By Bill Shunas
When a nation elects a Trump to be a president it causes one to stop and think. My first thought was that this guy is a grifter, a charlatan, or circus ringmaster or all three rolled into one. And maybe dangerous too. From him you can expect the worst. The next thought was that in my lifetime I've witnessed the administration of some piss poor presidents. And Trump? Give him time. Right now, he doesn't have enough of a track record to be named the worst. Actually, he's done some good. In his first eight weeks, his opinions and actions have generated debate, dialog, thought and activism. He still has his work cut out for him if he wants to achieve recognition as our worst president.
And my next thought was a question. Of all the presidents in my lifetime, who was the worst? Harry Truman would get some votes for starting the nuclear age and for ordering the second A bomb, if not the first. LBJ would get a lot of votes because of Vietnam. And many of you who read The Veteran might pick him. Eisenhower and Kennedy began the process, but it was under LBJ that most of the escalation and devastation took place. There were so many lives lost and ruined, both military and civilian. And then we find out from the "Pentagon Papers" and McNamara's confession that LBJ advisers thought that fighting in Vietnam was hopeless. Yet LBJ kept on because he didn't want to be known as the first president to lose a war or be known as soft on communism. Very strong candidate for the worst. And then came "I am not a crook" Nixon who left office in disgrace because of his crookedness. And Reagan with his giant efforts to redistribute wealth to the rich.
With men such as these it is a hard choice, but my vote for the worst president in my lifetime goes to W. This is because of his implementation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wars are awful. There is a body count. So many soldiers on our side. So many soldiers on their side. So many civilians. So many maimed. So many maimed in the mind. So many relegated to the refugee life. So much resource and money that could have been better used. And then there are the unintended consequences.
The Iraq War had more than its share of unintended consequences. It created large numbers of refugees, many of whom fled to Europe. The Iraq War contributed to the situation in Syria today with its war and slaughter. Out of Syria came millions more refugees to join those from Iraq and Afghanistan. Most European countries, to their credit, accepted refugees. The problem is that some countries were overwhelmed. They received too many people in too short of a period of time. This resulted in anti-immigrant thoughts in the populace. This resulted in a newfound increase in support for the right-wing politicians and parties which are now affecting the politics as major players in European countries - blowback from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And there was more blowback. A petty criminal with a life in and out of Iraqi jails formed a group of fanatics. Al-Zarqawi and his buddies prayed that the US would invade Iraq. We answered that prayer, and as expected that aided and abetted recruitment for his group which for a while became Al Qaeda in Iraq. US mistakes weren't limited only to the invasion. By excluding Sunnis from the government and the army we aided al-Zarqawi's ability to recruit. He was eventually killed by the US, but he left a legacy. I would suggest that his followers contributed key players to the Islamic State. That, of course, brought to Europeans and Americans more acts of terrorism. IS is responsible for a certain body count in Iraq and elsewhere. It is involved in Syria. Worst of all is the psychological effect. It has stimulated paranoia which has resulted in reactions in the US and elsewhere far out of proportion to the damage IS has done.
After 9/11 there was a reason to send forces into Afghanistan. The general staff of the perpetrators of 9/11 were in the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan. However, there were time constraints. Our forces needed to get to Al Qaeda before the window of opportunity closed. We failed. Shortly thereafter Al Qaeda left Afghanistan, but for some reason we stayed to fight the Taliban. Bait and switch. And Iraq? There was no basis for invading Iraq. And these two wars have left us with many problems today.
Bush and his people changed reasons for the invasion of Iraq almost as often as Trump changed his promises on the campaign trail. None of the reasons were valid. During LBJ's war we saw a greater death toll than Iraq and Afghanistan among both military and civilians. Yet Iraq seems a worse thing. That's because - dare I say - there was a reason to go into Vietnam. It was a faulty reason, but it was in the parameters of the political thought of the time. This was the Cold War. We fought the Russians by proxy all over the world. Here was Vietnam. Even though it was their civil war, Americans thought it was another proxy war. It got out of control. It shouldn't have happened, but it was not off the wall to expect something like that back then. And few in the US expected it would last that long or that we would lose. But when it was over, it was over, unlike today.
For Iraq there was no reason. And it had those unintended consequences. They resulted from Bush's actions. As far as the prize for the worst president, it's not that Trump hasn't a chance to be our worst. From the way he's started, he could very well quickly get there. From more military buildup at the expense of needed social programs, to escalating military conflicts, to disrespecting the first amendment, to allowing the specter of fascism to lurk, to ruining our economy, to making parents hide their children when he speaks, Trump has a good chance to take the crown. Hell, even W said that Islam is a religion of peace. Trump couldn't understand that type of talk. W holds the crown at the moment, but Trump is coming up fast on the outside. And we don't yet know what the blowback will be from his executive orders, appointments and tweets. It could be devastating.
Bill Shunas is a Vietnam veteran, author and VVAW member in the Chicago chapter.