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He mumbles a prayer and it ends with a smile
The order is given
They move down the line
But he’ll stay behind and he’ll meditate
But it won’t stop the bleeding or ease the hate
Sky pilot, Sky pilot
How high can you fly?
You’ll never, never, never reach the sky.
Eric Burden and the Animals
If a bullfrog had wings, it wouldn’t bump its ass.
The early winter of 1968 was a season of acute anxiety for the young George W. Bush. As his academic career at Yale sputtered to an inglorious denouement, the war in Vietnam was hurtling forward at full-bore with the onset of the Tet Offensive. In those perilous months, there were 350,000 US troops in Vietnam, dying at a rate of more than 350 a week. From Bush’s perch in New Haven, elite hamlet of his birth, the draft loomed, casting a chill shadow over his future.
Bush faced limited options. Unlike his warden-to-be Dick Cheney, this randy bon vivant wasn’t prepared to anchor himself down in early wedlock, which would have entitled him to a marriage deferment. There were too many oats yet to be sown. How many seeds in how many fields? Tough to say precisely, but in the ripe phrase of one of Bush’s drinking buddies from the 1970s: “he bedded nearly every bimbo in West Texas, married or not.”
Alas, the remedial scholar’s grades at Yale, already puffed-up beyond all merit courtesy of his legacy admission, proved to be so paltry that the escape hatch of graduate school was out of the question, too.
Only one sure sanctuary remained: the National Guard.
In January of 1968, Bush sent enquiries to the National Guard. It seems Bush had had an epiphany: he wante to be a pilot, just like his dad. Well, not exactly like Pappy, who was shot down flying a fighter in World War II. Yes, Lil’ Bush wanted to fly fighter jets, but not in dicey combat situations. That, naturally, would defeat the entire purpose of joining the Guard.
In 1989, Bush explained the coarse calculus behind his decision to a reporter from the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, “I’m saying to myself, ‘What do I want to do?’ I think, I don’t want to be an infantry guy as a pilot in Vietnam. What I do decide to want to do [sic] is learn to fly.”
The National Guard commanders responded warmly to Bush’s initial probings, but noted, somewhat ominously for the fratboy flier, that before his application could be accepted he had to submit to a battery of physical and mental tests. Damn, Bush must have shivered, more exams and no helpful tutors from the egghead division of Skull and Bones to guide him through the intellectual shoals!
At the time Bush applied to the National Guard, there were 100,000 other young men in line before him, stalled on a crowded waiting list hoping their number would be called before they were sucked up by the draft and dropped onto the killing fields of the Mekong Delta. In Texas alone, there were 500 applicants frantically vying for only four open slots for fighter pilot-training in the Air National Guard.
At first blush, Bush didn’t seem to have much of a shot at landing one of those choice positions. First, he flunked his medical test. Then he flunked his dental exam. And finally, as Ian Williams reveals in Deserter, his merciless indictment of Bush’s disappearing act in the National Guard, he scores a rock-bottom 25 percent on his pilot aptitude examination. That’s one out of four correct answers, a ratio that is not even a credible mark in cluster-bombing class. To put this achievement in perspective, the average score of applicants taking the pilot aptitude test was 77 percent, a whopping fifty-two percentage points higher than the proud product of the Yale ancestral admissions program. More than 95 percent of the testers scored higher than Bush, the Ivy Leaguer.
Aptitude for piloting a fighter jet notwithstanding, on May 27, 1968, just nervy twelve days before the expiration of his student deferment, Bush the Younger was accepted into the Texas Air National Guard. On his application form under the heading “Background Qualifications,” Bush declares in a refreshing spurt of honesty “None.”
Today the pipsqueak commander-in-chief has exploited the Guard and Army Reserve as a form of covert conscription to beef up troop numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in those days National Guard squadrons were generally not being sent off to the frontlines in Vietnam. But just to be sure, Bush checked the box on his enlistment form saying he was unwilling to do time overseas. That box was a comfy failsafe that is no longer available to young people seduced into signing up as weekend warriors in Bush’s National Guard.
Flush with excitement at his triumphal entry into the Air National Guard, Bush averred to one-and-all that he had caught the flight bug. He duly submitted to the Guard brass a “Statement of Intent,” pledging that he had “applied for pilot training with the goal of making flying a lifetime pursuit and I believe that I can best accomplish this to my own satisfaction as a member of the Air National Guard as long as possible.”
This seems like boilerplate stuff. But it is a crucial document in at least one respect. Getting the dunderheaded Bush air-ready was going to take a lot of training and the Guard wanted to get a guarantee that it would get a minimal return on its investment-if not a special line-item in the appropriations bill, at least commitment from Bush that he would stick around as a pilot for the duration of his commitment, if not beyond. Ian Williams estimates that the Guard spent more than a million dollars training Bush how to fly. Bush was warned that any prolonged absence from the Guard would result in him being ordered to “active duty” for a period of two years.
What the commanders of the Guard may not have known at the time was that in Bush’s mind it was either the Guard or Canada. In 1994, the gunshy Bush, who tortured animals as teen-ager, fessed up to the Houston Chronicle that being sent to Vietnam was simply not an option for him: “I was not prepared to shoot my eardrum out with a shotgun in order to get a deferment. Nor was I willing to go to Canada. So I choose to better myself by learning how to fly airplanesI don’t want to play like I was somebody out there marching when I wasn’t. It was either Canada or the service. Somebody said the Guard was looking for pilots. All I know is, there weren’t that many people trying to be pilots.”
As we now know, there were more than 500 people looking to be pilots in Texas alone, nearly all of them more qualified for the slots than Bush.
So how did this miraculous induction come about? Bush has long denied he got any favored treatment, which would seem unmanly. But there’s now little doubt that the draft evader benefited from at least three pairs of helping hands: Sid Adger, a Texas oilman and Bush family crony, Ben Barnes, then Speaker of the House in Texas, and Gen. James Rose, former commander of the Texas Air National Guard.
The truth began to trickle out in 1999, when Barnes, then a top lobbyist and political fixer in Austin, became a witness in a lawsuit by Laurence Littwin. Littwin was suing the State of Texas for firing him as lottery directory, which he claimed was politically motivated. The Littwin lawsuit is a complex and confusing affair that provides a glimpse at the baseline of corruption pullulating through the Texas political system.
In sum, Littwin claimed that he was forced to hire a company called GTech to run the Texas lottery in order to suppress the real story of how Bush won entry into the Guard-namely that Ben Barnes had pulled strings with Gen. Rose. In the 1990s, Barnes worked a lobbyist for GTech. Indeed, GTech had paid Barnes $23 million for his expert services.
In his deposition, Barnes denied blackmailing Littwin into giving GTech the lucrative contract. But he confessed, with the haughty sense of accomplishment that only an apex politico can impart, that he had indeed opened the backdoor for Bush into the Air National Guard. Barnes said that he responded to a distress beacon from Bush intimate Sid Adger, a now dead Texas oil tycoon, and prevailed on Gen. Rose to adopt the young Bush as a member of the Guard’s flying elite, which then included the war aversive sons of Gov. John Connelly and Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. It helped that Barnes’s chief of staff, Nick Kralj, also served as a top aide-de-camp to the general. Mission accomplished.
But the handouts didn’t stop there. Bush didn’t want to remain a lowly private or corporal in those drab uniforms. He saw himself as officer material. Yet, he had no desire to subject himself to the mental and physical rigors of Officer Candidate School. In his mind, he was a birthright officer. And so it came to be. After a mere six weeks of training, Bush was promoted to the rank 2nd Lieutenant. He didn’t even have his pilot’s license.
In the wake of this astounding achievement, Bush felt it was time for a breather. He abandoned his training with the Guard for two months, hightailing it to the beaches and bars of Florida, where he claimed to have occasionally lent the services of his agile political mind to the senatorial campaign of rightwing, neo-segregationist congressman Ed Gurney, a favorite of Richard Nixon. Gurney won, but his victory was short lived. Gurney was later indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of political corruption, bribery and perjury. He walked away a free man courtesy of a hung jury.
* * *
After the election, Bush headed for Moody Air Base in Georgia to complete his pilot training with the 3559th Student Squadron. Around Thanksgiving, Bush was once again whisked away from the monotony of life as a fighter-pilot-in-training, this time courtesy of Richard Nixon. The president sent a plane to Moody Air Base to pick up the young Bush so that the newly brevetted lieutenant could escort Nixon’s fabulously neurotic (and what progeny of Nixon’s wouldn’t at least be neurotic?) daughter Tricia out on a date. Sparks didn’t fly. The young officer made clumsy advances, which Tricia deftly deflected. She later described Bush as “testy.”
And so the days and weeks of Bush’s service to the country, as commander-in-chief likes to put it, during the war in Vietnam rolled on. His instructors at the Moody Air Base assigned Bush the task of learning how to fly the F-102, an obsolete fighter soon destined for the scrap heap.
Finally, on June 23, 1971 Bush graduated from combat flight training school. Now he was ready to defend the airspace of Texas from hostile incursions from Mexico, Belize or the Virgin Islands.
Except that George the Younger apparently had formed other plans. Without informing the Guard commanders who had saved him going to Vietnam, Bush quietly applied for admission to study law at the University of Texas. For one of the few times in his life, Bush didn’t get immediate gratification.
The flying fratboy’s application to the University of Texas law school was ungraciously declined, despite the pleas of his father, who had just lost a fierce senatorial campaign against Lloyd Bentsen. Whatever its faults, apparently the University of Texas isn’t prone to handing out legacy admissions to New Haven-born whelps of the political elite. Even in Texas, you have to draw the line somewhere.
Sulking at this unfamiliar rebuke, Bush slunk off to Ellington Air Base near Houston to join the 111th Fighter Squadron. By most accounts, his drinking, already problematic, began to intensify. By other accounts, it was during this time in Ellington that Bush began to refamiliarize himself with his narcotic of choice at Yale…cocaine. In his college days, Bush not only snorted, he dealt. Among the haut monde at Yale, he was known as one of the top purveyors of primo Colombian powder in New Haven, dispensing the crystal snow from ounce bags.
Now we come to the crucial lost years of 1971 and 1973. Shortly after Bush arrived at Ellington, his political ambitions begin to percolate to the surface. He tells the Houston Post that he is considering a run for the Texas state senate. His testing of the waters doesn’t excite much interest and nothing comes of it.
So he continues flying, mainly on weekends, over the course of the next year. And he continues getting inebriated. On a trip back to Washington, DC at Christmastime, Bush treats his younger brother to a night cruising the bars of Georgetown. In the early hours of the morning, a shit-faced Bush crashes his car into a row of garbage cans in front of the family house. Roused from his slumbers by the racket outside, his father confronts him in the driveway about driving around drunk. Bush the Younger threatens to pummel his father with his fists, but Marvin, also drunk, intervenes and Bush is sent packing back to Texas.
In April of 1972, two important events coincide. The Air Force mandates drug testing for all pilots during medical exams and Bush takes what will turn out to be his last flight as a pilot for the Air National Guard.
Less than a month later, Bush flees his Texas Guard base for Alabama, where he signs up to work on the congressional campaign of Winton “Red” Blount, a friend of Bush’s father and Nixon’s postmaster general. He didn’t inform his superiors at Ellington that he had left Texas until two weeks later, when he requested a transfer to the 9921st Air Reserve Squadron, a postal unit with no fighter jets. Initially, the transfer is granted.
No one recalls seeing Bush report for duty and there is no documentary record supporting his service there, which, in any event, was to consist primarily of reading flight manuals–an uninviting assignment for the quasi-literate airman. On July 6, Bush is scheduled to take his required flight physical, which will for the first time include a drug test. He fails to show up. Failure to take a flight physical is grounds for immediate suspension of his pilot’s license.
These days Bush claims that he simply blew off the physical because the Guard was phasing out the F-102 and he didn’t expect to be piloting any more flights. This excuse is circumspect for two reasons. First, although the F-102 was on its way out, the jet had not yet been mothballed and Bush still had the opportunity to learn to fly the new generation of fighter jets. Indeed, there was a fleet of them just down the highway at Dannelly Air Base in Alabama. Moreover, the flight physical was a mandatory requirement of service. This was not a matter of getting a permission slip to play intramural polo at Yale. For most Guardsmen, failure to abide by such orders resulted severe consequences, like being compelled to spend two-years in active duty, perhaps in Vietnam.
On July 31, Bush’s transfer to the Montgomery postal unit was overturned by the DC office, which deemed him “ineligible for reassignment to the Air Reserve Squadron. He is ordered to return to Ellington. But Bush doesn’t pay any attention. Instead, he retreated to Miami with his father for the 1972 Republican National Convention, the last hurrah of Nixon.
Two weeks later Bush returns to Alabama, where he files a new transfer request, this time to the 187th TAC Recon Group in Mobile. The transfer is approved on September 5, 1972. The following day the Air Force officially revokes his flight privileges for “failure to accomplish annual medical examination.”
Bush wasn’t alone in losing his wings. The other pilot suspended alongside Bush was none other than his close friend, James M. Bath. Yes, that James Bath, who would in just a few short years become the financial factotum for the Bin Laden family in Texas. In the 1980s, it was Bath, backed by the Bin Laden fortune, who bailed Bush out of the financial ruin he had made of Arbusto Drilling and Harken Energy. Old friends down there are not forgotten.
The de-winged pilot was ordered to report for duty to Lt. Col. William Turnipseed, commander of the 187th Recon Group. The Colonel says he never meet Bush and there is no record that junior ever showed up at the base. “Had he reported in, I would have had some recall, and I do not,” said Col. Turnipseed. “I had been in Texas, done my flight training there. If we had had a first lieutenant from Texas, I would have remembered.”
On September 29, Bush was sent a letter commanding him to appear before the Flying Evaluation Board to explain why he had refused to take the medical exam. Bush never responded. At this point, Bush was not only AWOL, but in breach of two direct orders.
Meanwhile, back in Montgomery, Bush had apparently gone AWOL from the Blount campaign as well. He spent his nights carousing in the bars of Montgomery. He would arrive hung-over at the campaign office in the afternoon, prop his cowboy-booted feet on the desk and recount his night of debauchery. The women workers at the campaign headquarters called Bush the “Texas soufflé.” Full of himself and stuffed with hot air, the blue-haired ladies for Blount snickered.
Blount lost the election, but remained tight with the Bush clan. His company, Blount International, continues to benefit from it close association with the Bushes and their wars. In 1991, Blount International got a multimillion-dollar contract to reconstruct bombed out Kuwait City. Later, it won one of the largest private contracts ever awarded by the Saudi Royal family. Now, Blount’s firm is working as a subcontractor for Halliburton in Iraq.
In the fall of 1972, things began to look grim for the fatuous flyboy from New Haven. The National Guard was on his tail, demanding an explanation for why he had jilted them after they had saved him from Vietnam and had invested a million dollars in teaching him how to fly fighters.
Thanks to the investigations of the intrepid Larry Flynt, we now know that it was in this window of months that Bush apparently got a Houston woman pregnant and gallantly paid for her to have an abortion. It was also in this period that Bush, according to his biographer J.H. Hatfield, was arrested for possession of cocaine. Instead of landing in prison, the judge presiding over the case bent to the pleadings of Bush’s father, then US ambassador to the UN, and ordered the young derelict to perform six month’s worth of community service at PULL, a center for black youths in urban Houston.
Williams’ book Deserter lends circumstantial credence to Hatfield’s account and raises even new questions. According to Bush’s autobiography (ghostwritten by his political au pair, Karen Hughes), A Charge to Keep, he met former Houston Oiler tight end John White in December of 1972. White, Bush claims, asked him to come work full-time at his Houston youth center, called Project-PULL. Bush, who until this charmed moment had never exhibited the slightest charitable instinct, agreed. He started work at PULL in January of 1973.
Now keep in mind that Bush supposedly already had a job, working for the National Guard. Yet over the next six months there’s not one confirmed Bush sighting by his Guard commanders. In the ornithology of the Air National Guard, Bush is the rarest and stealthiest of birds, passing through Guard air space like a ghostly passenger pigeon. Indeed, when his superiors tried to fill out an annual evaluation of Bush’s service they are unable to complete the form, writing on May 2, 1973: “Lt. Bush has not been observed at this unit during the period of the report.”
A month later, National Guard HQ in Washington sent Texas Guard commanders an official query about Bush. The DC brass instructed the Texas crew to prepare a Form 77a on Bush “so this officer can be rated in the position he held.” The Texas Guard, then run by Bush family cronies who now saw themselves implicated in the transgressions of the absconder fratboy, balks at the order. Indeed, they delay filing a response until November 12, 1973, by which time Bush has been honorably discharged from the Guard. Even then the response from the Texas HQ is coy, though ripe with nefarious possibilities: “Not rated for the period 1 May 1972 through 30 April 73. Report for this period unavailable for administrative reasons.”
So it seemed that the bureaucratic vise beginning to squeeze young George. Then mysteriously Bush is recorded as having performed 36 days of duty between May and July of 1973. Bush doesn’t recall precisely what he did. There are no pay records to confirm his service. No one in the Guard witnessed him on the base. Indeed, Bush couldn’t have done the Guard service because by his own admission he was working full-time for John White at PULL-if he’d gone AWOL from that job he might have very well landed in jail. It now seems likely that the entry of those 36 days of service was post-dated by someone in the Texas office not only to protect Bush, but also to shield his retinue of enablers in the high command of the Texas Air National Guard.
In September Bush completed his tour of duty at PULL, applied to grad school, and despite being AWOL from the National Guard from May of 1972 through October of 1973, is granted an honorable discharge.
That fall Bush evacuated to Cambridge, making a soft landing at Harvard Business School, another reliable safehouse for the brattish scions of the ruling class. Fellow students at Harvard remember Bush prancing into lecture halls wearing his uniform. Even then, he had a taste for military cross-dressing, though no one in the Massachusetts National Guard ever recalls the tyro-in-a-jumpsuit showing up for duty at the base–although he did drop by once to have his choppers cleaned gratis by the Guard’s dentist.
Whenever Bush plays dress-up, as he does at nearly every photo-op on a military site from the USS Lincoln to torture seminar rooms at Ft. Bragg, he comes off as the missing member of the Village People, which mayy explains his enduring appeal to the latent types manning the controls of the Christian right these days.
In the mid-1990s, as Bush began to plot his run for the White House, the governor and his handlers (Dan Bartlett, Karen Hughes and Karl Rove) realized that Bush’s missing years in the Guard might prove problematic. After all, during the 1992 presidential campaign, Bush’s father assaulted Clinton for his deft manipulation of Col. Eugene Holmes, the commander of Arkansas’s ROTC, to sidestep the draft.
Bush’s dilemma was trickier and more unseemly than Clinton’s. In order to escape service in Vietnam, he had exploited his family’s political connections to secure a choice spot in the Texas Air National Guard, despite failing his pilot aptitude test. Though a blatant act of patronage, Bush was promoted to officer status before he earned his pilot’s license and without going to officer training school. He refused to take his mandatory flight physical and also refused to show up for a mandatory evaluation. He went AWOL for a year and a half and then requested and received an early discharge. All this after promising to “serve as long as possible” and to devote himself to a lifetime of high flying…flying planes, that is.
In the offices of the Texas Air Guard there were records documenting Bush’s dubious career and exposing the holes in his extravagent version of his military service to the country. The most potentially damning of those documents (Bush’s pay records) are now missing. Where did they go?
One intriguing explanation comes from Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, a top aide to Maj. Gen. Daniel James, III, then commander of the Texas Air National Guard. In 1997, Burkett claims he was just outside the open door of Maj. Gen. James’s office when the general received a conference call from Joe Allbaugh, Bush’s chief of staff, and Dan Bartlett, Bush’s communications director. The conversation played out over James’s speakerphone, where Burkett claims he overheard Bush’s men order James to cleanse Bush’s military files. Burkett said he recalled Allbaugh’s saying: “We certainly don’t want anything that is embarrassing in there.”
A few days later, Burkett says that he saw Brig. Gen. John Scribner dispose of Bush’s pay and performance records in a 15-gallon metal waste can inside the Texas Air National Guard Musuem. “The files had been gone through over the years,” Scribner quipped to Burkett, pointing to the garbage can. “Not as much in here as I thought.” Apparently, this was a mop-up operation to make sure that nothing had been missed in previous search-and-destroy raids on Bush’s files.
Burkett went public with his recollections in the spring of 2004 during the mini-tempest in the corporate press over Bush’s military record sparked by Michael Moore’s assertion that the president was a “deserter.” The president’s praetorian guard went into action, smearing Burkett as a disgruntled malcontent with an ax to grind against Maj. Gen. James, who Bush had elevated to the head of the Air National Guard for the entire country. Although the Burkett story quickly faded, phone records and other documents back up the circumstances of his claims. And Burkett himself hasn’t backed down despite the assaults on his character from Bush’s political mercenaries. “If President Bush is going to be the first president in over one hundred years that puts himself in a uniform and uses taxpayer’s money for a photo opportunity to land on a flight deck and say hooray,” Burkett told reporters. “He’s put it on the table and we deserve to know.” But the press bus had long since pulled away, never to return to the scene of the crime.
Given this vaporous record of service during Vietnam, it takes a perverse kind of hubris for Bush to assail the military careers of a POW (John McCain), a bona fide killing machine (John Kerry) and a triple amputee (Max Cleland). It’s the trademark of a pampered bully.
* * *
The moment George Bush refused to go spill blood in Vietnam may have been the moral Everest of his life. But he has long since buried that singular act of conscience beneath a stench-heap of warped psychological projection and ethical hypocrisy. The president remains a stunted brat and a coward at the core, dodging rules he forces others to abide by with unforgiving strictness. Festooned in a flight jacket he never deserved, Bush has ordered National Guard troops into a bloody desert war he and his chickenhawk cronies launched under fabricated pretexts. Then in order to hand out tax breaks to the super-rich and billion-dollar contracts to favored arms makers, Bush scrimped on the funding of his precious war itself: too few troops, under-armed, over-worked, operating with no occupation plan and no exit strategy.
In their quest to transfer every possible federal dollar to their fatcat base, the Bush regime even went so far as to try to slash combat pay and separation allowances and increase co-payments for the treatment of those maimed in battle. Although he opted out of the Guard early, Bush has now implemented (perhaps illegally) “stop-losses” orders, a kind press-ganging by Oval Office fiat that keeps National Guard and Reserve troops in Iraq far beyond their contracted tour of duty. In essence, they are war slaves.
When the Iraqi resistance surfaced with a vengeance after Bush made his premature declaration of victory, the faux-warrior taunted them by sneering, “Bring it on.” They did. And more than 700 American soldiers have perished since the delivery of that infamous sideline chant, tossed off as if the president were still a flighty cheerleader at Andover. To top it off, while Bush still refuses to attend funeral ceremonies for slain soldiers, he wasted no time in trying to slash death benefits for military families. And on and on it goes.
Explain his actions? Not then, not now, not ever.
Just as he stiffed the Flight Evaluation Board in 1972, Bush now refuses to offer an explanation for his illegal and unjust war that has killed and maimed tens of thousands. “I’m the commander–see, I don’t need to explain,” Bush brayed in his best Mafia capo syntax to Bob Woodward. “I do not need to explain why I say things. That’s the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel I owe anybody an explanation.” That’s the distilled essence of George W. Bush from his very own mouth: a bellicose and imperious buffoon who has never once been held to account for the mayhem he leaves in his wake.
So yet again Bush has succeeded in doing the impossible: he has sullied the once heroic term “draft evader.”
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature, as well as Imperial Crusades: Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia and Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils, both with Alexander Cockburn.