for men in government to have shaped their characters on the idea that service depends on the absence of risk and one's individual preferences. Bush and Gore didn't join merely to avoid serving in a war. They, like Kerry, also joined for the political eclat that comes with having served in wartime. Bush, Clinton and Gore wanted high office, they wanted to lead, but they wanted it cheap. These men didn't serve. They postured. Clinton, Gore and Bush are worse than other men, not because their souls blinked, but because they wanted to be chieftains without suffering for the people.

There are signs that the British are perilously close to the Gore/Bush mark. One of them is that bit of Clarence House nattering about the Prince's presence in combat creating "an additional risk to those he commands or himself." I don't know how many British soldiers want to "hold their manhoods cheap" but apparently someone at Clarence House thinks there are more than a few. Assuming the British won't degrade Prince Harry by a "photo op" tour of duty, he will be going where his countrymen are fighting, and dying, because the royal family must suffer for the people. That is a deep truth of human community and a law of leadership. Three of our last five presidential candidates neither learned nor obeyed it, although they didn't mind other men doing so in the Delta, Sarajevo, the Mog, and Fallujah.

So Democracy gets a field goal for Kerry. Put Bob Dole on the field and the score's 10-7 against monarchy. But the season of Dole's glory has been long over. Perhaps it will begin again, when the country can value the obedience and service of more recent veterans.

No comments: