Sunday, November 13, 2005


[Take a deep breath. Start again.... Despite having had my hands on a computer for several years now, what I know about the beasts could fit into a thimble, with room to spare. So periodically the dog eats my homework. (See Friday’s post.) It’s called a SAVE button—I’m told they’re very useful.]

So Veterans’ Day (called Remembrance Day in Britain and Canada, which has a nice ring) was two days ago, and most of what’s worth saying about it has probably already been said.

My own cyber-vaporized remarks included some development of my ongoing frustration with President Bush—but apparently he got wind of my disapproval and addressed my complaints in his speech to military personnel in Tobyhanna, Pennsylvania. It’s a ten-pager, if you print it out—quite a mouthful. I guess that’s what comes of trying to do about two years’ worth of damage control in one afternoon.

I gave myself a surprise one night last week when I was watching the news— Bush came on, giving an unrehearsed response to the news of some terrorist incident or other, and before he got ten words out, I grabbed the remote and switched the television off. The response was so quick and deliberate that it could only remind me of what had become my habit between 1993 and 2001, hitting the kill-switch every time the face of William Jefferson Clinton appeared.

Well, that’s not entirely accurate— for one thing, I still tend to switch him off to this very day; also,the reflex didn’t really kick in until 1995. Whereas the need to look away from Bush is born mostly of sheer exasperation (combined with that reluctance we all have to watch someone invite public scorn— like when we lower our eyes when an untalented child, drunken uncle, or manifestly unqualified Supreme Court candidate mounts the stage) -- my Clinton reflex is born of profound visceral disgust, and I can name the day and place it began: June 6, 1995, Normandy, France.

There was never any question that President Clinton must attend the ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of D-day. This was compulsory, by virtue of his office, and his personal suitability was not an issue. Too bad nobody told him that. It is testimony to the monumental self-absorption which he has never ceased to exhibit, that he managed to make the D-day commemorations all about him, never missing an opportunity for the well-rehearsed lip-tremble to be captured in the endless photo-op.

Never did he show a milli-second’s acquaintance with the humility which would have been appropriate to a man, raised to the world’s most powerful position, who had evaded serving his country in Vietnam by sending written supplications to influential people who shared his professed loathing of the military. Never could we detect that the heroes of D-day— ordinary Americans who sacrificed their lives in acts of extraordinary courage— inspired in Bill Clinton one instant’s blush of much-deserved shame.

The pinnacle of this revolting display was Clinton’s “solitary” stroll down a section of the broad beach dubbed “Omaha” – followed at a discreet distance, of course, by the cameras. At one point the president squatted down and fiddled in the sand, leaving behind, for the benefit of the paparazzi, a small cross made of pebbles— his spiritual meditation on this historic place.

Later the word went out that this was all a set-up, arranged by his advance-men, because there are no pebbles on Omaha Beach— an accusation so extreme it was hard to imagine it being made if there were no substance behind it. But that assumption is what the authors of smear-jobs always rely on (the “Bush lied” mantra being the prime current example), so I reserved judgment at the time. (It is also alleged that presidential staffers knocked over gravestones near the D-day beaches so Clinton could be seen re-erecting them.) The whole D-day pageant had afforded quite enough to be disgusted about without worrying over pebbles on a beach. I was moved to write a short poem on the subject, a parody of T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.”

Eight years later I walked Omaha Beach—lots of it. I can confirm: you’d have to go for miles out on the sands (where Mr. Clinton and his micro-cairn were photographed) before you found enough pebbles to put into a line. His Kodak moment had been a fraud.

While we're on the subject of that particular beach: public ignorance of just about anything to do with history is abysmal and frightening-- everybody knows that. No doubt there are millions of Americans whose total understanding of the events of D-day has been derived from Saving Private Ryan-- and frankly, that's not half bad. The film as a whole was founded on a stupid, very 1990's premise, but the first 25 minutes are so good that I think Spielberg ought to have gotten some kind of medal for it.

However, they are no substitute for a trip to the site itself. And no trip to the Normandy Beaches is complete without visits to (a) the American cemetery, and (b) every museum you can find, large and small (with the possible exception of the new Canadian one at Juno Beach, which is AWFUL-- Canadians are remembered in several other museums much much better than they are memorialized at their own-- it's a scandal).

Our trip there was a graduation gift to our eldest son, before he officially joined up with the Marines. He wanted to see major sites for both World Wars, so we travelled to Normandy, Belgium, and the Marne, especially Belleau Wood, where the Marines came into their own in 1918 holding off the advance that got within a few miles of Paris, and further forging their reputation as the Kick-ass Few and Proud.

This was June of 2003-- just a few months after the invasion of Iraq, when Americans were (ahem) not too popular in France. (There had even been some grave desecration.) We went there with some trepidation, prepared to be met coolly if not with hostility. We were not prepared for the greeting we got.

To this day I can't tell anyone about it without choking up-- the American and Allied flags, not just in "official" locations (we arrived on June 8, and there had been the annual ceremonies) but still hanging on the balconies of private homes; the permanent sign, in English, painted on a restaurant window: "We welcome our liberators"; the 20-something museum guide who, when thanked for his presentation by several American vets (probably of Korea), looked them square in the eyes and said, "No-- thank YOU." Apparently in France, at least in Normandy, parents still tell their children the important facts of their history.

Here are some of those important facts:

American casualties, June 1 - September 14, 1945: 30,000 dead - 110,000 wounded (minimum)

French civilian casualties (over roughly the same period): 15-20,000 killed or missing

Apparently there are French people who think it was worth it.

Those of us who grew up during the Vietnam war, and were in high school while class-mates were still being drafted for it, had a pretty clear notion of what it meant to have headed for the National Guard, and I have no illusions about George Bush’s or Dan Quayle’s motives for pursuing that option. (May I refer anyone who is still confused about Mr. Bush’s service record to the definitive chronologies, here and here.) But regardless of where or why or for how long you carry it out, it takes gonads of steel to fly a fighter jet, and Mr. Bush did it well.

It also took steel gonads for Bush to do what the previous president and his partisans in Congress had balked at doing: to acknowledge that war had been declared against the United States (August 1996) and certainly by September 11, 2001,it was time to make answer. There is a case to be made that it takes steel gonads to persevere with a war that is increasingly unpopular, especially when that unpopularity is due to selective, manipulative, biased, and occasionally treasonous reporting, in the media and in the halls of government.

Unfortunately it seems to be the president’s view that remaining mute in the face of outrageous abuse and slander from America’s elected representatives, and their “527” accomplices, is also an exercise in flexing those gonads. If that's what he thinks, he is dead wrong.

It’s the gonads of steel that are truly AWOL now—and have been for months, maybe years. What Bush has been exhibiting is a fatally misplaced sense of purity, that makes him reluctant to dignify the slanders with a response and to get down in the dirty trenches of political warfare to defend his vision. He did have one. Some of us remember what it was, and still believe in it. But let it be clearly understood—it has never been about believing in him.

It is one of Bush’s critical flaws—one that has probably always been characteristic of him (and might make him underqualified to be president) is the degree to which his method of operation is deeply personal. This was an asset to a governor of Texas (the least powerful governorship in the 50 States). But it makes for scales on the eyes of a president.

There is nothing unusual about a president bringing his inner circle with him to Washington Clinton brought half of Arkansas. But Clinton’s people were there because they shared his keen and ruthless political instincts (except for Vince Foster, apparently— whatever the facts are on that mystery, he was clearly a fish out of water in Washington). By contrast, Bush’s inner circle got there mostly on loyalty. They are not without talent, but they seem to get jobs unrelated to the talents they have.

Oh Scott McClellan. The Anchoress called him a “milquetoast.” She is entirely too kind. One hears many different things about Ari Fleischer, not all of them flattering, but as the guy facing the wolverines in the Washington press corps every day, he was a master. It was distressing to learn that he was leaving, and when McClellan stepped in I was convinced this had to be a temporary measure until a grown-up could be hired. From day one McClellan has struck me as the worst possible choice for his job, with the look of a sweaty, dough-faced prep-school prefect living in perpetual fear of being wedgied in the boys’ john and stuffed in a locker.

He’s supposed to be the president’s goalie, for cripes sake—the guy sent out with mammoth pads, huge gloves, a giant stick (way bigger than everyone else’s), and a helmet/mask decorated with the fangs of some wild animal. Scott McClellan stands in the goal-crease wearing mittens and wet pants. But some of this mystery was cleared up recently— I found out he’s an old hand from Texas. Spare us another unqualified crony.

All the real evidence suggests that George Bush in not unintelligent or incapable. But I think David Frum (former Bush speech-writer, who basically admires him) was right on the money in his 2003 book The Right Man, to see Bush as “impatient, quick to anger; sometimes glib, even dogmatic, often uncurious, and as a result ill-informed . . .” — and we can now add to that excessively reliant on instinct, personal ties and loyalty rather than dispassionate rational judgment.

Frum went on in the above-quoted sentence to say that “outweighing the faults are his virtues: decency, honesty, rectitude, courage, and tenacity," and Frum stands by that assessment (or at least he did prior to the Harriet Miers debacle, against which Frum led the most organized revolt). Well, he knows better than I do— but the well-founded charges of cronyism, coupled with Bush's personal tardiness in responding to Hurricane Katrina and his breathtaking tardiness in responding to the Democrats’ slanders of both his administration and our armed forces in the field, speak to me of a kind of mental laziness, which is just inexcusable.

We’re all grateful that the president went on the much-belated attack on Veterans’ Day against the tsunami of lies which has threatened to sweep away all that remains of his moral authority (which was once quite considerable, and well-deserved). I for one am tired of making excuses for the inexcusable, and of the painful prospect of watching him bumble through another press conference regarding issues and events about which any fully engaged person should have one or two good rhetorical punches always to hand. The idea that the Bush administration is in some way inherently evil continues to be one of the stupidest things any left-wing partisan could believe in—evil is so much more clever than any of these people.

Though Veterans' Day may be past, the season is still ripe for paying tribute to our men and women in uniform. They deserve vocal support, and not just from my Iraqi and Iranian house-painters!

And there's a certain Frenchman who could put many Americans to shame-- I'm thinking of our guide at Belleau Wood, Gilles Lagin, a young family man, mechanic by day, who spends every spare moment (and no small amount of cash) studying and preserving the legacy of the Marines who fought for the soil on which he was raised.

We spent seven (!) fascinating hours in his company, covering the battles from every angle, walking amid the trenches on the pivotal hill-top (where Marines had dug in 85 years to the day before we got there), and pausing at the beautiful cemetery and awe-inspring chapel in the valley below. Gilles has built his own museum of period military artefacts (and often contacted the descendants of the missing whose dog-tags or other identifiable items he has found), and has cultivated an ardent admiration for the United States Marine Corps since he was 9 years old.

What's French for OO-RAH?

Once you’ve finished Mac Owens’ salute to his fellow Marines and their 230th birthday, have a closer look at the Corps from here:

Marines home page
Leatherneck Magazine
From the Hall to the Shores -- milblog
Scuttlebutt and Small Chow-- a great history of the Corps, and one of the most beautifully designed websites you'll ever lay eyes on

From the parents:
Marine parents, Moms, and more Moms
And even though they're Army, take a look at Some soldier's Mom and Keep My Soldier Safe

Want to know the TRUTH about what's going on in the Big Sandbox? Check here:

Arthur Chrenkoff-- Blog has now ceased, but he's the pioneer in Good News From Iraq/Afghanistan (scroll down to "The Rest of the Best"). Until you read this, you have no business even having an opinion about the war, much less expressing one.

Chrenkoff's mantle taken up by Good News from Iraq (good sounds too)

Michael Yon -- self-embedded reporter (you can support his work through pay-pal)-- gritty, on the ground, this is the REAL THING

The late (murdered by terrorists in Iraq) Steven Vincent reported from In the Red Zone (also his book title)

U.S. Central Command

Military History and a keen eye to the present from Victor Davis Hanson

Military weblogs (active and retired):
Lance in Iraq
Mudville Gazetter
The guys at the
Fourth Rail

Civilan Support Groups (GIVE! GIVE! GIVE!):
- California businessman Jim Hake got the ball rolling with
Spirit of America-- building the future of Iraq, winning hearts and minds
- Film and TV star Gary Sinise co-founded Operation Iraqi Children, which he supports through his Lt. Dan Band -- he doesn't just write the checks, he's been there
Valour IT gets lap-tops for disabled veterans
- Make contact and provide needed stuff to troops in the field by being a
Soldiers' Angel
- Reading material for troops at
Books for Soldiers and Books for Baghdad
- Snacks and personal need items through
Treats for Troops
Homes for disabled vets -- help build a new Fisher House for military families to be near their wounded soldier's hospital
- Get special gifts to a
wounded soldier

America Supports You is a Department of Defense initiative, but civilian-driven