Jewish World Review Feb. 11, 2004 / 19 Shevat 5764

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

High dudgeon and low politics | Dear Wesley Clark fan,

It was wholly a pleasure to receive your e-mail in defense of Gen. Clark's refusing to repudiate his friend and supporter Michael Moore's calling George W. Bush a "deserter."

This column you've forwarded to me - by Newsweek's Eleanor Clift - cites a story by Walter Robinson of the Boston Globe back in the 2000 presidential campaign. According to Mr. Robinson, there are no records to indicate that young Bush attended any required drills for a year or so of his service with the Texas Air National Guard.

Only after his commanding officers reported that he hadn't been seen at drills, it says here, did George W. spend 36 days on duty during his final three months in the Guard. Reporter Robinson's conclusion: George W. Bush was "all but unaccounted for."

I love that "all but," don't you? It's such a handy phrase when you're dying to make an accusation but don't have proof. I know the temptation well, believe me. (I've been in this business a long time.) So you pull out that handy little reservation, "all but," and think it absolves you of responsibility for twisting the truth.

"All but" is a handy phrase - till it's used against you. Suppose I were to call your man Wesley Clark "all but" a brazen liar for not disavowing Michael Moore's accusation?

The president offers a different version of these events, naturally. The White House says young Bush transferred to Alabama to work in a political campaign, remembers meeting his commanding officer, and did some desk work on an air base there.

There's also the little matter of W.'s honorable discharge. Those of us who have one would like to think it's still worth something - even if John Kerry doesn't think it's necessarily honorable. Yes, he's joined the pack after the president on this issue, too. Of course. He's about to throw everything he's got at this president, including some slimy stuff he may have only a slippery hold on.

W.'s disputed record brings back some memories of my own tangled relationship with the military bureaucracy, which is like no other in its ability to generate one catch-22 after another.

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For instance, there was the time I got a stern letter from the Department of the Army telling me that, since I hadn't reported for duty as ordered, I would be subject to the draft unless I explained myself. Pronto.

I can still remember - I'll never forget - exactly where I was when I opened that letter. I was jammed onto the back of a dusty deuce-and-a-half setting out on a three-day field trip at Fort Sill, Okla. It was the final, concluding exercise of our Officers Basic Course. But officially I wasn't there. Funny, it felt just like Oklahoma.

I remember passing the letter around, much to the amusement of my comrades on that long, bumpy ride - though I have to admit that one of them expressed the devout wish that I'd spend the rest of my tour in the stockade. (It seems we had been talking politics the night before.)

Then there was the time, with a new baby at home, that I signed up as a filler in the Reserves - that is, someone who could be called up for duty in any outfit. That way, I wouldn't have to keep on making regular drills with the 489th Combat Engineers here in Arkansas.

I thought I'd settled matters when, weeks or maybe months later, I got a call from the commander of a Civil Affairs unit in Little Rock wanting to know, to put it politely, where in blazes I'd been all this time. I could almost feel the phone wires vibrate.

I was surprised at the call, but my interlocutor was in no mood to discuss the finer points of my case. He was under the distinct impression I'd signed up for his outfit and had been skipping drills. It took a while to straighten out that paper chase.

I do remember opening a letter from the U.S. Army some time afterward with considerable trepidation, expecting to be notified of my impending court martial, only to find that I'd been promoted to captain. Just why, like so much in Army life, has remained a mystery to me to this day.

But I guess you could say that I, too, was once "all but unaccounted for." Strange: I knew where I was all the time.

It occurs to me that if George W. Bush, now listed in the roster as commander in chief, could just get the vote of every GI who'd ever gotten tangled up in military paperwork, he ought to win this year's presidential election by the biggest landslide ever.

With a smart salute,

 Inky Wretch,

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