One of America’s finest progressives was South Dakota Senator George McGovern. In 1972, he won the Democratic nomination for president. Unfortunately, he was trounced by Richard Nixon in the general election.
In many ways, George McGovern is best known as an anti-war candidate; someone who had the courage and fortitude to stand up against the folly of the Vietnam War. He was an early opponent of the war. In a speech on the Senate floor in September 1963, McGovern became the first member to challenge the growing U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. This was two months before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. As time went on, opponents called him “McGivern” because they thought that was a pacifist and he wanted to give victory to Vietnamese communists.
McGovern was far from being a pacifist. He opposed the war in Vietnam because, to quote a future president, he thought it was a “dumb war.” Twenty years prior to his warning about Vietnam delivered on the floor of the Senate, he was in the U.S. Army, training to fly the B-24 bomber. Like most of his generation, “the greatest generation,” he was eager to fight for his country and its allies against the totalitarian regimes in Germany and Japan.
The B-24 was the biggest American bomber at the time and a difficult plane to handle, because its initial versions did not have any hydraulic controls. It required an enormous amount of physical strength and mental alertness to get the plane off the ground, to keep it on target while in the air, and to land upon return. McGovern became an outstanding B-24 flyer. He was a co-pilot of the B-24 for his first five missions; for the final thirty, he piloted one that he named the “Dakota Queen.”
In contrast to McGovern, the biggest initiators and instigators of the discretionary wars following World War II had passive or no military records. Lyndon Johnson and Nixon escalated the Vietnam War to a point where the U.S. had over 550,000 troops involved at its peak. Both Johnson and Nixon had been in the Navy in World War II, but neither of them saw significant combat, as McGovern had.
In 1990, President George H.W. Bush, who had a distinguished military record, committed the United States to forming a coalition of nations to force Iraq under Saddam Hussein back within its borders, after it had invaded Kuwait, to provide greater access to the Persian Gulf. But a dozen years later and after the 9-11 attack, George W. Bush (the son) took America into a specious war against Iraq, presumably because of the presence of weapons of mass destruction and Al Qaeda in Iraq. Neither were there.
Bush’s military record was questionable at best. He was in the Texas Air National Guard for two years during the peak of the Vietnam War. He never left stateside, and there are indications, reported most actively by Dan Rather of CBS News, that he was AWOL during much of the time that he was supposed to be on duty. What is clear is that, prior leading America into several senseless wars as president, he had never personally been close to combat.
Bush had a cadre of associates who encouraged him to invade Iraq. Among them were Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, William Kristol, Richard Pearle, and Condoleeza Rice. Cheney may have been the most hawkish of all of them, but he avoided Vietnam by receiving five deferments that prevented him from being drafted.
The neo-cons had a way of making it like Alice in Wonderland. In 2004, when Bush was running for reelection against John Kerry, who had fought heroically while piloting swift boats on dangerous rivers in the Vietnamese jungles. He saw considerable combat and received two Purple Hearts for his bravery. Yet the neo-cons fabricated a story that Kerry had embellished his military record. Numerous credible witnesses vouched for the veracity of Kerry’s account. The neo-cons were essentially accusing Kerry of cowardice, while most of them either did not serve in the military or had non-combat roles.
With the benefit of hindsight and history, we can see that George McGovern had an accurate view of the Vietnam War, even if his positions were unpopular. While there is no way to prove it, it is possible that his combat experience in World War II gave him a clear view of what lay ahead in Vietnam.
Bush and the other neo-cons did not know the reality of war. It seems that they almost saw Iraq and Afghanistan as video games, and with modern technology, they almost look that way.
If there is any saving grace from American military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is that there are literally millions who have served in the war zones. Perhaps in the future, one or several of them will run for President of the United States. It might serve voters well to remember that since World War II, it has generally been those who served in the military who kept us out of major wars, while it was those who did not serve who launched the fruitless adventures.