Politics & Policy

Dubya’S Wing Men

The lessons of Vietnam were different for Bush and Kerry.

Why are the president’s supporters so defensive whenever the President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard comes up? Does the fact that John Kerry fought in Vietnam, and George Bush didn’t, make Kerry a better wartime leader?

Some of the hyper-libs are saying that Bush’s service in the 111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron was the equivalent of draft dodging. They’re also saying–and the too willing media are buying–the idea that Senator Kerry’s combat experience would have to make him a better wartime president than Bush. Both points are false. The real issue is what did each of them learn in the Vietnam days, and how those lessons shape their present-day thinking.

First, let’s dispense with the idea that Bush was some sort of chicken hawk, hiding in the National Guard while others risked their lives. According to four of the pilots who flew with him, then-Lieutenant George W. Bush was a better-than-average pilot who did a dangerous job very well.

If all you know about flying fighters was learned watching Tom Cruise in Top Gun, you can be forgiven for thinking it’s nothing but reckless fun, hard drinking, and a steady stream of beautiful girls. (That’s only what the jet jocks want you to believe). The reality is that it’s a hazardous business that will kill you–long before any enemy gets the chance to–if you aren’t up to the job. My college roommate, retired Air Force Colonel Ed Atkins, flew fighters for 20 years. Ed told me, “Anybody who thinks that flying fighters is not exhausting physically, demanding intellectually, and tough emotionally just has no clue about the complexity of air combat.” He added, “I’ve flown check rides as everything from a second lieutenant to a colonel. The [flight examiner] doesn’t give a damn if your dad was George H.W. Bush, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Jesus or Moses. The only question is, ‘can you hack the mission?’” And it’s harder to do in some aircraft than others. Dubya had the right stuff.

Retired Col. Bill Campenni was one of President Bush’s squadron mates. The Texas ANG had the F-102, and probably wished it didn’t. According to Campenni, “The F-102 was underpowered and, unlike modern fighters, had a split front view through the canopy. It literally had a bar down the center, so you’d have one eye on each side of the bar. It also had a built in altimeter error of up to 500 feet, which made it interesting when you were at 500 feet out over the ocean at night.” Flying and training in the ‘102 was a dangerous job that required a lot of smarts and flying skill.

Bob Harmon is another of Bush’s former squadron mates. At the time, Harmon was an instructor pilot. He remembers Bush as a “young, affable guy” and an above-average pilot, very good for his level of experience. “We flew together two or three times a month.” It was dangerous duty. Harmon said that a couple of pilots were killed in F-102 accidents while Bush was there.

The first American jet fighters to be deployed to Vietnam were F-102s of the 509th Fighter Interceptor Squadron. When Lt. Bush signed up for fighters and joined the 111th FIS, he stood ready to deploy to Vietnam, as did every other Air National Guard pilot. In fact, he tried to volunteer for Vietnam.

Of the four pilots I spoke to who flew with Bush in the Texas days, Fred Bradley knew him best. They had met before going off to the year-long ordeal of pilot school, and entered the 111th at about the same time. Both were junior lieutenants without a lot of flying experience. But the inexperience didn’t prevent Bush–along with Bradley–from going to their squadron leaders to see if they could get into a program called “Palace Alert.” “There were four of us lieutenants at the time, and we were all fairly close. Two of them had more flight time than the president and me, said Bradley.” All four volunteered for Vietnam (Bradley doesn’t remember whether he and Bush actually signed paperwork, but he specifically remembers both Bush and himself trying to get into the Palace Alert Vietnam program.) Bush and Bradley were turned away, and the two more senior pilots went to Vietnam.

Joe Glavin, another member of Dubya’s squadron said, “There were always a core of the guys who were the “in guys” and [Bush] was in the middle of it…George’s difference was that we all knew that his daddy was rich and that he was smarter than the rest of us.” Smarter? “I don’t understand where [people saying Dubya is a dummy] comes from.” Glavin explained that because their squadron was an active duty squadron, they always had two aircraft–armed and fueled–standing on the taxiway on what is called “plus five” alert. From the time the horn blows, until the time the aircraft was wheels-up on takeoff had to be five minutes or less.

Glavin said, “When we had to sit alerts, there were two pilots, and two crew chiefs that sat out in the alert barn. George was like everybody else, except while George was over in a corner reading somebody’s autobiography, the rest of us were watching Hee Haw.”

Glavin remembers Bush as a pilot who had learned good judgment, not a Hollywood hot dog. He told me of one night when the two were on alert and were scrambled to run a practice intercept over the Gulf of Mexico. Bush went out long and high, and turned back at supersonic speed. Glavin also went supersonic and then his radio failed. At that point, the two F-102s were approaching each other at a combined speed of about 1,800 miles an hour. At 20 miles–about 45 seconds before the paths would cross–Bush broke off the intercept. “We went to debrief with the controller and the controller said to George, why’d you break off the intercept? George said something to the effect of ‘[here] we’re coming at each other at 1,800 miles an hour and he doesn’t have a radio and you expect me to just sit there?’ He said, ‘we’re not doin’ that.’”

When you fly fighters with any squadron, you’re literally betting your life on your pals’ flying skills, just as they are betting it all on yours. Bush’s old squadron-mates have the same confidence in him now they had when they flew with him. Bradley said, “I’ve always thought he was an intelligent, likeable, level-headed person.” According to Glavin, “George was a smart man, an excellent pilot, and I’d fly with him again tomorrow, and I will vote for him in November.” Which is about as high as praise gets among the jet jocks.

The media–by focusing only on Kerry’s Vietnam service and Bush’s lack of combat time–is blowing a smokescreen to cover a far more important issue than who served where and when. In the 2004 election, we’re not choosing someone to pick up a gun and go at the enemy himself. We’re choosing someone who can lead the nation in time of war.

Kerry is a puzzle: once a warrior, now distrustful of his nation’s power and position in the world. He had a soda-straw-wide view of a war that Americans still don’t agree should have been fought. He came back from it to condemn the war and those who fought it even though some were still being beaten and tortured in North Vietnamese prison camps. He abandoned them for the company of Hanoi Jane to propel himself into politics. Cong. Sam Johnson, who was held prisoner by the North Vietnamese for seven years, was asked about the picture of Kerry sitting near Jane Fonda at an antiwar demonstration. He told the Washington Times, “Seeing this picture of Kerry with her at antiwar demonstrations in the United States just makes me want to throw up.” There is no such revulsion of George Bush among the best of judges: the Vietnam-era military, and those who now go in harm’s way.

The distrust and doubt Kerry learned in Vietnam now colors everything he sees. When John Kerry looks at terrorism he sees a threat we can deal with without going to war. In the Middle East he sees only a Vietnam-like quagmire. Kerry doesn’t believe America can win this war, and lacks the confidence in America to lead it through the conflict.

President Bush is no combat hero, but he served bravely and well in the Vietnam era. His service gave him confidence in his nation and its motives that John Kerry lacks. What Bush has and Kerry doesn’t is the critical difference in character between a president who can lead a nation through a war, and one who cannot.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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