The Truth, Mainly - 02/16/2004

Advice to president from a non-hero
by Leon Satterfield

So what did you think of that scurrilous editorial cartoon last week?

You know—the one where a tall G.I. named Kerry, complete with gun and Silver Star and Purple Hearts, is looking at a little guy in a "Rent-a-Uniform."

The little guy looks something like the president and he's saying "War was hell there in Alabama with the Air Guard….Didn't fly much toward the end. Post-traumatic stress syndrome. Can't talk about it much. Can't remember much. Records lost….Proud to have served. Mission accomplished. God bless America."

I sense some hackles rising out there. I hear someone saying "So what's your military background, Mr. Smarty-Pants Retired English Teacher?"

Well, since you asked, I'll by golly tell you.

Served in U.S. Army. Heavy weapons infantry company. Overseas. Germany. Deutschland, we called it. Got an honorable discharge.

That's the truth. But it's not the whole truth.

You may look at the picture that goes with this column and assume I'm a cranky old geezer who served in WWII.

Fact of the matter is that I'm a cranky old geezer who arranged to get drafted in 1954 and to get discharged in 1956. When I went in, the fighting in Korea was over. When I got out, the fighting in Vietnam hadn't started.

It was a window of opportunity, and burglar-like, I climbed through it. My motive was crass: the Korean G.I. Bill was still in effect, and it would pay for much of my future college education.

On top of that, I had fun. I took week-end passes and two-week leaves to places like Munich and Salzburg and Zurich and Rome and Florence and Paris and Nice and Naples and London.

The gravest danger I faced was when, befuddled by too much beer at the Hofbrauhaus, I got on the wrong train—the one headed for Czechoslovakia at a time when the Czechs were on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. I fell asleep and a little angel on my shoulder tapped me on the forehead and told me to wake the hell up before I found myself in a gulag. We were at the last stop in Germany when I got off the train.

But I didn't have to shoot at anybody, and nobody shot at me. There was nothing heroic about my service. The motive behind it was selfish.

John Kerry was in a time and place where heroism was not only an option, but at times something like a necessity. George W. Bush, on the other hand, chose the Texas Air National Guard where, like mine, his options for heroism were severely limited.

And here's what he should do now to stop the scurrilous editorial cartoons: admit that being in the Texas Air National Guard in the late 60s, early 70s, was a copout from Vietnam. Not only would voters admire his honesty (it was a copout that many chose), he could experience the exhilaration that comes from revealing self-deprecating truths.

If he doesn't know how to make such an admission, the president should read Richard Cohen's column in the Washington Post last week. It's about Cohen's time in the very loosey-goosey National Guard during the Vietnam War:

"I was…lucky enough to get into a National Guard unit in the nick of time, about a day before I was drafted….I was supposed to attend weekly drills and summer camp, but I found them inconvenient. I 'moved' to California and then 'moved' back to New York, establishing a confusing paper trail that led, really, nowhere. For two years or so, I played a perfectly legal form of hooky….I even got paid for all the meetings I missed….I have no shame about my service, but I know it for what it was."

Why can't the president talk that way about his military experience?

Instead, in his interview with Tim Russert last Sunday, he said "I did my duty, and it's politics, you know, to kind of ascribe all kinds of motives to me. But I have been through it before. I'm used to it. What I don't like is when people say serving in the Guard may not be a true service."

He's confusing—on purpose, I imagine—what it meant to serve in the Guard during the Vietnam years and what it means to serve in the Guard today. Guardsmen today are quite likely to see combat. Guardsmen then were not.

It's a distinction the president doesn't want to make. He implies that Guard service in his time was as perilous as it is now.

Which is about like implying that my military time in Europe was as perilous as Sergeant York's or Audie Murphy's.

So come clean, Mr. President. Not only is confession good for the soul, it's fun. And it might even win some votes.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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