At the risk of being labeled a partisan hack, I decided to compare the evaluation reports from the military records of President George Bush and Sen. John Kerry. Bottom line up front: I found significant differences between the character of the two sets of documents. I feel somewhat qualified to judge these reports, having been a junior military officer subject to similar evaluation schemes. While it's true that these senior officer observations are more than 30 years old, I believe they reveal important details of these men's character, at a time when these men were asked to lead by example and perform our nation's most sacred duty. Therefore, I think it's relevant to today's debate, and I am glad to see the Kerry campaign releasing these records for comparison to those of the president.
The New York Times reports
this morning on the contents of Sen. Kerry's military records, which his campaign has put online
. The general theme of these records is that young Sen. Kerry was an outstanding officer, even taking into account the glowing language that's typical of officer evaluation reports. Here is are a couple of illustrative excerpts from his fitness reports
From his evaluation as an Ensign on the USS Gridley
"A top notch officer in every measurable trait. Intelligent, mature and rich in educational background and experience, ENS KERRY is one of the finest young officers I have ever met and without question one of the most promising. ... He is an alert and active original thinker with great potential to the Navy. He eagerly accepts and actively seeks out tasks of greater responsibility. He is recommended for accelerated promotion."Comment
: There are a couple of things that leap out from this text. First, ENS Kerry was a good officer, and that's clear from this language which goes beyond the praise used in all such reports. Second, he chafed a little bit at the Navy bureaucracy and culture. The comment about his educational background indicates that he was different than his peers. The comment about being an "active original thinker" who "eagerly... seeks out tasks" indicates that he took a lot of initiative, and probably did some edgy things as a young officer. I think that's the mark of a good junior officer, because you're supposed to take risks on behalf of your troops at that age. And a final note about Ensign Kerry's pedigree. Officers in the military generally don't have his background, then or now. It says something that he wasn't ostracized or singled out as effete or aristocratic because of his upscale background. These reports show that for the most part, he was one of the guys.
From a second FITREP on the USS Gridley
"His enthusiasm for the navy and his work is contagious, and his men are ardent supporters of him. His division's morale is one of the best on the ship due to his dynamic leadership. He is a polished diplomat at ease in distinguished company and shows great promise for future assignment as an aide or on a foreign diplomatic post."Comment
: Again, we see the indication that he's somehow different than his peers -- more educated, more refined, more diplomatic. The Navy has always been the most genteel service, and it has always had a mini-diplomatic corps within its ranks, so it's not surprising to see those lines on this FITREP. However, the first part of this comment is striking. There are lots of things you can praise about an officer -- technical competence, physical ability, tactical genius, intelligence, etc. To praise his leadership, and to cite his troops' morale in support of that praise, is one of the greatest compliments you can give an officer.
From two FITREPs for LTJG Kerry while assigned to Coastal Division Eleven:
"In a combat environment often requiring independent, decisive action LTJG Kerry was unsurpassed. ... LTJG Kerry emerges as the acknowledged leader in his peer group."Comment
* * *
"LTJG KERRY was assigned to this division for only a short time but during that time exhibited all of the traits desired of an officer in a combat environment. He frequently exhibited a high sense of imagination and judgement (sic) in planning operations against the enemy in the Mekong Delta. ..."
: There is more in here about his specific combat exploits, but these two quotes bookend those comments and make the most general observations about LTJG Kerry's character. Again, we see an indication of his leadership ability, which his commanders felt was far above average in comparison to his peers. We also see comment on his performance in combat, which is qualitatively different than performance in peacetime or on a ship that doesn't see direct-fire combat. And again, we get the sense that he chafed against his bosses, based on the comment about "imagination".
From a FITREP for services as an aide to an admiral:
"LTJG Kerry is one of the finest young officers with whom I have served in a long naval career. His combat record prior to becoming my personal aide speaks for itself and is testimony to his competence and courage at sea. As my personal aide he could not have been more effective. ... This young man is detached at his own request to run for high public office to whit the Congress of the United States. The detachment of this officer will be a definite loss to the service. He is the dedicated type that we should retain and it is hoped that he will be of further perhaps earlier greater service to his country, which is his aim in life at this time."Comment
: You an expect a certain amount of praise from an admiral for his aide, but again, such praise would normally be for things like his efficacy, efficiency, and so forth. This is high praise indeed for an officer on his way out the door, and it says a lot that a senior naval officer would be so effusive. Sen. Kerry appears to be the type of young officer the military desperately needed to retain after Vietnam.
In contrast, President Bush's released military record
(see this site
, and the Boston Globe's site
too.) does not contain the detailed evaluation reports found on Sen. Kerry's website. (I looked on the president's campaign website
but could not find a more complete repository of military records.) I think this is due to poor recordkeeping by the TX Air National Guard, as well as a desire to not release these documents. In addition, then-LT Bush was a pilot, not a leader of airmen, so his evaluation reports are likely to be more sparse anyway. Nonetheless, I think Pres. Bush's records deserve to be compared side-by-side to those of young Sen. Kerry. The Washington Post provides
these excerpts from Pres. Bush's evaluations:
A 1971 evaluation described Bush as "an exceptionally fine young officer" with "sound judgment" who "is mature beyond his age and experience level." Bush "is a natural leader but he is also a good follower of military discipline," it said. A 1970 letter recommending him for a promotion from second to first lieutenant called him "a dynamic outstanding young officer" who "clearly stands out as a top notch fighter interceptor pilot." Bush, it said, "is a tenacious competitor and an aggressive pilot."Comment
: Like Sen. Kerry's evaluation reports, this one is actually pretty good. It's doesn't contain the same detail or concrete indicators of performance. But I think much of that owes to the difference in their types of service. Pres. Bush was only being evaluated for one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer -- there just wasn't that much to observe. Moreover, Pres. Bush's assignment was to fly and perform limited additional duties, not to lead sailors in a division or swift boat unit. Thus, there were no unit actions for him to be accountable for. (Military leaders are always evaluted on the accomplishments -- good or bad -- of the troops they lead.)
An article at FreeRepublic.Com also provides an excerpt from a press release touting Pres. Bush's flying ability:
The younger Bush fulfilled two years of active duty and completed pilot training in June 1970. During that time and in the two years that followed, Bush flew the F-102, an interceptor jet equipped with heat-seeking missiles that could shoot down enemy planes. His commanding officers and peers regarded Bush as a competent pilot and enthusiastic Guard member. In March 1970, the Texas Air National Guard issued a press release trumpeting his performance: "Lt. Bush recently became the first Houston pilot to be trained by the 147th [Fighter Group] and to solo in the F-102... Lt. Bush said his father was just as excited and enthusiastic about his solo flight as he was." In Bush's evaluation for the period May 1, 1971 through April 30, 1972, then-Colonel Bobby Hodges, his commanding officer, stated, "I have personally observed his participation, and without exception, his performance has been noteworthy."Comment
: This praise is a little fainter, although it's still there. Of course, press releases have little value as evaluative documents, but it does say something that the TX Air National Guard would choose to showcase this officer instead of his peers.Analysis
: In summary, the evaluations of John Kerry clearly stand over those of George Bush. However, I think much of the disparity owes to the difference between the two men's military service. Had Pres. Bush served more time on active duty, or in combat, we would have a more complete record on which to judge his service as a junior military officer. A lot of people don't think this service matters, but I do. It reveals important details of these individual's character at an important moment in their lives. And as I wrote in the Chicago Tribune
, it matters for other reasons too:
President Bush's 30-year-old service record from the Air National Guard is relevant because it shows us something about his willingness to share the same hardships as the soldiers he now commands today from the White House. The issue has never been whether he was guilty of desertion or being AWOL--two slanderous charges leveled without regard for the facts. The real issue has always been the character of his service, and whether it was good enough to set the example for America's 1.4 million citizens in uniform.
* * *
... these issues boil down to the president's willingness and ability to set the example for the military he now leads as commander in chief. Cumulatively, questions about then-Lt. Bush's drill attendance, evaluation reports, flight status and early discharge add up to questions about the character of his service in the National Guard. Bush did receive an honorable discharge, but such a document is the lowest common denominator of military performance--it takes a lot of bad behavior to earn anything other than an honorable discharge. The American public deserves to know the full truth about the president's military record. It's relevant to his character, and it's relevant to whether he's fit to lead today's military by example.
The great thing about our system is that it lets you
be the judge of these men when you vote in November. Every American will come to his or her own conclusion on this issue, and will decide which man is better fit to serve as America's commander-in-chief. For what it's worth, I still haven't made up my mind, and probably won't before November.Update
: Kevin Drum points us towards one key difference
in the military records of each man, with respect to their desire for service overseas. (Nice job on the Photoshop and web design, too, by the way.)
For what it's worth, I think this reveals something quite striking about the sense of noblesse oblige
within each man upon their graduation from Yale and entry into a life of privilege. Ironically, I see great parallels between the choice of young John Kerry and the choice of young George Herbert Walker Bush
(aka Bush 41, the current president's father). Both men, with an eye on their future, made a choice to seek dangerous duty overseas in the service of their nation. I wish that more of America's elite graduating today would follow in these men's footsteps by serving their country in uniform, or in other ways such as the Foreign Service and Peace Corps. Service to country is a fundamental duty of citizenship, and it is one that I respect regardless of political affiliation.