In a week when endless encomiums for George Herbert Walker Bush dominate television, a time when even the weather channels seem ready to forecast a 90 percent chance of canonization, it seems churlish to say: Whoa! But I'm having trouble fitting Bush 41 for an official halo.
I'm also having trouble reconciling two realities: my inability to forget the ways he damaged the nation and the world, and the Gospel obligation to forgive seventy times seven times. This is how I parse that problem: Forgiving personal transgressions is mandatory, but forgetting historical harm is dangerous.
So, amid the loud hosannas, I looked around for some more hardheaded analyses of Poppy's stewardship. Two writers whose work I admire really delivered. Here's a suitably snarky piece by William Rivers Pitt of Truthout, and here's a detailed list of Poppy's failings, by Mehdi Hasan of The Intercept. In addition, I found this bare-knuckled assessment by Paul Street on the aptly named Counterpunch.
If you read those three pieces, you'll see most of what makes the unbridled praise for Bush 41 so tough to take. At the top of the list is the Gulf War. It was totally avoidable, if Bush the former diplomat and former CIA chief had devoted serious energy to pursuing a diplomatic solution. Instead, Poppy began the destruction of an entire nation by turning loose the American military on the far inferior Iraqi forces, leading to the "turkey shoot" slaughter of retreating Iraqi troops on the Highway of Death from Kuwait into Iraq.
It's fashionable now to praise Poppy for the restraint he showed in not ordering a pursuit of Saddam Hussein's forces all the way to Baghdad, to bring about a regime change. But the destruction of Operation Desert Storm, the damage to vital infrastructure, the deaths of many thousands of Iraqi soldiers, was just the prelude to the cosmic tragedy of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, led by Poppy's son, George W. Bush.
Destroying Iraq was not the only job that Poppy started and Dubya completed. The presence of thousands of American troops in Saudi Arabia was a key element in Saudi native Osama bin Laden's 1996 declaration of war against "Americans occupying the land of the two holy places," Mecca and Medina. Five years later, when Bush 43 took office, he basically ignored outgoing President Bill Clinton's warnings about bin Laden. So Bush 41 and Bush 43 bracket 9/11. To my mind, they share some level of culpability, first for the provocation of stationing troops in Saudi Arabia, then for the failure to react sufficiently to the threat that bin Laden posed.
As to Poppy's temperament and personality, those who glibly call him gracious should recall his leading act of ungraciousness: the shamelessly racist Willie Horton ad that helped him defeat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 election. Other blots on his copybook include the pardons he extended to those who cooked up the Iran-Contra deal while he was vice-president to Ronald Reagan, and the wholly unnecessary invasion of Panama.
One outrage not covered in the pieces I mentioned is an argument that Poppy used as he sought a suitable reason for the Gulf War. If we didn't support his war, Poppy argued, we'd be dishonoring the troops, much as the veterans returning from Vietnam felt dishonored by the people who spat on them. His argument advanced a myth that Professor Jerry Lembcke of the College of the Holy Cross later debunked in his book, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam.
“In the United States, the idea that Vietnam veterans had met with malevolence gained prominence during the fall of 1990, when the Bush administration used it to rally support for the Persian Gulf War," Lembcke wrote. "After sending troops to the Gulf in August, the administration argued that opposition to the war was tantamount to disregarding their well-being and that such disregard was reminiscent of the treatment given to Vietnam veterans upon their return home….President Bush had effectively turned the means of war, the soldiers themselves, into a reason for the war.”
So, as the week of George Herbert Walker Bush's burial fades in memory, it can't hurt to remember his more charming moments, such as the relationships he built with the comedian who imitated him, Dana Carvey, and the columnist who didn't always write what he liked, Maureen Dowd. But let's not forget that he left behind a lot of damage. One of the many annoying aspects of the Trump presidency is that it has created an unwarranted Bush nostalgia. True, on the scale of personal odiousness and comprehensive cluelessness, Trump is far worse. But on metric of body count, he is—until now, at least—not even close to the bloody Bushes.
First in my class in Officer Candidate School. Late to the conclusion that our attitude toward the military is idolatrous.