When rules of politics supersede military rules

MIKE ROYKO

June 21, 1993|By MIKE ROYKO

Airman Jackson was a mess hall cook. Oh, he could load, ai and fire a carbine. And if he was sober, he might even have hit someone. But that wasn't really what he was trained to do.

Nevertheless, he had to pull night guard duty like everyone else. And like everyone else, he hated it. Especially since the Korean War had ended and he was boozily waiting to be rotated back to the States.

So that night he was on a lonely flight line, watching over a row of fighter planes. He didn't know why they needed watching. As he would mumble before going on guard duty, "They afraid someone's gonna sneak in and steal the tires?"

But he did his duty. More or less. He reclined on the pavement under one of the planes, using a tire as a back-rest, and tried to stay awake. He knew that if the sergeant-of-the-guard came around, he'd see the lights of the jeep with enough time to stand up and look alert.

That night, though, he saw something unusual: a lone figure on foot. And the sight angered him. He figured the sergeant-of-the-guard was trying to sneak up on him. Being on guard duty at 1 a.m. was bad enough without someone playing games.

So when the figure got close enough, Airman Jackson yelled, "Who the (obscenity) goes there, (additional obscenity)."

The figure stopped and in a stern voice said: "What did you call me?"

That really bugged Airman Jackson. And he yelled: "Hey, you (obscenity), you don't ask me questions, I ask you questions."

Stepping out from under the wing of the plane, he aimed the rifle at the figure and said: "Hit the deck, you (obscenity)."

(All right, if you must know, he was using the mom-word.)

The figure dropped to the pavement face down. A loaded carbine can have that effect.

And Jackson said, "All right, (obscenity), what the (obscenity) you doin', sneaking around here?"

The figure on the ground identified himself. At first, Airman Jackson didn't believe him. But when the man stood up, Jackson got a clearer look. And all Jackson could say was, "Hey, how you doin', sir?"

To Airman Jackson's misfortune, it was the base commander. And since it was a large base, the commander was a general.

Unless you have been in the military, you can't imagine how important a general is. One star, two star, three or four, it doesn't matter: They are gods. I don't know about now, but back then you not only saluted a general, you saluted the license plates on his parked car.

And you didn't even think about calling a general something like the mom-word. Not unless you are a bigger general or his wife.

Jackson was quickly relieved of duty, the military cops haulehim away and he was locked up to await a terrible fate.

Word of the incident quickly spread through Jackson's mess hall unit. And since everyone went to chow, it spread through the base.

The betting was that Jackson would be court-martialed. That's what the Uniform Code of Military Justice said could be done to someone who showed disrespect toward a superior commissioned officer. And there was little doubt that using the mom-word on the CO was being disrespectful.

But there were those who argued that it was the general's fault for suddenly deciding to pull sneak inspections. And that while Jackson hadn't followed guard duty procedure to the letter, so what? If the general had been an enemy intruder, Jackson would have had him. And an enemy wouldn't have understood the mom-word, much less been offended.

Apparently these arguments were considered at the general's level because Jackson was released. The bad news was that he lost one stripe, which was the only one he had. The good news was that he wasn't court-martialed and wouldn't do time in the stockade.

The rumor was that the brass had decided the general already looked foolish enough without a story appearing in Stars and Stripes and other publications that a lowly cook had been imprisoned for calling the general a nasty word while protecting the Air Force's valuable planes.

A true story. And I remembered it while watching what happened to Harold Campbell, the two-star Air Force general who made a speech in Europe and said all those unkind things about President Clinton. ("Pot smoking," "draft-dodging," "womanizing.")

Even stricter rules apply to a general or any other officer. They can be court-martialed for bad-mouthing the president, the vice president, Congress, the secretary of defense and other top federal officials.

Actually, the military code gets a little silly because it includes the governor or the legislature of any state they are serving in among those who can't be insulted. Can you imagine some general being put on trial for saying, "You're a little crook," to some cigar-chomping pol in Springfield?

So what would they do about this Clinton-unfriendly general, who was a highly decorated pilot in Vietnam and has had a distinguished record?

If they put him on trial, millions of Americans would say: "Hey, Clinton was a pot-smoking, draft-dodging, womanizer, right?" And how would it look if a Vietnam hero had been convicted and served time for saying what millions of other Americans have said?

And when he got out, he could probably have found a state that would elect him to the Senate. Or he could have joined Ross Perot and been a real pain.

it turned out, he's been reprimanded, he's paying a fine and he's leaving the Air Force. His career is over.

Actually, for political reasons, he got a light slap on the wrist.

That's the price of politics. The past can haunt, whether you once hired an illegal to wash the dishes and can't be attorney general; or you dodged the draft and still made it to the White House.

And somewhere, former Airman Jackson is probably having a laugh.

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