The danger of broad definitions

February 02, 2004

When categorizing the world I normally break things into large fuzzy groups and then use adjectives of sub-groups to define the details. Thus I would say that bloggers, warbloggers, livejournals, other journals, sexblogs, kidblogs, munivians, and anyone else who maintains a regularly updated web space organized into discrete chronological entries, is involved in the same general activity.

This way of thinking can be dangerous if you use a work in its broad sense that also has an important and detailed technical meaning. Recently Michael Moore and the Democrats have encountered this problem when talking about GWB's service record during the 1970s. It is the meme de jour, especially now that the chairman of the Democratic National Committee has weighed in. Silthery D has a good review of what GWB did and did not do. Jack Balkin emphasizes the importance that the Democratic National Committee is putting on resurrecting this story, suggesting that this portends a nasty campaign season.

What the story boils down to is that:

  • The Bush family pulled strings to get GWB into the Air National Guard where GWB got to peform the dangerous but fun duty of flying jets.
  • GWB trained properly and performed part of his guard duty perfectly normally.
  • GWB went to Alabama to work on a senate campaign and seems to have forgotten to do his guard duty there.
  • GWB missed his flight physical and was taken off of flying status.
  • GWB returned to Texas and then went several months without checking in with the Texas ANG, who thought he was still in Alabama.
  • After nagging and a threat letter, GWB did a mess of catch-up guard assignments before being released early from his obligation in order to go to B-school.

The real question is what do we make of this little narrative?

GWB performed some military service and pulled strings to get away from Vietnam, but so did many other people. GWB missed some Guard training, and the rhetorical question is how do we best depict that missed time. Michael Moore used the most inflammatory term he could find for "missed military service during time of war," not realizing or not caring that the word deserter has a precise definition and penalties under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Desertion generally requires an intent to never return, taking service with another nation, or comparable action. It is a very rare charge. Bush did not desert, he did go AWOL in Alabama and, more importantly, in Texas after his return.

Checking the various military blogs, I see that AWOL is not usually a big deal unless it means that a person misses a required movement or misses participating in a moment of danger: if you go AWOL for a week or two to deal with personal matters, return on your own, and don't miss a movement or a fight, it is generally handled on the local level - at least for enlisted men. This, in effect, is what GWB did. He did not miss any combat operation or any deployment; the Texas ANG was staying put. He missed a batch of drill during the last two years of his required committment. While missing drill during voluntary service after the required obligation is not a big deal, missing drill during your obligation is important.

By all accounts including his own, GWB was drinking and taking cocaine during the early 1970s. He did not skip the flight physical because he was afraid of drug testing - it was not yet being done - but he may have been too hungover or, more likely, meaning to do it next week. I am not sure if during the 1970s officers were expected to hold themselves to a higher level of conduct than enlisted men - at one point there was a clear distinction in terms of honor and expectations between enlisted men and officers, those boundaries have since blurred.

So, a politically connected young man prefers to party and take care of his own business than to fulfill the last portion of his very loosely defined military committment, probably through procrastination rather than ill intent. We can not call GWB a coward, he is not. We can not call him a deserter, he is not. We may even want to cut him some slack because this was during his drinking years. Still, he swore an oath and then forgot to fulfill it. Oaths matter.

We can conclude that this was a young man with a strong sense of entitlement, a willingness to put his own desires before the needs of others, and a selective memory about parts of his past - including a willingness to lie or stonewall in an attempt to cover up something he felt embarrassed about or feared would hurt his political chances. It tells us, in other words, that GWB is a selfish egoist whose sense of honor runs second to his sense of self. And that is not news, nor should it be.

Posted by Red Ted at February 2, 2004 08:52 AM | TrackBack