Images of Patriotism and the Swift Boat Controversy

The U.S. election campaign has many ironies, none perhaps as strange as the fights over the candidates' war records. The current President George W. Bush got out of active duty in Vietnam by using the influence of his politically powerful family. While soldiers killed and died on the Mekong Delta, he goofed off on an Alabama airfield. Most of the central figures of his Administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney also avoided fighting in Vietnam.
Not that I can blame them exactly. If you don't believe in fighting, then why not use any influence and loophole you can? It's more courageous to stand up publicly and stand in solidarity with those conscientious objectors who don't share your political connections. But if you're both antiwar and a coward, hey, loopholes are great. Bush was one less American teenager shooting up Vietnam villages and for that we commend him.
Ah, but of course George W. Bush doesn't claim to be either antiwar or a coward. Two and a half decades later, he snookered American into a war on false pretences. Nowadays he uses every photo-op he can to look strong and patriotic. Like most scions of aristocratic dynasties throughout history, he displays the worst kind of policial cowardice: he is a leader who believes only in sending other people's kids to war.
Contrast this with his Democratic Party rival John Kerry. He was also the son of a politically-connected family. He could have pulled some strings and ended up in Alabama. But he chose to fight in Vietnam. He was wounded in battle, received metals and came back a certified war hero. Have fought he saw both the eternal horrors of war and the particular horrors of the Vietnam War. It was only after he came back that he used his political connections. He used them to puncture the myths of the Vietnam War and in so doing became a prominent antiwar activist.
Not that his antiwar activities make him a pacifist, then or now. As President I'm sure he'd turn to military solutions that we here at would condemn. But we be assured that when he orders a war, he'd be thinking of the kids that America would be sending out to die and he'd be thinking of the foreign victims whose lives would inevitably be taken in conflict.
Despite the stark contrast of these Presidential biographies, the peculiar logic of American politics is painting the military dodger as a hero and the certified war hero as a coward. The latter campaign is being led by a shadowy group called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Today's Guardian has an excellent article on the "Texas Republicans funding the Swift Boat controversy":,13918,1288272,00.html. The New York Times also delves the "outright fabrications of the Swift Boat TV ads": A lot of Bush's buddies and long-time Republican Party apparatchiks are behind this and its lies are transparent and easy to uncover. It's a good primer on dirty politics 2004 style.
One of the big questions about this election is whether the American voters will believe more in image or substance. It goes beyond politics, really, to culture and to a consumerism that promises that with the right clothes and affected attitude, you can simply buy yourself a new identity. President Bush put on a flight jacket and landed a jet on an aircraft carrier a mile off the California beach. He was the very picture of a war hero and strong patriot. Is a photo all it takes anymore?

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