Tuesday’s release of George W. Bush’s Air National Guard records should put the issue of his Vietnam-era service to rest. But it won’t. So here are some further observations. The first has to do with his decision to join the Guard rather than wait for the draft or volunteer for active service. The fact is that only one third of age-eligible males served in the military during the Vietnam War era, and only a third of them went to Vietnam. If you do the math, you see that only 11 percent of the age-eligible male population served in Vietnam. If Bush had wanted to “game” things, he could have concluded that if he waited for the draft, he had only a one-in-nine chance of serving in Vietnam. So volunteering for the Guard was a proactive step that he didn’t have to take.
The charge that Bush senior greased the skids for W to join the Texas Air Guard is based on an unsupported inference based on a misreading of the facts. A lot of people who may have desired to serve in the Air Guard did not wish to fulfill the active-duty requirement of two years–for flight school and initial assignment. For the Army Guard, the active-duty period was six months (including basic training, Officer Candidate School and basic-officer training), with the remaining five and a half years served as a drilling reservist.
Besides, Guard duty was not necessarily a way to avoid service in Vietnam. Several Guard and Reserve units were called up for the war. But of course, one reason the Guard was not called up, as it should have been, is that Lyndon Johnson didn’t want to pay the political price of doing so. He had seen what happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was easier for him politically just to draft.
Nonetheless, had Lt. Bush’s unit been flying something other than the F-102, which the Air Force was phasing out in the late 1960s, his interceptor unit could have been called up too. In any event, there were other things going on during the Cold War, like air defense of the United States. That’s the mission Air Guard units like Bush’s had during this time frame.
Had Bush volunteered for active duty in the Air Force, he might have been able to fly right away, but maybe not. By 1969, the pilot pipeline was filling up, leading to waiting lists for flight school. As to why Lt. Bush was granted an early release, by 1972, U.S. participation in the war was winding down. Both the active and reserve components were letting folks leave early. By the way, Lt. Kerry left early too.
A couple of other points: One cannot be AWOL while a reserve or Guardsman in a drill status. One is meeting the required number of drills (one weekend per month and two weeks active duty training some time during the year) or he is not. If one is in an unsatisfactory drilling status, the commanding officer of the drilling reservist or Guardsman can notify the individual that he will be separated from the service after 12 unexcused drills. Once notified, the individual can make up the unexcused drills and return to a satisfactory drilling status. (Thanks to Major Michael C. Griffin USMCR, of Charlotte, N.C., for reminding me of this.)
Finally, the contrast between Bush and Kerry transcends the particulars of their respective service. What I object to with Kerry is that after serving honorably in Vietnam, he returned home and slandered the rest of us who served as war criminals (see my “Vetting the Vet“). He allied himself with the likes of Jane Fonda. Now he wishes once again to be our “brother.” He has forfeited that title as far as I am concerned.
As for Bush, he puts me in mind of Prince Hal, the son of King Henry IV. As a youth he is dissolute to say the least: “a touch of Harry in the night.” But upon his father’s death, he becomes a war leader of the first rank. President Bush’s youth was never as dissolute as Hal’s, but like the future Henry V, he became an effective war leader after 9/11.
–Mackubin Thomas Owens is an NRO contributing editor and a professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in 1968-1969.