What the Gulf War Reveals About George Bush's Childhood
Published Fall 1992
The Latin words Finis origine pendent are cut into the seal of Phillips Academy (cut by Paul Revere, in fact). Phillips Academy, or "Andover," as it is called, is the preparatory school in Andover, Massachusetts, from which George Bush graduated fifty years ago. "The end depends on the beginning," the motto says. We will examine the end first, what the United Nations inspection team called the "near apocalyptic destruction" of Iraq by the U.S.-led coalition forces in the 42-day Gulf War in early 1991.
"Overall 70 per cent of the bombs missed their targets. The 'clean war' was a myth."(1`) Sixty per cent of the 89,000 tons of bombs the coalition dropped fell on civilian structures and people,(2) and the list of the kinds of bombs used and what they can do is like a catalog from Hell. With 9,000 homes destroyed, 72,000 Iraqis were left homeless.(3) The destruction also caused the Iraqis over 60 percent unemployment.(4)
For the last ten years Iraq had no cases of malnutrition. According to UNICEF, the nutrition available for each Iraqi last February amounted to less than 1,000 calories a day, and by October had risen to only a subsistent 1,600 calories per capita.(5) Since growing children require 2,500-3,000 calories of food a day, we can see that the embargoes against Iraq have made a concentration camp of the entire country, with the Kurds, internally blockaded, confined to a camp within a camp.
Just this past March a demographer in the U.S. Census Bureau, Beth Osborne Daponte, was fired after she told an Associated Press reporter that she estimated that out of Iraq’s 17,000,000 population, "86,194 men, 39,612 women and 32,195 children died during and just after the Gulf War,"(6) but the figures are probably greater. To get an idea of the enormity of this trauma to the Iraqi people, if a comparable percentage of Americans had died in the United States, the American dead would number 2,800,000.
The almost conspiratorial silence about the damage done to Iraq and the suffering of the Iraqi people has a "feel" to it. I sense in the media’s silence the heaviness of "denial," the amnesia for pain, and the unconsciousness of "family secret." As Bradshaw tells us we can expect, "all the Secrets get acted out,’’(7) and I think the Gulf War was the enactment of both George Bush’s secret and the secret of 90% of Americans who the polls say supported him in the Gulf War.
But let me tell you about the children. The International Study Team’s (8) nutrition survey led them to estimate that 900,000 Iraqi children under the age of five are now malnourished and 118,000 so severely that they are at risk of dying.(9) America is currently spending $40 million on covert action to overthrow Saddam Hussein,(10) which includes attempts to cripple Iraq’s economy further by flooding the country with counterfeit money.(11) With incomes down to 7 percent of their pre-War level, what Iraqi parent has the equivalent of $20 needed to purchase just one can of milk? But I want to concentrate on the Study Team’s "Child Psychology Survey."
The Team’s two child psychologists interviewed 214 Iraqi children of primary school age. A watchdog publication reports that "the study reveals a highly disturbed population of children who are exceedingly bothered by intrusive thoughts of the war."(12) The following excerpts give suffering a human face, the face of the Iraqi child:
"Despite trying to block the memory from their minds, 50 percent of interviewed children continue to dream of the event, 66 percent have difficulty sleeping because of the memory, and 63 percent are having difficulty with concentration. Three quarters of the children interviewed find little joy in playing with friends, in sports, and other similar activities. A full 62 percent of the children worry that they may not live to become an adult."
"Seventy-five percent feel sad and unhappy, worry for the survival of their family and need the company of an older person to feel safe.
"The children interviewed strive to frame and to understand what they saw: planes bombing, houses collapsing, fires burning, soldiers fighting, mutilated and crushed bodies, and burned-out trucks. The children fight to forget what they heard: people screaming, desperate voices, planes and explosions.
"The children are haunted by the smell of gunfire, fuel from planes, fires and burned flesh. Many children are still struggling with the memories of what they touched: remains of planes, blood, dead bodies and wounded relatives.
And every night these children go to bed with the memories of the terrible sounds, shaking grounds, and the prospects of the whole family being buried in the ruins of the house."(13)
Any health care worker who found an individual child in such a state of joylessness and anxiety would recognize immediately that that child was suffering from abuse. Yet, to re-work an observation of Helen Caldicott, one of the founders of Physicians for Social Responsibility, who called war "institutionalized murder," I believe we institutionalize child abuse as socially acceptable behavior when we call it "war." I prefer to call war "macro-abuse" because the term can include this large-scale emotional as well as physical harm.
Saddam Hussein’s cruel childhood and the abuses committed under his leadership have been described elsewhere.(14) But I wondered who really is America’s Commander in Chief? If George Bush had "no quarrel with the Iraqi people" and understood the tyranny under which they suffered, how did he think dropping the equivalent of seven Hiroshima bombs on a country the size of California would help? What was George Bush’s beginning, as the Andover motto suggests, that it could result in such a tragic end?
Working back on R.D. Laing’s observation that "If our experience is destroyed. our behavior will be destructive,"(15) I suspected, given the destruction of Iraq, that somewhere in Bush’s so-called "privileged" childhood, his own experience had been destroyed. Consequently I predicted (if predicting backwards counts) that we would find in Bush's childlhood evidence of this destruction, which I call "abuse." But the persona Bush presents in the several shallow books about him is Disneyworld clean. "We were a close, happy family," Bush insists in his antiseptic autobiography that he dedicates to his "mother and father whose values lit the way." (16) While love may sometimes cause us pain, we know the fruit of love is not the cluster-bomb. We know the fruit of love is not violence.
I am fortunate to have met the bread in the George Bush sibling sandwich. I have talked to both Prescott Bush, Jr., the oldest Bush child who is two years older than George, and Nancy Bush Ellis, who is two years younger than George and the only sister. George’s father, Prescott Bush, Sr., died in 1972, and his mother, Dorothy, who is 91, is according to her daughter, "frail." A series of small strokes have confined her to a wheelchair and unfortunately impaired her memory.
George has two more brothers, who follow Nancy: Jonathan, who is seven years younger than George, and William or "Bucky ," a full fifteen years younger. Although I did attempt to contact Jonathan, who has an apartment and office in Manhattan, he courteously declined to see me. I did not attempt to contact "Bucky," who lives in St. Louis. Bucky was only three years old when George joined the Navy.
While I don’t want to make too much of the postcard on which Jonathan replied to my request for an interview, I feel the reproduction on the front of it worth mentioning. Of all the possible postcard pictures, Jonathan’s Freudian selection is a reproduction of an art work entitled "Daughter of Fog." I could not help but wonder if the fog in reference was the one in which he found himself or the fog in which he intended to keep me.
I also interviewed over twenty other people, mostly men, some by telephone and some in person--a basketball coach, a Navy training school roommate and others who had gone to school with George, or "Poppy," as he was known until he joined the Navy, either at Greenwich Country Day or Andover. Some of these people either lived with him at Andover or were in his fraternity or played baseball or soccer with him or were outstanding in the school themselves for one reason or another or any combination of these things. While some of them also went to Yale with George, I did not count his time at Yale as childhood. By the time George was ensconced at Yale, he was a already a veteran, married and had his first child.
When I requested interviews, I promised not to talk about business or politics, but simply about childhood. I said I was interested in learning how values are instilled in childhood and in particular the values that gave rise to the leadership of George Bush. And I traced George Bush’s life in physical place--locating his home, visiting his church and schools and touring Kennebunkport, Maine, where the Bush family summer compound on Walker’s Point and the River Club are visible from the public road. And on Wall Street at Brown Brothers Harriman & Co., the private bank to which George’s father commuted both before and after the nine years he served as Senator from Connecticut, one of the partners graciously showed me around.
When I climbed into my car for the drive home after my two hours with Prescott Bush--the first interview of my project--I could not name the terrible feeling I was experiencing. Juxtaposed with Iraq’s devastation, our meeting was powerfully disorienting. It wasn’t until I had wrestled with my feelings for over an hour that I was finally able to grasp what confused me: Prescott Bush was very nice.
We sat together in his living room and had tea. He called me by my first name several times. I believe he answered my questions the best he could. As Prescott and I chatted about life at Greenwich Country Day, I commented that the school seemed to stress good manners as one of its values. "Oh, yes," he answered, " ... they were very much enforced in our home too. We were expected to be courteous. We weren’t always courteous to one another as we should have been, but we certainly were to our parents or we’d find out very, very quickly that a .... we were wrong."(17)
"How did you find out?"
"Well, we were corrected if we didn’t show proper respect, we would spend a lot of time sitting in our rooms or something like that. ... " I asked him to comment on the following quote from a children’s biography of the President: "The Bushes didn’t spoil their children, they corrected and punished them when necessary, but it was always ’for their own good. ’’’(18) "How do you feel about that?" Prescott answered:
"If we did something wrong, we knew it. And we expected that we would get punished for it. There was one thing that’s very important, I think, in helping to instill values in children and that is that you have to be consistent. You simply can’t say if you do this or that you are going to be punished and then the child goes out and does exactly what you warned him not to do and he gets away with it. Then the respect has been lost. The parent is not held in the same respect as prior to that happening. So, you shouldn’t threaten children with something unless you intend to do it."
The title of Alice Miller’s book on child abuse, For Your Own Good, cites as one of the tenets of what she calls "poisonous pedagogy" this very example of respect, that is, that parents deserve respect simply because they are parents and children are undeserving of respect simply because they are children.(19) Skirting the issue of how he felt, that is, whether he felt unjustly punished or humiliated or that he "deserved it," etc. Prescott continued:
"Every now and then you were lucky to get away with something. I’ll never forget...I don’t remember what the incident was, but I remember very clearly what happened. My brother and I had done something. I don’t remember what. This is George because he and I were the two closest together and did everything together for years ...I forget what we had done, but we had committed something that was heinous enough that my mother said, ’Well, you wait until your father gets home tonight...He’s going to deal with you.’
...And we knew what that meant. We knew it meant the razor strap....
... And we sat around quivering as it came time for his train. It was getting near time and the phone rang, and we heard Mother talking to him. And he said he was terribly sorry but he couldn’t come home that night because a business situation had just come up and he had to take the Sleeper to St. Louis. Well! It was like the Fourth of July as far as George and I were concerned...He didn’t come back for two or three days later, so by then the thing had diminished in impact and we got off sort of scot-free. Punished, but not severely...But it wasn’t like Mother or Dad to threaten one thing and then not do it."
I asked Prescott if his mother left it up to his father to do the disciplining or did she do it herself?
"Oh, no! Ho-oh-oh! She didn’t leave it up to him. She ran the show, but if she ever needed a back-up or felt that she hadn’t made quite a strong enough impression on us, he would come in. We were all scared of him. We were scared to death of Dad when we were younger."
Later I asked Prescott if he had ever felt like running away, and he answered, "I actually ran away in Kennebunkport." Although he couldn’t remember what the incident was about, he "felt very much abused" and "ran down the back road and hid in some rocks."
Nancy did not remember being spanked and was surprised when I said Prescott had told me they "were scared to death" of her father. She said her brothers always sent her to her father to ask for things. "Were you the mediator?" I asked. "No, just the messenger," she answered.(20)
Nancy asked me about her father, "Did he spank them?" When I replied that Prescott had told me her father used a razor strap on them, she did not remember anything like that. But the question must have stirred her memory, for she blurted, "Oh, I do remember one morning Pres sassed my father and he was sent away from the table. As he (Pres) was going up the stairs, I don’t know why, but he sassed my father again and my father threw the newspaper which was still folded up in three parts at him. When Pres said, 'Ha! You missed,' my father jumped out of his chair to go for him, and I screamed, ’But he’s going to kill him!’ Mother said, ’No, he’s not.’"
"Austere, aloof and distant," was the way one classmate of George described Prescott, Sr. "Formidable" and "stern," said another. "Authoritarian," said another. "Very much in command and he had maturity and great strength." Another also said, "Very austere and not a warm person." "An imposing figure," said another. "Impressive, impressive in physical stature and bearing," said another. Prescott, Sr., was six foot-four and would naturally tower over his children at the time their own height attained only to his knee or thigh. How frightening for his little sons to have this giant come at them with his razor strap. DeMause points out that ’in the era when men used this leather strap to sharpen their razors for shaving, boys who were punished with it were particulary afraid that the metal clip on its end for hanging would hit their genitals, for the instrument was generally applied to bare bottoms.
Prescott, Sr., was elected senior prefect at St. George’s School. His son George was elected president for a term of his senior class at Andover. Both father and son are found in the middle of many of their yearbook pictures, the leadership spot, which, as Godfrey Rockefeller commented about his classmate George, "Nobody minded."
Out of Andover’s 1942 graduating class of 206 young men (96 of whom went on to Yale), George Bush, or Poppy, was among the top three in the amount of credits amassed alongside his yearbook picture. Among the list of other activities such as student council and senior prom committee, and in addition to being president of his senior class’ for one term, he was captain of both the baseball and soccer teams his senior year and on the varsity basketball team, as well as Chairman of Student Deacons and President of the Society of Inquiry, an organization that raised money for charities and brought in speakers to talk about education, religion or world affairs.
In the Class Poll Poppy was among the top four in his class in the following categories: "Best All-Around Fellow," "Best Athlete," "Most Respected," "Most Popular," "Handsomest" and lastly, a category his brother Prescott also shared in his Andover yearbook, "Having Most Faculty Drag." The yearbook dictionary defines "drag" as "influence" and "suck," that is, the "attempt to gain favor in teacher’s eyes by elaborate and dubious means; to pay teacher in advance with flattery for grades one hopes to get." Poppy was also listed as having received the John Hopkins Prize.(21) Expecting it was for academic excellence, I discovered its $300 reward was to be "divided among those students who have received no demerit, absence or tardy marks in the year," in other words, for being a good boy.
In collecting information about George Bush, I learned the relevance of sociology as I discovered the "macro-collusion" of society’s institutions, particularly its schools, in affecting the life of the child. For example, the "Teacher’s Handbook" at Greenwich Country Day, the all-boys school that George attended until he went away to Andover, was chockablock with rules and regulations to keep the child under control. While manners are the oil to the gears of society’s workings, there is a difference between the courtesy that develops out of natural empathy and the scripted or rulebound behavior forced by duty. The systematic destruction of the self becomes apparent as we see the self supplanted by "good manners." A sampling from "Conduct in the Dining Room":
1. Boys are to sit down quietly and orderly and are to keep hands off each other during meals .
2. Boys are to talk quietly and, if possible, about some subject of common interest. Teachers, by leading the conversation, can do much to control loud voices during the meal hour.
3. Boys are to observe good table manners in the dining room.
4. They are to eat a fair amount of food served, subject to the discretion of the teacher in charge. Do not permit waste.
5. Boys are to be taught respect for adults at their table by waiting for the adult to begin eating before beginning themselves and by standing when the adult takes his place at the table.(22)
The School gave grades in a category called "Claims no more than his fair share of time and attention." When Poppy brought his report card home, his father invariably asked, "How’d we do in ’Claims no more’?" George says, "He gave us hell if we were claiming more than our fair share."(23) Prescott described his parents as "stern disciplinarians" and later added that his Grandfather Walker could be a "stern disciplinarian" too.
Competition was a big theme in the Bush household. Jack Greenway, an ardent fan of George, who in addition to belonging to the fraternity AUV with George at Andover, lived across the hall from George their senior year. Greenway said that "Mrs. Bush was pretty fierce about competition." Competing with her, he guessed, was a family "rite of passage. Nobody had grown up until they had beaten Mrs. Bush at tennis." He said when it was Nancy’s "turn to play her, they played so many deuce (tied) sets at the Round Hill Club in Greenwich that Mrs. Bush was taken directly to the Hospital in Greenwich to be re-hydrated."(24)
When I visited Nancy, we watched some old home movies that her brother Bucky had transferred to convenient video cassettes in which, among other things, we saw Nancy and her mother playing tennis. They had won a doubles tournament at the River Club in Kennebunkport, and Nancy said everyone marveled that her mother was so good she could win even playing with a ten-year-old partner. I said I was more impressed that a ten-year-old could hold her own in an adult tennis tournament. "Oh, that was nothing," Nancy replied in the understatement required of her class, "Mother just showed me where to stand at the net."
Elly Vose, the classmate of Poppy’s who was also senior class president one term, said that one of the unwritten rules was that you were supposed to be laid back about accomplishment. If you earned a Varsity letter in a sport, for instance, he said, "you wore the letter on your sweater, but you wore the sweater inside-out."(25)
Jack Greenway also told about a mutual friend who had spent the weekend at the Bushes’ as a teenager. When Greenway asked him how it went, the friend replied, "Jack, it was awful. We got there Friday, and Mr. Bush beat me at golf. Saturday, George beat me in tennis. When I got up on Sunday and peered out the window, I said, ’Thank God, it’s raining, and nobody’s going to beat me in anything.’ When I went downstairs, Nancy (who was about twelve years old at the time) was waiting for me with the Tiddly Winks, and she beat me badly."
Godfrey Rockefeller’s mother and George Bush’s mother grew up together in St. Louis and were best friends in Greenwich, often teaming up as doubles partners. Rockefeller says of George Bush that "we were thrown in the crib together from day one." When Rockefeller was at the Bushes’, "There was no such thing as sitting around to do nothing." The children constantly played games of every kind, an activity he felt was more the influence of George’s mother than father. Asked how he felt about the constant competition, Rockefeller replied, "Oh, I survived," but he said the Bushes were "a competitive family."
Prescott said: "My mother and father were both fierce competitors and it was extremely important that you compete and do the best you could and that you learn to be a good 1oser .. .In other words, to lose with dignity even though you hated it...even though it made you mad as the devil, you had to maintain your composure and not throw your racket or if you’re in a...in Tiddly Winks, you miss the shot that cost you the game, you couldn’t throw the bowl...."
The Bush children were definitely not allowed to be angry, and we must ask, "What is the price of ’nice ’?"(26)
A woman in Kennebunkport passed on to me the dinner party gossip that Prescott Bush, Sr., was "so competitive that he would send his sons to their rooms if they lost a tennis match ... no wonder," she wrote, "Bush says he will do anything to win." But even if Prescott, Sr., never punished his children this way, where there’s smoke in family mythology, we can be sure there’s fire.
My Kennebunkport informant also remembered that the late mother of a peer of George’s used to say that the adolescent George Bush had the "best manners" of any young man she had ever met. George Bush learned the rules well and pleased people.
Henry See, a schoolmate of George’s at both Greenwich Country Day and Andover, "admired Poppy in grade school: "He was very popular, a good student, a better athlete than I, very friendly and everybody admired him as an individual." Poppy was the kind of guy, See said, that "when you looked at him, you would wish I was as popular as he, as bright as he." When Poppy joined the Navy after Andover graduation, See admired him for "taking such a decisive step." The attack on Pearl Harbor, See said, "galvanized everybody." They "wanted to serve their country." They felt serving was their "duty."(27)
"People [like George Bush] who are so popular have marvelous diplomatic abilities," See said, and he thinks that if someone like Bush were to talk one evening with Barbara Bush and the next evening with Hillary Clinton, he would leave both of them thinking that he thought as they did. George Bush is the perfect "Zelig," the chameleon-like protagonist from Woody Allen’s movie of that name, who literally changed color to match whomever he was with. "[Bush] would have you think that you and he thought alike on issues," See said, "but when you think back, he just nodded and you thought he went along with you." Although he "would put (his) money or family in Bush’s charge," See said, attesting to his classmate’s character, he could not support Bush as a leader. When Reagan and Bush were vying for nomination. See called a friend to ask him if he "could ever remember Poppy taking a stand on anything controversial, and neither of us could."
Bush’s childhood friend and Andover roommate George Warren said, "Our room during our senior year at Andover saw many school-boy, intellectual bull sessions. Bush seldom got involved, rather was he content to wise-crack from the sidelines."(28) Warren thought it was relevant that in 1988, Bush "recommended me to reporters who were researching his earlier years, knowing how much I disagreed with his politics and views." He felt that Bush did not understand that "principles could take priority over loyalty."
For George’s sister, loyalty does take precedence over principles. A Vassar graduate who studied under New Dealer Mabel Newcomb, Nancy used to be a liberal, but she says she’s had to "close ranks." People are calling her all the time to speak to the President on behalf of "pro-choice," etc., she said, "but I won’t do it." She did not want to "hassle" him; when his helicopter landed on the South Lawn and she ran out to greet him, she wanted him to be glad to see her and not to groan, "Oh, no, here comes another problem." The Bush family system "encouraged competition but not confrontation."(29) For the sake of family peace, Nancy is willing to sacrifice her own interests and beliefs.
Nancy confessed to being an "environment person" herself. Alongside a table stacked with bird books, a birding telescope was mounted on a tripod facing out Nancy’s living room window that looked out on Sandy Pond. She said, "27,002 people had called her" (she later laughed and said actually about five people had called her) to speak to the President about attending the Environment meeting (the Earth Summit in Brazil in June, 1992), but she won’t talk to him about it. I asked her, "But what if his attending would help him?" No, she just wanted to be there for him. I asked, "You mean as somebody he could rest with, take refuge with?" She answered, "Yes." But, as Bradshaw says, the "agreement not to disagree" can create only "pseudo-intimacy."(30)
The cartoonist Garry Trudeau pokes fun at the shallowness of Bush’s statesmanship in a panel of cartoons that depict future students of history having few primary documents of the President’s to study except the collected "Thank-You Notes of George Bush. "(31) But the lack of substance is apparently not exaggerated. Nancy told about appearing on a television show once with other relatives of famous people in government. The moderator went around and asked each guest what they talked about around the dinner table. One whose expertise was agriculture said they talked about the problems of agriculture; another, who was a lawyer herself, said they always talked about women’s rights.
"When they turned to me," Nancy laughed, "I thought to myself, ’shall I lie?’" But she answered truthfully, "We just shoot the breeze."
The title of the sociologists Cookson and Persell’s study of America’s elite boarding schools sums up the schools’ purpose: Preparing for Power. "From the cradle," they observe, "most prep school students are told to ’be somebody’; few are told 'just be yourself.'"(32) Unlike so-called "progressive" schools which value cooperation and individuality, "the elite boarding schools were not founded to ’ liberate’ young adults," Cookson and Persell say. "Quite the opposite, they were created to mold and shape adolescents in a particular way."(33) Herein lies collusion for maintaining George’s "false self" first learned in having to "conform to his mother’s wishes and demands."(34)
Several of the men I interviewed commented on the "few rules" Andover required. There did not have to be more rules, I think, because the existing ones were so unforgiving. Leave school premises without permission, for instance, and you were out. It was sink or swim. As it was at Greenwich Country Day, the cast of characters at Andover was entirely male. In the unrelenting routine of hard work and hard play, there was nothing warm or soft.
Andover Headmaster Fuess’s own nickname on campus was "Iron." Another of George’s classmates, Seth Brockway, remembers assemblies where Fuess spurred the students on with reminders that while "other schools had boys, Andover had men."(3S)
"They had to be made tough, loyal to each other, and ready to take command without self-doubt," Cookson and Persell say, "...[to become] Dukes of Wellington who could stand above the carnage with a clear head and an unflinching will to win. It was after all, the Iron Duke who said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eaton."(36) Their study presciently describes George Bush overseeing the Gulf War.
"To compensate for the loss of self," Cook and Persell explain, "students acquire ’character.’ To have character is to be strong, self-disciplined, and fair, at least to one’s equals."(37) To his peers at Andover, George Bush certainly had character. Over and over, from everyone I talked to, I heard that he was "fair," that he was "decent," that he was a "nice guy."
Bush’s war experience may be seen as a logical extension of Andover, which served as an all-male "boot camp," where the prep rite of passage stripped the boys of their private selves "to become soldiers for their class and... 'combat ready.'"(38) George’s roommate Warren also compared Andover to an "academic boot camp" "interested more in producing tough, well-rounded, successful men than in creating thoughtful, reflective, sensitive human beings."(39) Paul Sawyer, who was not a happy Andover camper and only acquainted with Bush, who, he thought, was a "nice guy" and "not snobby," joked that the discipline at Andover was good training for the military and that many of the teachers corresponded to sergeants.(40)
George’s father is conspicuously absent from George’s autobiography. The only words of his father personally spoken to George that George found memorable enough to record are how his father responded to his son’s decision to join the Navy instead of going straight to Yale. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, six months before George received his diploma at Andover. The Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who also happened to be President of Andover’s Board of Trustees, delivered the commencement address to the graduating class. Even though America needed "fighting men," he said, he urged them to serve their country by staying in school.
’’George," his father asked after the ceremony, "did the Secretary say anything to change your mind?"
"’No, sir," George replied. "I’m going in."
His father nodded and shook his son’s hand.(41)
David Chavchavadze. a classmate of George’s on scholarship at Andover, recalls being seen off to school by his parents at Grand Central Station in New York. As demonstrative Russians, he said, "We always kissed." He remembers his Anglo-Saxon classmates shaking their father’s hand like George did and saying, "Good-bye, sir."(42)
Bill Coffin attests to what he calls "a formality of relationship" in those days. Coffin could not recall his father ever kissing him, for instance, and he said that "the closest thing to a compliment to come from my mother was when she would remark that I’d grown this year."(43)
In discussing the atmosphere on campus at Andover after Pearl Harbor, another classmate Ken Keuffel said, "...They couldn’t take us all at once. We wanted to volunteer. We were so patriotic. Desert Storm brought back a little of it, the fervor stirred up."(44)
George was the pilot of a three-man-crew TBM Avenger plane, part of a squadron that operated off the carrier San Jocinto. The single-engine bomber carried a 2,OOO-pound bomb payload and was used for "torpedo runs, glide bombing, antisub patrols and providing air cover during amphibious landings."
The target for the day of George’s dramatic experience was a "radio communications center on Chichi Jima, one of three islands in the Bonin chain" six hundred miles from Tokyo. "The flak was the heaviest I’d ever flown into," George said. "By the time VT-51 (the squadron) was ready to go in, the sky was thick with angry black clouds of exploding antiaircraft fire."(45)
"Suddenly there was a jolt, as if a massive fist had crunched into the belly of the plane. Smoke poured into the cockpit, and I could see flames rippling across the crease of the wing, edging towards the fuel tanks."
George unloaded his bombs and taking his plane back out over the water, bailed out, gashing his head on the tail and cutting his parachute canopy. He never saw his two crewmen again. He treaded water until one of the pilots in his group swooped down to indicate where his seatback raft was floating. He swam to it, and after the raft luckily inflated, he clambered into it. His head was aching and he vomited over the side "occasionally" from swallowing a couple of pints of brackish water. His arm was burning from the sting of a Portuguese Man-of-War. A couple of American fighter planes drove back the Japanese boats headed his way and then the sky was empty. All the planes had left, and without a paddle, George drifted towards the Japanese-held island. What a picture of abandonment.
Imagine. You are barely twenty years old. Your plane is shot out from under you. You lose your two buddies. Your squadron disappears, and you’re a speck floating around in a rubber raft in the Pacific Ocean on the other side of the world from home. A half hour goes by. An hour. An hour and a half. How would you feel?
"Terrorized by the threat of imminent capture," George Bush admits he thought he was a "goner."(46) And then, a little dot popped up out of the ocean about a hundred yards away that turned into a periscope. Was it Japanese? It was the U.S.S. Finback submarine which surfaced to rescue him. Used to the freedom of flying, imagine the stale-air claustrophobia of a whole month on a submarine, where "taking depth charges ... even for ten minutes could seem like an etemity."(47) Who would not call this experience "traumatic"?
Bush was shot down in September. Eight weeks later, he was back with his squadron over the Philippines. Then, after fifty-eight combat missions, he was ordered home for Christmas. January 6th, he married Barbara Pierce. The war was over in August and the following spring he was at Yale playing baseball as if nothing had happened.
One time on the San Jacinto George witnessed the crash of a Hellcat pilot who in landing had missed the arresting wires and hit a gun mount, killing the gun crew. George says, "Just a few yards away was a crewman’s leg, severed and quivering. The shoe was still on. More than forty years later I can still remember it."(48) I imagined George in his Yale uniform at first base, punching a pocket in his mitt as he hunched over to keep his eye on the batter stepping up to the plate. Did that severed leg ever pop into his mind? Bush’s going to war twice in two and a half years as president may represent Bush’s compulsion to repeat his own repressed trauma in order to master it, a "quick fix" to keep his fear of falling apart at bay.(49)
Not talking about feelings is not peculiar to the Bushes, but is characteristic of the mores of George’s class and era. Many of George’s friends also did not talk about their war experiences. Chavchavadze said that he "came from a background where it was usual to go to war and come back and go back to one’s business." Not talking about your experience, he felt, "may be the normal thing to do."
Rockefeller flew in the Marine Corps in the South Pacific. When I asked him if he talked with his peers much about his war experiences, he answered no because "all your peers were in the same basic position. You didn’t stand out for having had the experience. That was behind you. We were trying to catch up. We lost two or three years and we’d better hustle."
During World War II, Phil Stewart saw action flying Piper Cubs for the artillery. "Of all the people I knew and still deal with who were in the War," he said, "to be a man, you just did not talk about it." Stewart grew up under the dictum that you were not to get your name in the newspaper more than twice in one lifetime--once when you were born and once when you died (he did not even include marriage). "You were supposed to be out of the public eye," he said. "That’s why he [Bush] comes off from being very stiff," Stewart offered. "It’s unnatural to be asked some questions."
The Bush family has its unwritten code about what things are simply not nice to discuss. If there are taboo topics in the singular family, we should not be surprised to discover certain lacunae in the media, the unwritten code on what subjects demand silence in the national family. But we have to ask what is the cost of having to bury our feelings, of having impeccable manners? As Goldstein said, "You have to contain your aggression if you are going to kill someone."(51) Where did George Bush put his fear, his hatred, his anger? When we do not own the evil "in here," we are doomed to project it "out there." Saddam Hussein, of course, is the perfect "hook" on which George Bush can hang the alienated parts of himself.
Where Adolf Eichmann once demonstrated the "banality of evil," George Bush manifests the gentility of evil. "If anyone ever pushes that nuclear button," Lloyd deMause remarked, "it will probably be a ’nice’ person."
In Greek mythology certain rivers led into the underworld of Infernal Regions, and one of those was the River of Lethe, a place of oblivion, for "those who drank of the waters of Lethe forgot the past." With its root in lethe, the Greek word for truth is alethe, which is actually a negative, that is, truth is an un-forgetting. I felt the pull of the River of Lethe many times during my interviews. Everyone I interviewed was so "nice" that I almost forgot about Iraq. "Nice" is so seductive, I had to work hard not to go under in the River of Lethe.
When I first began interviewing people who knew George Bush as a child, I kept looking for proof of abuse to explain the destruction. But now I understand that the Gulf War itself is the proof. People fortunate to have grown up with their feelings respected and their being and natural interests affirmed, people who have not had to repress their anger and are helped to become themselves would go out of their way to protect an innocent child from harm, not to cause a child anxiety, nor to rob a child of joy. Any child. "Read my lumps," one political cartoonist depicted a beaten-up George Bush. Bush’s sanitized version of his childhood may be as mythical as the "clean war." Reading the abuse he inflicted on Iraq, we can guess that as a child George Bush’s own infrastructure was destroyed and he was left starving. As Weissberg puts it, "The child victim becomes the adult-aggressor. Identifying with the aggressor, becoming like the violent parent, magically decreases the anxiety of earlier victimization."(52)
It can be argued that a "good lickin’" is as American as Huckleberry Finn and that children on the other end of them do not usually grow up to be murderers. But the fact that "poisonous pedagogy" is our common experience may explain why, once the war was under way, the polls showed 90% of Americans approving of Bush’s aggression. Bush was the perfect "delegate," as Dervin explains the concept,(53) to act out the unconscious aggression of 90% of us. Although this is not what Thomas Jefferson had in mind, Bush had the "consent of the governed."
Perhaps someday the warmongers among us will discover how much they unwittingly reveal to us about their secret childhoods when in the name of patriotism or economic interests they pursue or support violent solutions to problems. Such people "wear their childhood on their sleeves" and they too deserve our compassion, for their acting out only reveals what a terrible time they had of it. When lethal technology is at their fingertips and they are in as powerful a position as George Bush, however, their tragedy is not contained in the generations of their particular family, but extended to tens of thousands of innocent people, as it was in Iraq.
As our psychological awareness increases, perhaps someday going to war will be recognized as dysfunctional a response to a problem in the global family as abuse is today in the individual family. We help each other advance towards this awareness in forums like this one, and each time we resist forgetting and tell the truth.
Suzy Kane, whose two children are grown, is a writer who lives with her husband in Westchester County, New York. This article grew out of an Independent Study she completed towards the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York.
1. Kaku, Michio, "War and the Environment," Audubon. September- October 1991, p. 91.
2. Clark, Ramsey, Testimony before the International War Crimes Tribunal, Martin Luther King, Jr., High School Auditorium, New York City, February 29, 1992.
3. Walker, Paul F., and Eric Stambler, "...And the Dirty Little Weapons," The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 1991, p. 22.
4. Paquet, Charlotte, and Rene Dumont (French Agronomists), Testimony before the International War Crimes Tribunal, Martin Luther King, Jr., High School Auditorium, New York City, February 29, 1992.
5. Office of Gareth Jones, "Statistics and Surveillance," UNICEF, 3 United Nations Plaza, New York, New York 10017, (212) 326-7000.
6. FYI MEDIA ALERT 1992, "The Bush Administration and the News Media," The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 1735 Eye Street, N.W., Suite 504, Washington, D. C. 20006, p. 1.
7. Bradshaw, John, Healing the Shame That Binds You, Health Communications, Inc., Deerfield Beach, Florida 33442, 1988, p. 32.
8. The International Study Team on the Gulf Crisis is a group of eighty-seven researchers in a wide variety of disciplines, funded by such organizations as UNICEF, Oxfam-UK and the MacArthur Foundation, who conducted a number of surveys in Iraq in August 1991.
9. War Watch, "Health and Welfare in Iraq, Excerpts from the Report of the International Study Team," OUT NOW, P.O. Box 562, Santa Cruz, CA 95061, Issue #11-12, November-December 1991, p. 5.
10. Sciolino, Elaine, "Greater U.S. Effort Backed to Oust Iraqi," The New York Times, June 2, 1992, p. A3.
11. Ibrahim, Youssef M., "Fake-Money Flood Is Aimed At Crippling Iraq’s Economy," The New York Times, May 27, 1992, p. 1.
12. Ibid., p. 9.
13. Ibid., p. 10.
14. See, for example, Samir al-Khalil’s Republic of Fear, Pantheon Books, New York, 1989, 1990, or Gail Sheehey’s profile of the Iraqi leader in the August 1991 issue of Vanity Fair.
15. Laing, R.D., The Politics of Experience, Pantheon Books. New York, 1967, p. 28.
16. Bush, George, with Victor Gold, Looking Forward, An Autobiography, Bantam Books, New York, 1987, 1988. �
17. Interview with Prescott S. Bush, Jr., Greenwich, Connecticut, February 11, 1992.
18. Suffrin, Mark, George Bush, The Story of the Forty-first President of the United States, p. 2.
19. Miller, Alice, For Your Own Good, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, 1983.
20. Interview with Nancy Bush Ellis, Lincoln, Massachusetts, May 11,1992.
21. Pot Pourri 1942, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts.
22. Elia, Susan D., Renee F. Seblatnigg and Val P. Storms, Greenwich Country Day, a History, 1926-1986, p. 107. ’
23. Warner, Margaret Garrard, "Bush Battles the ’Wimp Factor,’" Newsweek, October 19, 1987, p. 28.
24. Telephone Interview with John Greenway, Tucson, Arizona. April 7, 1992.
25. Interview with Elliott E. Vose, New York City, April 23, 1992.
26. Bach, Dr. George R., and Dr. Herb Goldberg, Creative Aggression, The Art of Assertive Living, Signet Book, New American Library, New York, 1974, p. 88. (I learned of this book through a taped lecture by John Bradshaw entitled, "The Price of Nice."
27. Telephone interview with Henry See, Wayzata, Minnesota, April 28, 1992.
28. Personal correspondence with George U. Warren, Cummaquid, Massachusetts, March 12, 1992.
29. Warner, Margaret Garrard, "Bush Battles the ’Wimp Factor’" Newsweek, October 19, 1987, p. 32 .
30. Bradshaw, John, Healing the Shame That Binds You, Health Communications, Inc., Deerfield Beach, Florida 33442, 1988.
31. Trudeau, G. B., Recycled Doonesbury, Second Thoughts on a Gilded Age, Andrews and McMeel, 4900 Main Street, Kansas City, Missouri 64112, 1990, pages unnumbered.
32. Cookson, Peter W., Jr., and Caroline Hodges Persell, Preparing for Power, America’s Elite Boarding Schools, Basic Books, a Division of HarperCollinsPublishers, 1985, p. 20.
34. For an excellent description of the borderline personality, see Lachkar, Joan, Ph.D., The Narcissistic/Borderline Couple, A Psychoanalytic Perspective on Marital Treatment, BRUNNER/MAZEL, Publishers, New York, 1992.
35. Interview with Seth Brockway, Greenwich, Connecticut, April 13, 1992.
36. Cookson, Peter W., Jr., and Caroline Hodges Persell, Preparing for Power, America’s Elite Boarding Schools, p. 25.
38. Cookson, Peter W., Jr., and Caroline Hodges Persell, Preparing for Power, America’s Elite Boarding Schools, pp. 24-25.
39. Personal Correspondence with George U. Warren, Cummaquid, Massachusetts, March 12, 1992.
40. Telephone Interview with Paul Sawyer, Braintree, Massachusetts, April 27, 1992.
41. Bush, George, with Victor Gold, Looking Forward, An Autobiography, A Bantam Book/published by arrangement with Doubleday, 1987, 1988, p. 30.
42. Telephone Interview with David Chavchavadze, Washington, D.C., April 9, 1992.
43. Telephone Interview with William Sloane Coffin, Nashville, Tennessee, March 9, 1992.
44. Telephone Interyiew with Kenneth Keuffel, Lawrenceville, New Jersey, April 22, 1992.
45. Bush, George, with Victor Gold, Looking Forward. An Autobiography, p. 36.
46. Bush, George, with Doug Wead, George Bush. Man of Integrity, pp. 2-6.
47. Bush, George, with Victor Gold, Looking Forward. An Autobiography, pp. 33-41.
49. Lachkar, Joan, Ph.D., The Narcissistic/Borderline Couple. A Psychoanalytic Perspective on Marital Treatment, p. 26.
50. Telephone Interview with Philip B. Stewart, II, Stuart, Florida, April 13, 1992.
51. Goldstein, Melvin, Ph.D., Moderator on Panel for Psychohistorical Studies of Film, International Psychohistorical Association, Convention, June 11, 1992.
52. Weissberg, Michael, M.D., Dangerous Secrets. Maladaptive Responses to Stress, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, London, 1983, p. 45.
53. See Daniel Dervin’s "The Dynamics of the Delegate Bush's Presidency" in this issue.