Back in early March I posted a piece in this space which noted that the public image of George W. Bush was beginning to undergo an upgrade thanks in large measure to the former President's speaking out regarding his concerns with the evolving Trump administration. Shortly after penning those thoughts I came across Bush's new book (his third) entitled Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief's Tribute to America's Warriors. After thumbing through it for an extended period of time, I took the plunge and bought a copy.
George Bush seems to have spent his retirement years in three primary pursuits: writing, learning to paint, and working with veterans returning from the wars in the Middle East. Those interests all come together in this book.
In this work the former President presents biographies of ninety-eight individuals who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan and sustained serious injuries during that experience. Bush personally met each of the individuals he profiled through re-integration activities put on by the Bush Institute, part of the George W. Bush Presidential Center. Later, as he began establishing personal relationships with those returning vets and their families, he started collecting their stories and painting portraits of the warriors.
Those personal accounts of combat, injuries, and recoveries - as well as the portraits by Bush - make up this volume. All net proceeds from the sales of the book go to the George W. Bush Presidential Center and its activities in support of veterans' programs.
Some of the stories in this volume are heart-breaking, yet all are inspiring - and the fact that the ex-President developed a strong fondness for each of his subjects is not lost on the reader. As someone who has worked in the field of mental health with veterans returning from those same wars, I was reminded of many common threads that ran through the community of warriors. I knew intimately what Bush was talking about when he described individuals with survivor's guilt - conflicted because they came home and close friends did not. I understood the strong ties that develop among individuals living under the constant stress of combat and how those individuals form "family" ties that are often as strong - or stronger - than those with biological family members back home. This book also brought back memories of the returning service members who dealt with physical and emotional trauma by self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.
Bush has a good ear - and he was able to present insightful word portraits of the men and women whose souls he was trying to reveal. But he also has a fine eye, and his artistic abilities have matured amazingly well since those early days when he was doing portraits of the family pets and paintings of his feet in the bathtub. Bush has developed into a portrait artist with an ability to imbue his subjects with emotional qualities that align with their stories. Forty years ago the old joke about the magazine Playboy was "I read it for the articles." With Portraits of Courage, one could spend time with it strictly for the art work, though the narratives do much to flesh out the paintings.
The Bush Institute appears to focus its rehabilitative and re-integration efforts into two main pushes: mountain-biking and golf, and almost all of these narratives tend to relate back to the positive benefits of one or the other of those activities. There were also nods given to the benefits of outdoor recreation, family support, and religion.
George Bush is deservedly proud of the work that his institute does with returning veterans, but that effort, even along with the work of all of the other veterans' organizations that he mentions throughout the text, are just a drop in the bucket to the work that is needed. The Veterans' Administration did a study last year which found that over twenty veterans a day were committing suicide. The stories about veterans living on the streets of America, often with severe mental issues, are also true. They are a caste of people shunned by society.
I felt in reading this work that the former President was trying to come to grips with devastation that he was instrumental in bringing about, the maiming and deaths of tens of thousands of individuals, many of them young Americans. As a form of self-therapy, I see the effort as coming up short. George, the first step in most recovery programs is to admit you have a problem. I commend your work with these most-deserving individuals, but if you are trying to achieve absolution, or even just peace in your soul, you need to do more in the way of owning the problem. If not for your sake - for theirs.
That said, Portraits of Courage is a beautiful book, one that honors the boundless energies of the human spirit. Thank you, President Bush, for providing us with this visual and painful insight into the horrors of war. May we all learn from the experience.