Wednesday, April 18, 2012

War, Political Fictions, & the Making of Pulitizers

These days war seems to reach us through the back doors of culture, long after Dancing with the Stars shows even more bodice and yet another reality show offers the next cadre of ginned up beauties who scratch their way into the popular imagination. This is pumped up tribalism at its campiest and probably best described by animal imagery or better yet, cartoons. I can think of no better presentation of the pain in our national psyche than the cartoons of Matt Wuerken, of Politico, who just won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartoons. Of the twenty cartoons offered on Politico to celebrate this amazing achievement, my favorite is the one asking cartoon subjects to raise their hands if they think we are involved in too many wars. Everyone does, of course, including the politicians and peaceniks. The heavy-burdened soldier also raises his hand but apparently does not have a vote. On a street corner not far from my house, small, competing war and anti-war groups ask motorists to honk their approval. They have been drowning each other out for about ten years.

We do our best to deny war and its consequences. After all, only about 1% of the population has direct involvement in our military campaigns. Most media outlets don’t have the time, money or resources to explore “our terrible love of war” and its consequences. And the public is weary. These realities make the Huffington Post’s receipt of the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting on war all the more noteworthy. Senior Military correspondent David Wood wrote a ten-part series, “Beyond the Battlefield,” examining the effect of war on the seriously wounded after they return from battle and on their families.

Enough will be written about an online news service winning this prestigious award after only seven years. It represents an enormous breakthrough. Most print publications would not have the stomach or the space for this kind of coverage. More than any account I am aware of, Wood has captured the physical and psychic cost of war, a story told with restraint and compassion from inside the families. Every American should read this series that grows in importance as the drumbeat for a war with Iran grows louder.

War has long been a part of America’s mythology—and politics. Whether one has served in the military doesn’t matter much now in a quest for political office. The last time military service seemed to be an issue was when George W. Bush was running for president and his service in the Texas National Guard came into question. Dan Rather of CBS put the issue in the national spotlight on a 60 Minutes broadcast September 8th 2004, providing documents that cast doubt on Bush’s service. The documents were attacked by conservative bloggers as forgeries, and twelve days later, CBS issued as retraction. Dan Rather apologized on the Evening News and six months later would leave the network. John Kerry, a genuine Vietnam hero, would be savaged by the Swift Boat crowd as a fraud and a phony and would lose a close election to Bush.

That might have been the end of the story. Dan Rather, ever ferocious in his reporting, wanders the world for HDNet, chasing a variety of stories. Sometimes I watch these reports, marveling at the tenacity of this eighty-year-old warrior who still thinks CBS caved due to pressure from the Bush family.

Rather might take some comfort in the Joe Hagan’s current Texas Monthly story, “Truth & Consequences,” that takes a fresh look at the Bush Texas National Guard years, an effort helped by the availability of new documents and less reticence on the part of observers now than Bush is out of office. This is a fascinating account and underscores that long-form journalism is alive and well. This piece is worthy of a National Magazine Award, at least.

Hagan does not come to any definite conclusions but sketches the intricate, complicated, shifting mosaic of Texas politics. Whether or not Rather got snookered by fake documents or a plant from a political operative, as the Texas Monthly coverage makes clear, the story was always about the chummy, clubby, back-scratching nature of Texas politics and how these influences found their way into appointments to the National Guard and government in general. Rather and his producer went for the smoking gun when the whole state was on fire and very smoky.

As Hagan points out, there are enough holes in Bush’s account of his Guard tenure to drive a tank through—my term. Did the elder Bush intervene to get his son in the Guard when he was three months away from being drafted and the Tet Offensive still resonated in the national consciousness? Once in, why did he stop flying? Why was he allowed to take a leave from duty to work in a political campaign? Why was he collecting pay for Reserve duty when he didn’t seem to be on base or even in the state? These issues remain important because they raise serious questions about Bush’s elaborate political narrative or fiction. And what will his Presidential Library say about these years when for a time he seemed to be missing in action?

But as Hagan notes, this might be as much about privilege as anything else. Many of the sons of the Texas wealthy and powerful found a home in the National Guard: Connolly, Bentsen, Bush, the grandson of oil tycoon H.L. Hunt, and members of the Dallas Cowboys. Maybe Bush was just lucky to win a spot in the coveted 147 Fighter Interceptor Unit known as the “champagne unit,” which was destined to keep the local Gulf waters safe for democracy.

I recall President Bush landing on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003. He announced that the mission in Iraq was accomplished under a banner bearing the same words. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the Huffington Post, Texas Monthly and Politico for not allowing our wars to become fictions, photo ops or mere video games.

And as a veteran, I salute you.

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