National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 16, 2003


Commander Bush ignores the facts in his grab for military glory


On the morning of May 1 the tabloids, the New York Post and Daily News, set us up.

And the uncritical soft media, particularly TV, gobbled it up.

There were quick bios, pilot histories of the Bushes, father and son, without mentioning that Bush Sr., a real pilot in World War II, landing his plane on an aircraft carrier, once ended up in the sea, and that Bush W. had long-unexplained absences from the Texan Air National Guard during the Vietnam War.

Then vivid graphics of the S-3B Viking that would carry Bush W. to a landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier, plus spine-tingling warnings that this was a very dangerous maneuver.

The carrier Abraham Lincoln had been scheduled to arrive in San Diego a day earlier. But the commander in chief’s men told it to linger at sea, out of sight of land -- put off the sailors’ reunions with their families -- so the commander could stage his media event: play his “Top Gun” role and descend from the clouds in full fighter pilot’s battle regalia and tell the press, “Yes, I flew it.”

Then slip into civilian duds, swagger-stride across the long deck (like that red-carpeted corridor in the White House), bask in the cheers of the crews assembled behind ropes in color-coded groups.

Then tell them a lot of things that were not true.

His stage managers were evoking images of FDR and Churchill meeting shipboard to announce the Four Freedoms during World War II and of Douglas MacArthur receiving the Japanese surrender aboard the battleship Missouri.

And much of the press lapped it up.

Historian and Churchill biographer John Luckas is ill at ease with the presidential military pose. It began, he says in The New York Times April 14, when President Reagan, who also had an imaginary military career, began returning military salutes. He writes: “There is something puerile in the Reagan (and now Bush) salute. It is the joyful gesture of someone who likes to play solider. It also represents an exaggeration of the president’s military role.” No presidents who governed us during great wars, he says -- Washington, Lincoln, Wilson, and Roosevelt -- defined themselves as commanders in chief.

Meanwhile, once again this commander in chief tied Iraq in with the destruction of the World Trade Center and called this campaign a victory against terrorism.

He presumes that his audience has not read the newspapers. The justification for the war -- remember the State of the Union message and Colin Powell’s address to the United Nations and the “evidence,” much of which was later shown to be bogus, of hidden weapons -- seems to be melting like snow in June.

The news media, so slow to examine the administration’s arguments when they might have prevented a war, now -- with columnist William Raspberry and reporter Barton Gellman in The Washington Post, syndicated columnist Molly Ivins from Texas, John Farmer of the Newark Star-Ledger, The Village Voice and others -- now dare suggest that the Bush people snookered us into a deadly expedition with no real proof that the administration’s charges were justified.

Former U.N. inspector Scott Ritter suggested in a talk I saw on C-SPAN that Bush’s lies could be violations of international law. More jaded pundits shake their heads and say that because the corporate-controlled TV networks will never give the story the oomph it needs to catch on, the American people will never really get the news that they were misled. The “Top Gun W” image will be so “embedded” as to cancel out the facts.

Bush told his audience that this war’s technology allowed them to pinpoint military targets and spare civilians. He did not tell them how many civilians had not been spared.

The body count Web site (, which scrupulously records only documented deaths, as of April 26 notes between 2,197 and 2,670 dead -- including 426 in Baghdad, 426 in Nagat, and 523 in Basra. But this doesn’t touch the thousands of men, women, and children with arms, legs, and faces blown away.

Journalist Thomas Friedman, who wrote a fine book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, before he became a columnist for The New York Times, seems to have lost his moral moorings. First he justified this war on the abstract possibility that knocking out Saddam would create a domino effect of new Arab democracies. Now that the weapons of mass destruction argument is leaking and “democracy” in Iraq, if we allow majority rule, will mean Shiite control, he has found a retroactive reason: the dramatic front-page Times photo of the unearthed skull of a Saddam victim.

Anyone who feels that avenging the dead justifies killing and maiming the innocent living should look hard at the pictures, widely printed, of the young boy, Ali, whose arms we blew off. Please explain to Ali and his family that he has been liberated.

We should mourn the deaths of Iraqi soldiers as well. When I was there in 1992, I watched teenage boys swim in the pool of the Baghdad Hotel where I was staying and wondered how many of them would live through the inevitable second U.S.-Iraq war.

The administration does not want us to know -- and refuses to talk about -- Iraqi troop casualties. But one officer told the press his men had killed 2,000 to 3,000 in a one-day foray into Baghdad. Peter Maass’ piece in The New York Times Magazine April 20 plus any number of accounts I have read and heard from witnesses depict our men often shooting recklessly at and killing civilians at checkpoints when a little more prudence would have spared innocent lives.

Two embedded New York Times correspondents -- Jim Dwyer and Mike Wilson -- told me that from their point of view it was difficult to count the number of enemy dead. Dwyer suggested that the 14-year-old boys I had seen in the Baghdad Hotel pool might have survived because so many of the Iraqi troops declined to fight -- many of the dead his outfit, the 101st Airborne, encountered south of Baghdad were Arab fighters from neighboring countries. He did see fewer than 200 corpses on the roads outside the cities of Najaf, Hilla and Karbala, most likely killed by the Third Infantry armor.

Wilson, whose Marine outfit was almost overwhelmed in a battle outside Nasiriyah, said many of the men they were fighting were not in uniform, so it was hard to determine from day to day who was in the army and who was a civilian. He estimated they killed 200 to 400 in a week.

On the carrier deck, President Bush declined to announce that the war was over for one reason: He wants the American people to see him above all as a warrior, commander in a battle that will never end. We must need him to lead us.

We may look forward to the 2004 campaign TV spot of his plane majestically lowering itself godlike through the clouds to the strains of martial music -- as in that other propaganda film, Leni Riefenthal’s 1935 “Triumph of the Will.”

Commander Bush concluded his speech to the assembled sailors with a quote from Isaiah: “To the captives, ‘Come out,’ and to those in darkness, ‘Be free.’ ”

Did Bush’s advisers ever tell him that if he would look up at the entrance to the United Nations building -- which he scorns -- in New York, he would see a monument where are emblazoned the words of Isaiah: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”?

Another political leader quotes scripture with a little more authority. George McGovern, in the April 21 issue of The Nation, concludes his reflections on the war: “We will, of course, win the war with Iraq. But what of the question raised in the Bible that both George Bush and I read: ‘What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul,’ ” or the soul of his nation?

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is professor of humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, May 16, 2003

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