by George McEvoy / Palm Beach Post –
“I went into a public-‘ouse to get a pint of beer,
The publican ‘e up and sez, ‘We serve no red-coats here.’
The girls behind the bar they laughed and giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I:
‘O it’s Tommy this an’ Tommy that, an’ Tommy go away”;
But it’s, ‘Thank you, Mister Atkins,’ when the band begins to play… “
(September 20, 2003) — Tommy Atkins is what the British have called their typical soldier in the ranks since the Duke of Wellington coined the term in 1843. Rudyard Kipling, in his poem Tommy, wanted to show how civilians treat the military as heroes in time of war and as drains on the taxpayers once peace is won.
The words of that old poem flashed through my mind a week ago Friday as I watched President Bush greet members of the Army’s combat-weary Third Division and welcome them back from Iraq. As the soldiers, wearing berets and camouflage fatigues, sat in bleachers at Fort Stewart, Ga., Mr. Bush strode onstage with that John Wayne walk he assumes when he’s playing soldier.
The Third Division supplied more than 20,000 troops to the Iraq war, most of them front-line combat soldiers. They saw more action than just about any other outfit. Some of them returned to the US only three weeks ago.
“America is grateful for your devoted service in hard conditions,” Mr. Bush told the troops. Their applause was described as “polite.” They probably knew that some of their units already were being re-deployed back to Iraq and that they probably would follow in a short while.
“You’ve made history,” Mr. Bush went on. “You’ve made our nation proud… ” And he presented the Third with a Presidential Unit Citation for “extraordinary heroism” in action.
Again, the applause seemed to lack a certain enthusiasm usually found when the president speaks to military groups. After the speech, Pvt. Kenneth Henry, 21, a Third Division radar operator with a field artillery unit, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying of Mr. Bush: “He likes war. He should go fight in a war for two days and see how he likes it.”
Mr. Bush’s military experience consists only of serving as a jet pilot with the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. But his outfit never left Texas, and he since has been accused of going AWOL for a year to campaign for a political pal of his father’s.
But what brought the Kipling poem tramp-tramp-tramping across my mind was another story that ran the same day as the one about the president’s trip to Fort Stewart. This story said that senior Republicans on the House Veterans Affairs Committee were joining with the Democrats in an attempt to keep the Bush administration from taking benefits away from disabled veterans.
Under the Bush plan, the Department of Veterans Affairs would disqualify about 1.5 million veterans, two-thirds of those now in the VA disability program.
In Kipling’s day, at least, the civilians and the government would wait until the killing fields had been quieted before deciding to act like ingrates and treat the disabled troops as a needless expense.
The Bush administration is trying to cheat the veterans while continuing to send today’s troops back into action, all at the same time, thereby creating more casualties and new disabled veterans who can be denied benefits. And don’t think the troops don’t know.
Rudyard Kipling understood the soldier’s mind as few men have, and so he wrote:
“For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Tommy wait outside’;
But it’s ‘Special train for Atkins,’ when the trooper’s on the tide –
The troopship’s on the tide, my boys, the troopship’s on the tide,
O it’s ‘Special train for Atkins,’ when the trooper’s on the tide.”