“In great empires the people who live in the capital, and in the provinces remote from the scene of action, feel, many of them, scarce any inconveniency from the war; but enjoy, at their ease, the amusement of reading in the newspapers the exploits of their own fleets and armies.”
In his great work The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith might have been talking about George W. Bush.
Consider the extraordinary remarks delivered by the Leader of the Free World to some of the young men he’d shipped to Afghanistan.
“I must say, I’m a little envious,” Bush explained. “If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed. It must be exciting for you … in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger.”
Of course, when the war in Vietnam offered a younger Mr Bush precisely that opportunity, the prospect seemed rather less romanceful. According to his own account, W contemplated two options: fleeing to Canada and “shoot[ing] my eardrum out with a shotgun in order to get a deferment.”
Fortunately, the Bush family managed to save the future president’s ears by enrolling him in the Texas Air National Guard, so that he spent the war protecting the skies of Houston from all the VC fighter jets which menaced it.
Details about how well the President managed even these innocuous duties remain elusive. We do know, however, that his application form contained a question about his willingness to serve overseas – and that Mr Great War on Terror checked the “do not volunteer” box.
Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney, also missed out on the excitement of the Vietnam years. Though he supported the war – and every other war since, even the ones that haven’t yet begun – Cheney applied for and received no less than five exemptions from the draft.
He explained: “I had other priorities in the ’60s than military service.”
It’s remarkable how many others in the Bush-Cheney regime seem to have shared these amorphous “other priorities”. Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, John Ashcroft, Jeb Bush, Karl Rove: like the President, they all ticked, either literally or metaphorically, the “do not volunteer” box.
That tradition continues down the generations. Last year, Max Blumenthal produced a short documentary (it’s on Youtube here) interviewing some of today’s College Republicans, who all seem to think that the Iraq war should be fought to the last man – as long as that man is somebody else.
Of course, no sane person wants to go to war. But if anyone deserves that “fantastic experience […] on the front lines”, it’s Mr Bush and those who backed him in the illegal and immoral Iraq invasion.
As for the rest of us, the best answer about military service came from Bob Smillie, the Scottish miners’ leader. Asked what he did during the First World War, he responded simply: “I tried to stop the bloody thing.”
Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland.