Finally, A Smoking Gun Proving Bush Shirked Military Duty ... Or Maybe Not

Uproar over authenticity of memos threatens to overwhelm their content.

One of the most talked-about issues in the presidential campaign this year has been the war ... in Vietnam. Every newscast seems to feature footage of a young John Kerry wading through the marshes of Southeast Asia or a picture of a fresh-faced George W. Bush strapped into a fighter plane — accompanied by questions of just what the candidates did (or did not do) while in uniform.

What these questions have all had in common, however, is a lack of supporting documentary evidence. No smoking gun has been found to support accusations that Kerry exaggerated his wartime heroism (see "Will Reopening John Kerry's War Wounds Hurt His Campaign?") or that Bush shirked duty in the Texas Air National Guard. As a result, it has been easy for supporters of either candidate to dismiss the allegations as partisan rumor-mongering.

That was all supposed to change last week when several new documents, written by Bush's commanding officer, Jerry Killian, surfaced, revealing that Bush had disobeyed orders and received preferential treatment while in the Guard. Was this the first smoking gun?

Maybe not. Hours after these documents were released, a number of oddities were noticed, primarily by conservative bloggers. Could a typewriter in 1972 have created documents like this, with superscripts, proportional spacing, perfect centering ability, and no corrections? Why did a typed memo from 1972 exactly match the defaults for Microsoft Word? Why have Killian's wife and son said the memos are fakes? Why did these documents pop up 30 years after the fact and 20 years after Killian died? Who had them in the meantime?

As with much of the evidence in these debates, the uproar over the authenticity of the memos threatens to overwhelm their content. Professional journalists and amateur bloggers alike have become instant experts on IBM typewriters, fonts, and the record-keeping habits of Lt. Col. Killian. But what about the more important underlying issue — faked memos or not — what was President Bush doing from 1968-1973?

Here is what everyone agrees on. Bush graduated from Yale in 1968 with no desire to spend the next several years in Vietnam. Rather than face the draft, Bush secured a coveted position in the Texas Air National Guard.

Bush spent his first two years on active duty, which included six weeks of basic training, 53 weeks of flight training (Bush was certified to fly the F-102 fighter plane) and 21 weeks of fighter interceptor training. In the next two years, Bush scaled back his training flights to once or twice a week, still far more than what was required. During this time, Bush's superiors gave him consistently high ratings as a pilot and officer.

Nobody questions this. The controversy begins in the summer of 1972, four years into Bush's service commitment. In May 1972, Bush requested permission to move to Alabama so that he could work on the senatorial campaign of a family friend. Permission was granted so long as Bush participated in drills with the Alabama Air National Guard while there. Did the future president ever show up? Bush says he did, the former head of the Alabama regiment says he can't remember seeing Bush there, and military records are inconclusive. To further complicate matters, during this period Bush missed a necessary physical and was grounded from flying planes.

Cut to 1973. Bush returned to his unit in Texas that winter and resumed training, but he wasn't there for long. That summer he asked for and received permission to leave the Guard early, in order to attend Harvard Business School. By this time the Vietnam War was winding down, the National Guard was looking to thin its ranks, and Bush was granted an honorable discharge after serving five years and four months of his original six-year commitment. End of story? Of course not.

The questions bubble up in every election. Did Bush's father pull strings to get him into the Guard? Out of the Guard early? Why did Bush miss his physical? Did he fulfill his service requirements in the summer of 1972?

The attacks have been especially tough this year because Bush's opponent, John Kerry, is a decorated Vietnam veteran whose own service record has been questioned in Republican-funded television ads. Democrats claim this both opens Bush's past up for examination and highlights a crucial difference between the two: Regardless of what Bush did while in the National Guard, Kerry, who finished Yale two years earlier, faced a similar choice and volunteered for much more dangerous service in Vietnam.

Memos or no memos, that much is true. The more important question is whether the candidates' behavior in 1966 or 1968 or 1972 should be the primary focus of either campaign today.