For the past two weeks, John Kerry has been hounded by an attack on his Vietnam record by a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. And even though he still carries shrapnel in his body, he has been portrayed as a liar, a coward and an opportunist.
It matters little that this group’s testimonies cannot be corroborated with official Navy records, or that some of their pronouncements are in direct contradiction to earlier sworn testimonies, or that connections have been uncovered between the Bush campaign and this group. The same political tactics used against war hero John McCain during the 2000 primary contest have been effective against Kerry in 2004.
Say what you want about Kerry—but one thing is clear. Here was a rich white boy who could have avoided going to Vietnam. But instead he volunteered and served on the front lines because he felt that to whom much is given, much is expected.
Meanwhile, George W. Bush sat out the war by joining the National Guard. Although Bush has repeatedly stated that he never used family connections to get into the National Guard, one still has to wonder. How does a person who had the lowest possible qualifying aptitude score needed for acceptance into the Guard be admitted on the spot, even though there was an 18-month waiting list?
Meet Ben Barnes, former lieutenant governor of Texas. In 1968 Barnes admits to using his influence to get a young George W. Bush, along with other rich white kids, into the National Guard so they could avoid Vietnam.
In a public confession, Barnes states: “I walked through the Vietnam Memorial the other day, and I looked at the names of people who died in Vietnam and I became more ashamed of myself than I’ve ever been because the worst thing I did was get a lot of wealthy supporters and a lot of people who had family names of importance into the Guard and I’m very sorry about that and I apologize to you and the voters of Texas.”
Of course Bush was not the only chicken hawk to avoid serving his country.
His vice-president Dick Cheney had four student deferments. He avoided service because he states he had “other priorities.” When he was no longer eligible for another student deferment, Cheney took advantage of a new paternity deferment. He sired a child for his fifth deferment.
Probably the prize for the most outlandish excuse for avoiding Vietnam goes to House Majority Leader Tom Delay. According to Delay, so many minority youths had volunteered that there was literally no room for patriotic folks like himself.
Here is the crux of the injustice. When rich white boys use their class and race to avoid their country’s call to arms, it falls upon the poor–who more often than not are of color–to shed their blood to protect both white and class privilege. When the Bushes, Cheneys and Delays of this country opt out, the draft boards are still required to fill their quotas.
A type of affirmative action desired by chicken hawks takes place, as more people of color takes their place on the front line. Thus more blacks and Latinos disproportionate to the population served in Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, even though Hispanics comprised 12 percent of the Southwestern United States, they represented over 20 percent of those who died.
But while race was the major determinant as to who would fight in Vietnam, today in Iraq it is class–where the Guard in Iraq is more likely to resemble a community college than a private college.
And because those from the lower economic class are mainly people of color, we should not be surprised that a significant portion of American troops spilling their blood in Iraq and Afghanistan are Latino.
“United we stand” masks that in this country there exists an elite whose privilege remains protected at the expense of the marginalized. And this elite has no qualms about capitalizing on the 9/11 tragedy if it can ensure their privilege.
Why do I refuse to believe that we went to Iraq to fight a war against terrorism? Because the children of our national leaders, the chicken hawks who led us into this war, fail to volunteer.
In all wars prior to Vietnam, the president’s offspring wore the uniform with pride. Elected congressional leaders would resign from Congress to serve their country during times of great peril.
I’ll believe that the war on terrorism is real and will support the effort wholeheartedly when I see Bush’s daughters and nephews sign up to defend our country; when I see the sons and daughters of Congressional leaders in Iraq; when the children and grandchildren of the CEOs who are profiting from this war (i.e., Bechtel and Halliburton) are also risking their lives.
But until then, I will continue to voice the injustice that is occurring.
Miguel De La Torre, a Cuban American, is professor of theologies of liberation at Hope College in Holland, Mich. He is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a former Baptist pastor in Kentucky. His column also appears in the Holland Sentinel.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.