A big, clueless Boy Scout

For Bush, it’s all one big jamboree

Photo Illustration by Don Button

Alison Rood is a local writer and mother living deep in Boy Scout country

The photograph in the newspaper showed George W. Bush standing at a podium in Bowling Green, Va., on July 31, addressing approximately 50,000 Boy Scouts at their National Scout Jamboree. He was paying tribute to the four Scout leaders who were electrocuted when a metal pole in their dining tent touched power lines.

He dished out the usual clichés about patriotism and community and military service. He told the boys they honored the dead leaders by following the scouting ideals their leaders stood for. He used the words “character,” “kindness” and “models of good citizenship.” In the photograph, hordes of Scouts in green fatigue uniforms were cheering wildly.

The whole thing made me slightly ill.

I’d been vacationing in Washington, D.C., and part of Virginia two weeks before that speech, and I got an eyeful of Boy Scouts wearing jamboree T-shirts, obviously exploring the nation’s capital before heading off to their big blowout. I watched them get admonished by security guards at the Lincoln Memorial when they climbed on structures where they weren’t allowed. I saw them hurtle through crowds at the National Air and Space Museum with no regard for the people they almost knocked down. And, when I stood at John F. Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery, I observed a large group of them acting like they were on a field trip to Disneyland instead of in a graveyard filled with dead soldiers.

I’m sure everyone reading this who has a well-mannered Scout in the family will take offense at what I just wrote, but I’m only reporting my personal experience. I saw a lot of those jamboree-bound boys, their shirts covered with so much bling commemorating their many accomplishments, behaving more like disrespectful goofballs than model citizens. Monuments to those who died in battle loomed everywhere, but the Scouts seemed oblivious to the serious nature of war and death.

Interesting that Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld all are former Boy Scouts with no reason to comprehend a war monument, either: Bush’s highly questionable hitch in the Texas Air National Guard kept him out of Vietnam, and Cheney avoided the same war with five deferments—four because he was a student and one because he was a father. Rumsfeld served in the Navy during the mid-1950s, but as secretary of defense, he didn’t have the common decency to issue hand-signed sympathy notes to the families of Americans killed in Iraq until someone gave him a wakeup call.

I couldn’t help noticing, too, that the 2005 Scout jamboree took place at Fort A.P. Hill, an Army base in Virginia, and that the pep talk Bush gave to the crowd of uniformed, flag-waving adolescents whose leaders had been electrocuted seemed a lot like one of his speeches to war-weary troops who’ve watched their comrades die in Iraq. Bush’s spiel on patriotism, duty and honorable death was as canned as the school report one of those goofy Scouts undoubtedly will write on the topic “What the National War Monuments Meant to Me.”

Then again, maybe Bush thought he was at a military recruitment drive.

This was my first trip to Washington, D.C., so I had no idea that most of our hallowed shrines pay homage to those who died on the battlefield, from the Civil War to World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam. Even many of the displays in the Air and Space Museum were devoted to war. And while I was humbled by the sacrifice of so much life, and in particular understood the significance of the Allied effort in World War II, the realization that war and its grim results are the themes of our more famous monuments was depressing. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall was devastating proof that those in power can make decisions that cause a horrifying number of men and women to die. The deaths are duly noted on plaques, walls and statues and accompanied by suitable words from distinguished statesmen about the bravery of the dead. Flags wave above the memorials to the deceased to remind us that it’s patriotic to give our lives in war.

In the midst of all that, the tour buses come and go, people snap pictures, and souvenir stands peddle postcards and memorabilia. Families wolf down ice-cream bars, bands of teenagers put wrestling moves on each other, and little kids look around for the nearest face-painting booth. Someone plops down on a bench and complains about the blister on her foot.

In Arlington National Cemetery, I stared at the acres of immaculate white markers, and it had the same effect on me as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall: visible, mind-numbing evidence that an insane number of people die in wars. Some tourists—a lot of them, really—were able to walk past the graves in Arlington and along the Vietnam wall and still chat and laugh in a normal fashion, as if they were just strolling through a pretty park. But I couldn’t stop thinking about war and death and what it’s all supposed to mean in terms of patriotism. I couldn’t bring myself to buy a single souvenir.

A group of Boy Scouts clustered noisily around John F. Kennedy’s grave, disrupting the otherwise sober atmosphere as they jostled one another and grinned in front of the eternal flame while someone took a picture. It was like watching Bush posing in his flight suit on the deck of an aircraft carrier with that silly grin on his face. At that point, I decided I’d had about all I could stand of Washington, D.C. As we left Arlington, I happened to see a squirrel sitting quietly on a soldier’s grave eating a nut. It was the first thing all day that made sense to me.

When Bush addressed the Boy Scouts in Bowling Green, he was talking to kids who were too busy goofing off at the Lincoln Memorial to bother reading the Gettysburg Address. And what about Bush? Has he checked out any of the memorials in his neighborhood lately? Has he bothered to take a good hard look at the Vietnam wall as he continues his mission in Iraq? Or is he still just a big, clueless Boy Scout himself?

But goofy, disrespectful Boy Scouts like the ones I observed in Washington, D.C., are the perfect audience for George Bush. The predominantly white, anti-gay, churchgoing boys already feel the thrill of putting on a uniform, moving up the ranks and earning medals. They’ve got a long way to go before there’s any need for them to realize what a war memorial is really all about, but they’re heading in the right direction.