Jewish World Review Feb. 19, 2004 / 27 Shevat 5764

Paul Greenberg

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Big tempest, little teapot | Dear Vet,

It was wholly a pleasure to hear from a fellow alum of the 489th - and to learn that your experiences with military red tape mirrored mine. If it's any comfort, and it is, I got a lot of e-mails like yours when I wrote an earlier column about my misadventures with Army bureaucracy. Misery loves company.

I hasten to assure you that it'll all seem a lot funnier 20 years from now, when you're my age.

I loved your story about calling your former headquarters company six months after your enlistment had expired, and being greeted by your former first sergeant with the friendly words: WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN? WHY HAVEN'T YOU BEEN MAKING DRILLS?

Some things never change. Like the military mind.

Some people, when they see a movie like "Brazil" about a surreal future, or read Kafka, think it's fiction. I know it's the Army. A whole series of Catch 22s.

Pity the poor reporters who were trying to make some sense out of George W. Bush's fragmentary records in the Texas/Alabama Air National Guard back in the early '70s.

Just try telling some newshound looking for another Watergate, or just a Travelgate, that there's probably an innocent explanation for any gaps in the president's service records.

If the guy's never served, he has no idea of the Void a single, careless clerk-typist can wreak. How explain it? It's like trying to describe a Black Hole.

"Those of us who are prior-service know exactly what you are talking about," you write. Yes, but would anybody believe how fouled-up the military can get if they'd never been in it?

I'm by turns amazed, appalled, exasperated and, I have to admit, amused as all get-out by some of the "reporting" being committed on this issue. There's already a Web site out there, and I mean out there, called And it's not all that different from the editorials and columns in The New York Times.

You'd think it might tell these hot-shot, big-city types something that the organization they're so busy writing about - the U.S. military - is the one that gave us terms of art like SNAFU, FUBAR and Good Enough for Government Work.

Hey, what a country. Some big fat Hollywood star calls the commander-in-chief a deserter, and the retired four-star general he's endorsing for president of the United States at the time - Wesley Clark - just stands there like a dummy.

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Then, when asked about it later, the general says something like, hey, everybody's entitled to his opinion. Not if it's a damned lie, everybody isn't.

Now I see by the paper that the brigadier general who once couldn't remember Lt. Bush showing up at his unit in Alabama - the brigadier's name is William R. Turnipseed - says he's not sure he himself was on base at the time. Is this a news story or a modern play?

It's neither. It's the kind of four-year-old story The Boston Globe was still taking seriously - that is, ponderously, as it takes so many things. Meanwhile, its sister paper, The New York Times, demanded that the commander-in-chief explain his movements 30 years ago. ("Where were you on the night of . . .")

Never mind the payroll records the White House dug up, or the dental exam a Lt. Bush had at that Alabama base where he's accused of never showing up. Or the eyewitness who said he was there. Or the retirement points he earned. The Bush bashers aren't about to back off. Deserter! AWOL! As for that Honorable Discharge, maybe that used to mean something in this country, but not anymore. Forget it. Now it's guilty until proven innocent.

In its post-Jayson Blair, current-Maureen Dowd period, the editorial voice of the once good gray New York Times is about as reasoned as that of your former first sergeant: WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN? WHY HAVEN'T YOU BEEN MAKING DRILLS?

George W. Bush may have shown up at that Alabama base after all. Or he may have missed some drills while between units. Who didn't? And who cares? He was just as subject to being called up no matter what unit he was with at the time. Isn't that what's relevant? But of course relevance has nothing to do with this and politics everything. But this much is beyond doubt: It's an election year.

So keep those boots shined, trousers bloused, caissons rollin' along and your sense of humor well oiled. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

Inky Wretch

P.S. I do hope the Army Student Loan Repayment Program finds that paperwork you mentioned, so you'll finally be able to pay off those loans for graduate school. But I wouldn't get my hopes up.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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