George W. Bush wants us to forget. Because we are Americans, we're likely to fall for it.
In "Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief's Tribute to America's Warriors," the forty-third President of the United States presents a book of sixty-six full-color portraits and a four-panel mural that he painted of military members who were harmed in the two wars that he lost.
Of the paintings themselves, one might observe that his work is better than a fairground caricature, better than a Paint Nite canvas. He's better than some MICA graduates, while not as good as others. The portraits themselves are mostly unremarkable, but compared to the earlier paintings he did of heads of state from around the world, these paintings demonstrate that his technique and personal style are evolving. There are a few pieces, notably his work in red for the portraits of Jeremy Henderson and Chris Goehner, that have a certain spark to them, but despite being a military veteran myself, I wouldn't hang any of these portraits up in my own home. I'm sure that there's a market out there for those who would, but maybe I'm not the former president's audience.
All that is to say, Bush is pretty adequate painter.
It's a shame he didn't spend his life doing that instead.
War and national mismanagement are rarely the failure of a single person, but it's tempting to imagine what the start of the millennium might have looked like if Bush would have become a Texas landscape artist rather than the man who oversaw the start of two bungled wars, the deterioration of Americans' right to privacy, and our refusal to take meaningful action on climate change. Granted, like other speculations about alternative history, imagining a world without the second President Bush is a slippery slope. Sure, we might have had a President Gore or Dean, but we also might have had a President Cheney or Hatch.
Paired with Bush's recent re-emergence into public life, the book seems to be less about the paintings, and more about a man's attempt to amend his place in our memory. This is Bush's war on history.
Beside each painting in "Portraits of Courage" is a short vignette, Bush's musings on how he met each veteran, why the vet joined, and a summary of the incident that caused each person's injury.
I served eight years in the U.S. Army, during these two wars. Like countless others, I joined because I was naïve and poor, and I was lucky enough to have made it in and out without having to kill, die, or be disfigured.
Of the over 70 veterans that Bush presents in this book, only two seem to join for similarly practical reasons. In Bush's history, nearly every veteran is a hero who joined with the most noble of intentions. They come from a long lines of family members who served. They love their nation so much they felt it was their duty to enlist. Sean Bennett insists that, "Serving my country was a duty that I needed to do to become a man." Ben Dellinger said that he "was obligated to do something about" the Sept. 11 attacks. I don't doubt the integrity of these veterans, but the book is creating a dangerous myth by only telling this part of the story. The untold part is that two-thirds of people who joined during the first years of the war were recruited from poor neighborhoods, and that the promise of the military as a socioeconomic ladder has long been dangled above Americans living in poverty.
The other myth that "Portraits of Courage" tells is a revision of Bush's time in office. The book opens with a foreword from former first lady Laura Bush, who offers thanks to those who served "so that the rest of us might never know terror again." It seems that in Bush's America, we won the wars. He reminds people of his role in these supposed victories when he mentions in one of the vignettes that his 2007 surge of troops "successfully quelled the violent insurgency in Iraq." In another piece, Bush uses a veteran's story to re-establish how bad conditions in Iraq were before the U.S. bombed, and in the final portrait of the book, Bush closes with the words of a veteran who is praising his leadership during the wars. Make no mistake, this book is not atonement—it is a justification, one hiding behind the injuries of an unimpeachable population. This sort of self-aggrandizing would be worthy of criticism from any author, but it is reprehensible coming from a man who avoids taking responsibility for wars that killed hundreds of thousands of people.
The other way in which Bush attempts such myth-making has been during the book's press tour. On "Today," "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," and "Jimmy Kimmel Live!," Bush plays the bumbling old Texan again, renewing his masterful deployment of "plain folks" propaganda. If the interviews are any indication, George W. Bush is just a silly old man finding a new interest late in life. He's proud of the men and women who served, and he makes mistakes just like you. The hosts of these shows give him the perfect platform for such myth-making—they joke about his poncho incident at Trump's inauguration, about "misunderestimate" and other Bushisms. They joke about Vice President Cheney shooting someone in the face. It's all so nostalgic and light-hearted. Viewers even got a chance to see how reasonable Bush is compared to Trump when he spoke out about the indispensable role of the news media. And why not buy into it? Even an asshole looks reasonable when contrasted with a tyrant.
Here's the point Bush wants you to know, what he put on the book jacket and what he keeps repeating in all of his interviews: The proceeds of this book go to Bush's Military Service Initiative, which supports organizations that help veterans transition to civilian life. The former president does a lot of work with veterans nowadays, and as he does, he asks people everywhere to remember the sacrifice of "America's Warriors."
The real sin of "Portraits of Courage" is remembering too little. The book makes it easy to forget how Bush failed us on peace, on climate change, on our economy, on LGBTQ issues, in his response to Hurricane Katrina, with the Patriot Act, and with No Child Left Behind.
Flag-wavers love to offer slogans about supporting the troops, about taking care of veterans. Yet the story of American patriotism is the story of convenient myths, stories that ignore the cause of post-traumatic stress, missing limbs, and veteran suicides: war. Bush celebrates the American service member, and he asks us to remember their sacrifice, but he never acknowledges that his decision to send young men and women to kill and die is the root of this loss. A tribute to sacrifice without asking why is the most dangerous thing the former commander-in-chief has the power left to do. It returns to the oldest myth of war—that it is "sweet and right to die for one's country"—without acknowledging its counter, that "old men dream up wars for young men to die in."