by Harvey Wasserman
November 13, 2003
First Published in The Free Press
As another Veteran's Day passes by, George W. Bush has sent a clear and present message to the men and women of America's armed forces: Drop Dead.
In an astonishing series of cynical attacks on veterans rights, benefits and sanctity, the administration has shortchanged our military personnel on their medical care, pensions, compensation for having been tortured, access to vital information about health dangers suffered in service, and even their body armor.
After promising that the Iraqi people would be "dancing in the streets" upon their arrival, US troops are being attacked up to three dozen times a day. In response, Bush has imposed an unprecedented media blackout on coverage of their corpses coming home.
Bush himself has yet to attend the funeral of any soldier slain in Iraq. But he has attacked those within the military who would express a democratic opinion against his policies.
Bush has also violated a crucial national tradition---dating to George Washington---against a Chief Executive appearing in military garb while in civilian office.
Bush himself went AWOL from his Alabama National Guard unit during the Vietnam War. His lengthy absence may have made him technically a deserter, and thus subject to prosecution, which has never happened.
Earlier this year Bush was flown by military jet onto the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln. Strutting on the flight deck in a photo op jump flight suit, he spoke before a "Mission Accomplished" banner which he now denies was rigged by his handlers. Bush has publicly cited his alleged "combat" experience, but never served in any battle. He showed his tactical genius by daring the Iraqi resistance to "bring it on," followed by the deaths of scores of soldiers and civilians.
Three supreme US generals who did serve in wartime---Washington, Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight Eisenhower---have also served as US president. To emphasize the crucial separation of the military from American civilian government, all made a point of avoiding public appearances in military uniform while in office. So have other veteran presidents such as John F. Kennedy and Bush's father, George H.W. Bush.
But George W. Bush soiled that tradition with a Tom Cruise routine that cost taxpayers at least $800,000, and may have deprived the crew of the U.S.S. Lincoln of a day's leave.
This Veteran's Day, Bush signed the Fallen Patriots Tax Relief Act, which doubles the tax-free death gratuity payment given to the families of fallen soldiers from $6,000 to $12,000. He also approved the National Cemetery Expansion Act to help establish new military burial grounds.
But he has now frozen $1 billion in financial settlements won by 17 U.S. combat veterans who were whipped, beaten, burned, electrically shocked and starved by Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The vets and their families filed for compensation under a 1996 law, citing the Geneva Convention.
On July 7, U.S. District Judge Richard Roberts ordered Iraq to pay the 17 ex-POWs and their families $653 million in compensatory damages, plus another $306 million in punitive damages. But Bush has cited "weighty foreign policy interests" and has sued to withhold the money.
Meanwhile Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has blatantly violated a 1990s law requiring the military to keep baseline medical data so the health of the US soldiers now serving in Iraq can be properly monitored. The demand derives from Gulf War Syndrome, which may have caused disabling diseases among as many as 220,000 vets. But Rumsfeld has ignored the law.
The Administration is also denying service women access to reproductive care, including abortions. And it has failed to provide body armor to some forty percent of the soldiers serving in Iraq.
Meanwhile Bush has fought to slash long-standing benefits due surviving veterans of the World Wars, Korea and Vietnam. The GOP has opposed repealing the Disabled Veterans Tax, which mandated that money due some 600,000 surviving vets in disability pay be deducted, dollar-for-dollar. At one point Rumsfeld told the White House to veto the Defense Appropriations Bill if it gave the vets that money.
A firestorm of outrage has forced the administration into a compromise phased in over ten years. But it will still deny thousands of veterans their benefits as they die off.
With the relentless militarization of the mainstream media, Bush clearly believes he can ignore the soldiers he will condemn to death, disease and abject poverty.
Especially now that he has announced his courageous support for more cemeteries in which to bury their unphotographed corpses.
Harvey Wasserman is senior editor of The Free Press (www.freepress.org) and author of The Last Energy War (Seven Stories Press). His newest book is Superpower of Peace v Bush Et. Al., co-authored with Bob Fitrakis (Free Press, 2003).