On May 3rd, 2004, my baby brother, Lyndon Anson Marcus, Jr (Anson), died in the war. For many years, President George W. Bush was the villain in the story I told myself and others about Anson’s death.
I grew up on military bases. When I reflect on my upbringing, I am always grateful for the sense of purpose and community that is integral to military life for service members and their families. I believe in service, and I believe there are ideals like freedom, democracy, and opportunity that are worth the ultimate sacrifice. I have never had issue with the choice that my brother, father, sister, aunt and countless others who enter the military agree to when they don the uniform.
In my experience, the choice is straightforward. In exchange for national service and opportunity, citizens may be required to sacrifice their lives to protect and serve our country. That said, I have struggled with two challenges with that premise. 1) Are the leaders in positions of power making decisions worthy of the collective sacrifice of our service members, and 2) has our country required sacrifice disproportionately from low income people and communities of color?
Much of my issue with President George W Bush has been that I felt he spent my brother’s life, and many others, for unworthy pursuits. In retrospect, some of how I’ve experienced Anson’s passing is a typical human story. His death triggered loss, guilt, and grief. Anson was 21 when he died, and we hadn’t lived together for nearly two decades. We spoke a few times every year and met in person every few years at best. Weeks before his passing, I listened to a voicemail from him and vowed to call him after my wedding which was only a few months away in August. I never had a next time to talk to him, and I was crippled with guilt and regret for not prioritizing our relationship.
It’s been 14 years since Anson gave his life for our country, and I still wrestle with whether the military was one of few opportunities available to him based on his socioeconomic and ethnic background. I have also experienced firsthand a spectrum of issues and injustices facing veterans that are unacceptable for our country to allow to persist. There are groups like the Poor People’s Campaign that articulate the linkage between poverty, racism, and the war economy more eloquently than I ever could. And while I continue to question how our country responds to and addresses these issues, I was wrong that President George W. Bush spent my brother’s life blindly and selfishly.
I recently had the opportunity to meet President Bush and was unprepared for how my viewpoint would change in such a short window of time. I raised my hand forcefully and earnestly in a room of 58 other leaders whom I respect. And before I had a chance to “bring Bush to task”, one of my colleagues who is leader in her own right and a widow of a storied war hero, praised Bush for how much military families adored him. My reactions of “WTF” and “what is happening” were only overcome by the overwhelming question of “what am I missing?”
I shared the story of my brother's death with President George W. Bush and was still unprepared for his gracious and thoughtful response to me. How can this man who has been a villain in my family narrative inspire such loyalty and support from leaders I respect and admire? Why is this president, who I’ve perceived as a callous antagonist, authentically grieving in ways that mirror my own feelings of loss? And if I’m wrong about him, what other blind spots am I charging into?
Don’t get me wrong, I still have fundamental disagreements about why we went to war and what philosophies undergirded those choices. But it pains me to say that I no longer believe that our 43rd President spent my brother’s life or any other soldier’s life in service of personal gain. I believe now that their sacrifices are the first thing he thinks about when he wakes and the last thing he thinks about when he goes to sleep. Even if I would have pursued a different course of action, I understand his position better now- he fundamentally believed and had a sense of urgency that it was his responsibility to protect the American people, especially after 9/11. And he believed the war in Iraq was one of the paths to achieve security and protection for our citizenry.
As we head into Memorial Day more than a decade after Anson’s death, I’m willing to at least examine the interplay between leadership and values that President George W Bush had to explore before committing our service members to international conflict. I have never been POTUS, but I know firsthand what it looks like to make or inherit calls that are confusing at best in relation to your leadership and values. I am hopeful I never have to make decisions that result in loss of life. I am hopeful that our Commanders in Chief across party lines confront the dissonance of how our country’s values of democracy and opportunity are reinforced or undermined by our policies at home and abroad. But I am also hopeful that other national leaders are forced to experience what it feels like to respect leaders with dissenting views. Only then can we embody the courage of our convictions and the promise of our democracy.