Was George W. Bush a “deserter”?

Last week I criticized Wesley Clark for standing by and not protesting while Michael Moore called George W. Bush a “deserter.” As I read the law, Bush was not guilty of the extremely serious crime of “desertion,” but only of the less serious, though hardly trivial, offense of being Absent Without Leave (AWOL).

But I don’t know where Peter Jennings got the idea that the use of the term “deserter” was “a reckless charge, unsupported by the facts.” The facts amply support the AWOL charge, and a sufficiently nasty prosecutor could have tried to make out a case for desertion. (Whether the facts satisfy the elements fo that crime would depend on what it means to “intend” to remain permanently absent.)

Administratively, a servicemember AWOL for more than 30 days is posted as a “deserter,” though no one seems to know how that rule applies in the case of Guardsmen not on active duty. (Is that 30 calendar days from the first missed drill, or 30 cumulative days of missed drill?) So there might be a technical sense in which Bush was in fact a “deserter,” even if he wasn’t guilty of the crime of desertion.

I conclude that Moore was guilty of overstatement on a technical point of military law. His accusation was, however, far better supported by the facts than the silence of the mass media about Bush’s service record, or than Jennings’s dismissal of it as “reckless.”

As to Clark, his answer tonight seemed to me quite sensible: Moore is at liberty to say what he likes, and Clark doesn’t have to agree with him or disagree with him. Clark hasn’t looked into the facts and law of the case, and doesn’t intend to look into them, because he’s not running against George W. Bush’s service record but against his record as President.

Here’s how Clark put it:

I think Michael Moore has the right to say whatever he feels about this. I don’t know whether this is supported by the facts or not. I’ve never looked at it. I’ve seen this charge bandied about a lot. But to me it wasn’t material. This election is going to be about the future.

Clark has chosen, reasonably, to leave the investigation of Bush’s service record to the journalists who are paid to do the job. That we have instead journalists who assert that charges are baseless without investigating their basis really isn’t Clark’s fault, now is it?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

6 thoughts on “Was George W. Bush a “deserter”?”

  1. Attacking a general (or any other Democrat)

    Mark Kleiman does a stellar job of defending Wesley Clark against Peter Jennings stupid assault in the debate last night. (For more detail, go today's Howler.) Clark's not my favorite candidate, by far, but he's subject to at least as

  2. The AWOL Game

    Thanks in part to Wes Clark's embrace of Michael Moore, and Peter Jennings' tough question at the Democratic debate the other night have the question of George Bush's National Guard service again. So, it's time once again to dismiss some…

  3. The AWOL Game

    Thanks in part to Wes Clark’s embrace of Michael Moore, and Peter Jennings’ tough question at the Democratic debate the other night have the question of George Bush’s National Guard service again. So, it’s time once again to dismiss some…

  4. Peter Jennings Makes a Reckless Charge Not Supported by the Facts

    During last week's Democratic presidential debate, Peter Jennings scolded Wesley Clark for not scolding Michael Moore after Moore called President Bush a "deserter." Here's Jennings: “At one point, Mr. Moore said, in front of you, that President Bush…

  5. What is a Deserter?

    US Army Research Institute Special Report 51 [pdf] August 2002 Forward Page iii The Army G-1 requested a Fiscal Year 2002 study of Absence Without Leave (AWOL) and prolonged absence (which the Army defines as desertion) as a way of developing more focu…

  6. Wesley Clark and Desertion

    It's mostly a tempest in a teapot, since Peter Jennings correctly hit Clark for not challenging Michael Moore's "reckless charge not supported by the facts", and Michael Moore has a history of making reckless charges not supported by the fact…

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