Monday, January 26, 2004

AWOL Bush: Debunked? Hardly!

Rapidly following Peter Jennings' lead, right-wing and ostensibly "nonpartisan" pundits in both the mainstream media and the blogosphere are busily claiming that Michael Moore's contention that George W. Bush was a "deserter" has been "debunked," and that Wesley Clark's failure to repudiate him on this point demonstrates his unfitness for the presidency.

They wish.

Fairly typical was Instapundit's characterization that "Clark has been swept into the conspiracy swamp." The post cites work by Bill Hobbs and, while at least giving a nod to Mark Kleiman's worthy counter. Donald Sensing also claims that the charge is bogus. In the meantime, unsurprisingly, Blogs for Bush touts the same work without acknowledging any responses from the other side.

Meanwhile, Clark was on Meet the Press on Sunday and Tim Russert raised the question in the same fashion as Jennings -- though, unlike Jennings, he did not claim that the charge was false, though he clearly intimated that was the case -- without offering any evidence that he himself had examined the facts of the matter. Clark's response was very similar to that of Thursday night to Jennings:
MR. RUSSERT: Is it appropriate to call the president of the United States a deserter?

GEN. CLARK: Well, you know, Tim, I wouldn't have used that term and I don't see the issues that way. This is an election about the future, and what's at stake in this election is the future of how we're going to move ahead with the economy, how we're going to keep the United States safe and what kind of democracy we want to have, whether we want an open, transparent government or whether we want a very closed and secretive government. To me, those are the issues. ...

MR. RUSSERT: But words are important, and as you well know under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, if you're a deserter, the punishment is death during war. Do you disassociate yourself from Michael Moore's comments about the president?

GEN. CLARK: Well, I can't use those words and I don't see the issues in that way. But I will tell you this: that Michael Moore has the right to speak freely. I don't screen what people say when they're going to come up and say something like that. That's his form of dissent, and I support freedom of speech in this country, and I would not have characterized the issues in that way. I think this is an election where we have to look at the future, not at the past. And so what we're doing is we're taking the campaign to the American people on the issues of jobs, education and health care. We can do so much more for people in this country if we just have a government that cares about ordinary people. And that's the way I grew up. ...

MR. RUSSERT: The right of dissent is one thing, but is there any evidence that you know of that President Bush is a deserter from the United States armed forces?

GEN. CLARK: Well, I've never looked into those, Tim. I've heard those allegations. But I think this election has to turn on holding the president accountable for what he's done in office and comparing who has the better vision to take the country forward.

MR. RUSSERT: One of your major supporters uses words like that. Isn't that a distraction?

GEN. CLARK: Well, it's not distracting me, and I don't see any voters out there who are distracted by it. I've talked to people all across this state, and not one single person has mentioned that. I will tell you this about Michael Moore, though. I think he's a man of conscience. I think he's done a lot of great things for ordinary people, working people, across America. And I'm very happy to have his support. He's free to say things, whatever he wants. I'm focused on the issues in this campaign and how to take America forward.

Later, the show's talking heads came on and tut-tutted Clark's response, though none of them -- journalists all -- indicated that they had bothered to examine the facts either. These included David Broder, Gloria Borger, Tom Brokaw and Ron Brownstein, all supposed journalistic heavyweights:
MR. BRODER: Tim, I was at the event where Michael Moore did that introduction and asked General Clark about it immediately after the event. I couldn't believe that he didn't kill that snake immediately. And here it is eight days later...

MR. BROKAW: Right.

MR. BRODER: ...and he's still trying to answer that question.

MR. RUSSERT: Well, Michael Moore is now saying it was a joke.

[Editor's note: BZZZZT! Sorry, Tim. Wrong again!]
MR. BRODER: It was not a joke.

MS. BORGER: Well, it wasn't.

MR. BROKAW: But, also, Clark just a few moments ago, "I haven't checked out those allegations. I had been aware of them."

MS. BORGER: Why not?

MR. BROKAW: That's the phrase that he used. It was. And we do know that he had a big absentee record as a National Guard member in Alabama. That's fixed. But desertion...

MR. BROWNSTEIN: a big--it's definitely...

MR. BROKAW: a very serious, felonious rap.

MR. RUSSERT: Punishable by death.

MR. BROKAW: Right.

On Sunday's CNN Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, the host reiterated his know-nothing performance of the day before -- with, unsurprisingly, Joe Lieberman happily denouncing both Moore and Clark -- leaving it to Terry McAuliffe, chair of the Democratic National Committee to set the record straight:
MCAULIFFE: Well, Wolf, in order to to be a deserter, you have to actually show up.

Let's just deal with the facts. As you know, when President Bush got out of college in 1968, it was at the height of the draft. It's well known that the president, former president, used some of his influence to get George Bush into the Texas National Guard.

He then wanted to go to Alabama and work on a Senate campaign. So he went to Alabama for a year while he was in the National Guard, and he never showed up.

I mean, I would call it AWOL. You call it whatever you want. But the issue is the president did not show up for the year he was in Alabama, when he was supposed to show up for the National Guard.

BLITZER: All right.

MCAULIFFE: And I think that's what Mr. Moore was trying to say. GILLESPIE: Wolf...

BLITZER: Hold on one second. I'm going to let you respond.

But I want to make sure I heard you right. Are you saying you don't dispute what Michael Moore was saying, branding the president of the United States as having been a deserter?

MCAULIFFE: He never should have called him a deserter. There are other issues that you can say -- AWOL, just didn't show up for duty. But he shouldn't have called him a deserter. Let's get out of this discourse in American politics. Let's just deal with the facts.

BLITZER: All right.

MCAULIFFE: The facts are that George Bush didn't show up when he was supposed to in the National Guard, and that's just the fact.

Just as Bob Somerby observed regarding Jennings' performance (and skippy observed about Wolf Blitzer), all of these pundits are glad to attack Clark for failing to adequately investigate the matter -- but show no signs that they have done so either!

Well, the core of the matter is fairly simple, and boils down to two facts that are simply not in dispute:
Bush blew off his physical in the spring of 1972, thereby ignoring a direct order from his superiors.

Bush then definitely performed no drills at all for any unit of the National Guard between early May 1972 and late November 1972 at the earliest. This is a period of nearly seven months.

As Jo Fish at Democratic Veteran has pointed out, the first fact alone is egregious enough:
As an ex-military pilot (and CO of a reserve unit) I can assure you that the powers-that-be do not take disobedience of direct order with too much good grace, nor are they too happy about "rated aviators" who not only let their flight status lapse, but refuse to obey an order to become current again. Fact. No wiggle room. None. You obey or you don't, if you don't you pay. If one of my enlisted troops had been so flagrant about violating a direct order, I would have at least had him/her at an Article 15 hearing (Captains Mast), if it had been an officer, I would have had their nuts. Period.

Then there is the issue of the length of his absence. According to National Guard regulations, missed duty must be made up within the quarter in which the absence occurs. Anyone AWOL for longer than three months, according to other officers, was generally considered a deserter and prosecuted.

Bob Rogers at Progressive Trail -- himself a former military officer -- explains further:
According to the Boston Globe -- the only major publication that has examined the last two years of Bush's military service in depth -- Bush simply "gave up flying" to spend six months on a Republican Senate campaign in Alabama.

But this explanation is highly suspect, because fully trained and currently qualified pilots with two remaining years of flying obligation are rarely permitted to simply "give up" without some form of disciplinary action beyond just suspension.

A pilot's completion of his six-year obligation is especially important because of the heavy investment the Government makes to provide jet fighter pilots with two full years of active duty training. In today's money, the US Government paid close to a million dollars to train 1st Lt. Bush in a highly complex supersonic aircraft.

If you go through the posts defending Bush, including those at, you'll quickly discover that only one of them -- Donald Sensing's -- even addresses these two core points. Sensing claims that one would have to prove that Bush had no intent of returning to active duty.

This is technically true, if one is talking about desertion -- as Moore did. It is not true, however, if one is talking about Bush being Absent Without Leave. (See UCMJ Article 86, which quite clearly states that "Specific intent is not an element of unauthorized absence.") Saying Bush was AWOL is perfectly, wholly, and completely factual.

As Jonathan Chait has observed:
Is it fair to call Bush a "deserter"? Not precisely. Even if he went AWOL during his service for the National Guard, which seems highly likely, most people understand the term "deserter" to mean someone who flees his post during combat. Bush did serve during the Vietnam War, but he was safely ensconced in Texas. (If you reject the charge that Bush was a deserter, then you must also reject the spin that he was valiantly protecting the country during wartime.) Calling Bush a deserter, in other words, is hyperbolic. But it's not the outright fiction Jennings made it out to be.

Incidentally, it is worth noting that Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, on Blitzer's Sunday show, said this:
But Terry's wrong that the president was AWOL in the National Guard. That is not accurate.

Of course, it is Gillespie who in fact is not accurate on this count.

And the desertion charge may not even be wholly without merit, notwithstanding Sensing's argument. In reality, the question of intent isn't merely one of returning to duty, but of returning to the duty for which he had been trained.

Read, for example, the specifics of intent under UCMJ Article 85, the code referring to desertion:
2) Desertion with intent to avoid hazardous duty or to shirk important service.

(a) That the accused quit his or her unit, organization, or other place of duty;

(b) That the accused did so with the intent to avoid a certain duty or shirk a certain service;

(c) That the duty to be performed was hazardous or the service important;

(d) That the accused knew that he or she would be required for such duty or service; and

(e) That the accused remained absent until the date alleged.

It is quite clear, in fact, that there was an intent to "shirk a certain service" -- namely, flying F-102s. Bush did not intend to fly again. This is a matter of his own words, as they appeared in this Dallas Morning News story from the 2000 campaign:
"I can't remember what I did, but I wasn't flying because they didn't have the same airplanes. I fulfilled my obligations."

Indeed, it isn't even clear that Bush in fact was in Alabama. As the Morning News story observes, his superior says Bush never showed up. Moreover, a group of veterans offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could step forward to prove that Bush acutally served in the Alabama Guard. No one ever did.

Finally, it's important to put this in a larger context. As Bob Rogers explains:
In the Air National Guard, expensively trained pilots are not casually suspended. There is normally a Flight Inquiry Board, which exercises the military chain of command's obligation to insure due process. If one had been convened, its three senior officer members would have documented why such a severe action was justified in relation to the country's military objectives at the time, as opposed to the simple desire of a trained pilot to just "give up flying".

In the event of serious misconduct, such as substance abuse, a Flight Inquiry Board would have determined the appropriate punishment. The punishments could have included temporary or permanent 'grounding,' a career-damaging letter of reprimand, forced reenlistment in the US Army with active duty in Vietnam, or a less-than honorable discharge.

In fact, there is no evidence now in the public domain that a Flight Inquiry Board was convened to deal with Bush's official reclassification to a non-flying, grounded status. However, the records of such a Board would not be subject to an ordinary FOIA request because of privacy protections under FOIA.

This absence of a Flight Inquiry Board is of particular interest to veteran pilots who are intimately familiar with normal disciplinary procedures. In the absence of Bush's releasing his complete service record, the implication is that Bush's misconduct in regards to "his failure to accomplish annual medical examination" was handled like everything else in his military service: aided and abetted by powerful family connections with total disregard for the needs of the military as well as Bush's solemn oath.

There are many questions that remain unanswered indeed, and most of the bloggers who defend Bush focus on these questions. It remains open to dispute whether Bush's short-circuited service was actually complete. It is also an open question about the relevance of the honorable discharge, since that is the default discharge, and as some have pointed out, any prosecution of Bush on AWOL or desertion charges would have meant. The absence of portions of his military records -- and the failure of Bush to release those records -- has variously been defended, but not convincingly. Others, including Rogers and Marty Heldt, have argued that Bush's AWOL period was for as long as two years, and that the evidence provided by the Bush people to demonstrate his November 1972 service -- comprised, as it was, of a torn sheet of paper -- was bogus; certainly it was questionable at best, but the matter remains open to dispute. Likewise, there is a good deal of speculation (such as Rogers') that Bush's evasions were based on his purported drug use, but there is simply no evidence of that other than circumstantial.

A few of those on the right have tried to compare Bush's behavior here to Bill Clinton's well-chronicled avoidance of the draft. The difference, of course, is not merely one of degree but substantively of kind: Clinton neither broke the law in his behavior, nor flouted or undermined basic rules of military conduct, nor wasted taxpayer dollars in the process.

Though of course, we all remember how many critics of the mainstream right have referred to Clinton as a "draft dodger" -- which, like "deserter," is a term that refers specifically to acts of law-breaking. But then, I can't recall anyone demanding that George H.W. Bush or Bob Dole renounce the people who uttered those characterizations, either.

UPDATE: Josh Marshall reaches largely the same conclusions, though he says that "it seems pretty clear that a charge of desertion doesn’t apply." As I say, I don't think that point is necessarily clear at all.

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