I decided to go to Barnes & Noble during my lunch break. I usually tell myself I’m just going to browse but wind up spending money I don’t have and adding to an ever-growing unread book pile. During the visit, I picked up Portraits of Courage, a book by former President George W. Bush. Bush, who took up oil painting post-presidency, included portraits he painted next to prose-written profiles of 98 physically and/or mentally wounded U.S. Armed Forces veterans of the most recent Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
I caressed the book, enamored with the cover and the heft of the solid tome. The only problem is that I hated the man who wrote the book and I hated the administration he oversaw. I agonized over my decision to purchase and finally caved in; I wanted to support the veterans who sacrificed so much and learn about each one.
Each veteran Bush painted he got to know either through the W100K mountain bike rides or the Warrior Open golf outings put on by the Bush Institute. I enjoyed learning about each veteran’s personal story – most sections began with a background story about why the veteran joined the military, how the veteran had been injured, and what led to their friendship with the former President. The stories were inspiring and fascinating but I couldn’t help but experience rising anger with each profile I read. I could not get over that the man who sent these people to war – and in the case of Iraq, lied to the public to get us into war – had the nerve to profile the heroes who had limbs separated from their bodies because of his actions. I felt sick that I added to his war-profiteering by purchasing his book. That led me to think about two things: First, is this a form of redemption for Bush? Is redemption even possible for the leaders who are responsible for the destruction they caused? Second, I thought about my own part in this. I served in Iraq and saw the human cost of that quagmire and the price is immeasurable. And yet, I still purchased the book written by the architect of these wars. Where is my sense of culpability? Should my demand of culpability extend to the broader civilian population, particularly those who voted for Bush?
Colin Powell used to be a personal hero of mine. Before I even thought I might join the military I was aware of Powell’s background. He was an African-American male, as was I, and he grew up in the south Bronx, as I did also. He joined the military to escape a poor socio-economic background and reached the pinnacle of his profession and beyond, becoming the first Black secretary of state. His bio and background were beyond pristine. That is, until he helped convince the American people that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction which led to thousands of deaths and thousands of veterans being injured. His fall from grace was swift and stunning. Since leaving office, Colin Powell has barely been seen in a public forum which I think demonstrates his shame for his part in the war on terror. As much as I dislike the man, I appreciate that he has gone into hiding, a tactic that I think Bush and the rest of his cronies should follow. Or am I being too hard on our former leadership? Should I commend Bush for shining a light on veterans who have been injured even if he was the cause? Should we as the collective encourage Bush’s path towards restorative justice and applaud his literary and artistic achievement? You can tell by my words how I feel but I don’t want to discredit the veterans who agreed to be profiled for his book and have maintained a personal friendship with President Bush. If the maimed victims of the war on terror can forgive and see Bush in a positive light then what right do I have, as an uninjured veteran, to complain?
I struggle with similar questions that can apply to my civilian counterparts who voted Bush into office. Should I feel anger towards them? Or myself, for purchasing a book written by George W. Bush? At what point does wanting culpability for myself and others who indirectly are involved in war become a futile exercise in pinning blame where there is no blame? Am I being a hypocrite in demanding that we as a nation should turn our back on controversial leaders? I am not old enough to have voted for Bill Clinton; however, I remember loving the man as a teenager and would have voted for him if I could have. Would I feel responsible for the mass incarceration of black males that Clinton was responsible for when he signed his disastrous crime bill in the mid 90’s? I don’t think I would feel responsible so maybe I am judging myself and the public too harshly over Bush.
Upon crafting the first draft of this essay, I stated that I wish I had the answers to the questions I posed. But that statement was not true one. I have my answers. I feel an intense hatred for the Bush administration. For the lies they told and the deaths they caused. I have nothing but respect for veterans who were profiled in Bush’s book but I am disappointed in the friendship they have struck with the man responsible for their missing limbs. I can’t believe that people voted Bush into office and even in the midst of the failing wars, decided they want to stay the course and give a mandate to his agenda. I am also disappointed in myself. I bought Bush’s book, fought Bush’s war, and refused to amplify my voice when it came to speaking up against what I thought I was wrong. So no, I don’t wish I had the answers to the questions I posed. I know how I feel. What I want to know is how do you feel? If life was painted in broad shades of black and white, instead of the hazy grey that colors every facet of humanity, then the answer would be easy to vocalize. But life is not easy and hard questions demand thought-provoking answers. What do you think? How long should we hold onto anger so that we don’t forget the past? When do we let that anger go in order to forgive the people who trespass against us? In the case of top-level government officials should forgiveness even be an option? Accountability starts with asking the tough questions and demanding answers from those around us. I’m trying to do my part. Will you do the same?