Bush used his father's political influence to move past many on the Texas Guard's waiting list. He was not required to attend Officer Candidate School to earn his commission. He lost his flight status after failing to show up for a required annual physical. These facts alone raise the eyebrows of those who took a different path in a war that for the Marine Corps brought more casualties than even World War II.
The Bush campaign now claims that these issues are largely moot and that Bush has proved himself as a competent and daring 'war president.' And yet his actions in Iraq, and the vicious attacks against anyone who disagrees with his administration's logic, give many veterans serious pause.
Bush arguably has committed the greatest strategic blunder in modern memory. To put it bluntly, he attacked the wrong target. While he boasts of removing Saddam Hussein from power, he did far more than that. He decapitated the government of a country that was not directly threatening the United States and, in so doing, bogged down a huge percentage of our military in a region that never has known peace. Our military is being forced to trade away its maneuverability in the wider war against terrorism while being placed on the defensive in a single country that never will fully accept its presence.
There is no historical precedent for taking such action when our country was not being directly threatened. The reckless course that Bush and his advisers have set will affect the economic and military energy of our nation for decades. It is only the tactical competence of our military that, to this point, has protected him from the harsh judgment that he deserves.
At the same time, those around Bush, many of whom came of age during Vietnam and almost none of whom served, have attempted to assassinate the character and insult the patriotism of anyone who disagrees with them. Some have impugned the culture, history and integrity of entire nations, particularly in Europe, that have been our country's great friends for generations and, in some cases, for centuries.
Bush has yet to fire a single person responsible for this strategy. Nor has he reined in those who have made irresponsible comments while claiming to represent his administration. One only can conclude that he agrees with both their methods and their message.
Most seriously, Bush has yet to explain the exact circumstances under which American military forces will be withdrawn from Iraq.
Nor has Kerry given us a picture of how his strategy would differ from the course that has been set.
Once these answers are given, all of us will be able to understand more clearly the true legacy of the past.
James Webb was secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration, and a Marine platoon and company commander in Vietnam. He also is an author and filmmaker.
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