By David Stanczak
I had forgotten how elaborate the funeral arrangements are for past presidents. George Herbert Walker Bush (“41”) got quite a send-off. Out of sight by his own design since he left the White House, 41 and all he accomplished had been largely forgotten by most Americans. We were reminded this week what the man who was merely billed as “Reagan’s Third Term” had achieved in just four years in the White House. His guidance of the nation and the world when the wheels came off the Evil Empire, and his facing down of Sadaam Hussein were of historic significance.
My most lasting impression of 41 was not what he achieved in his life; most of that I already knew and appreciated. Rather, it was something in his character. A defining moment in his life occurred at age 20 when he was flying a mission near Chi Chi Jima, an island adjacent to Iwo Jima, where U.S. Marines iconically planted the flag atop Mt. Suribachi. Despite having to deal with a flaming engine when his plane was hit by flak, Bush delivered his bomb load and headed as far out to sea as he could. Floating on a life raft, he was rescued by a Navy submarine. The rest of his crew and airmen of other planes flying the same mission were killed, either by the elements or horribly at the hands of the Japanese. They were tortured and ultimately bayoneted or decapitated. Parts of some of them were eaten by Japanese troops. Their treatment as prisoners of war was so depraved and cruel that, after the war, the officers in charge of the unit were tried and executed for war crimes.
Why had George H.W. Bush been spared the horrific fate of his comrades and friends? The question remained with him all his life. He acknowledged at various times in his life that he thought of them often. It is not uncommon for persons who inexplicably survived some massacre or other disaster to be troubled by, and experience guilt over their survival. Many have been ruined by that guilt, succumbing to PTSD, alcoholism, drug addiction, and even criminal behavior.
As a man of religious faith, 41 concluded that his survival when so many others on the same mission had not, was not a mere roll of the dice or other random occurrence. He trusted that God had a purpose in sparing him, a purpose that could only be learned and achieved by what Bush might do with the rest of this life. Consumed with that thought, he was spared the guilt that otherwise might have wracked him. He then understood that it wasn’t a question of whether he was better than the others who died; he knew he wasn’t. But he didn’t have to justify his survival to himself. If God had spared him, it was God’s purpose, not his. He didn’t have to justify his survival in terms of his worth or value vis a vis the others. All he had to do was trust that God knew what he was doing, that it was ultimately for good, and act on that realization.
41 might have accomplished much of what he did in his life without his miraculous survival in the Pacific. But I think at least some of it, and certainly his attitude toward life was attributable to his desire to live out the answer to the question and make God’s decision seem as wise to him as possible. His post-rescue philosophy is embodied in one of the quotes attributed to him in recent days: “There is a God and He is good, and His love, while free, has a self-imposed cost. We must be good to one another.” Well said, Mr. President.
David Stanczak, a WJBC commentator since 1995, came to Bloomington in 1971. He served as the City of Bloomington’s first full-time legal counsel for over 18 years, before entering private practice. He is currently employed by the Snyder Companies and continues to reside in Bloomington with his family.
The opinions expressed within WJBC’s Voices are solely those of the Voices’ author, and are not necessarily those of WJBC or Cumulus Media, Inc.