Coming of age

February 17, 1992|By Miami Herald

FOR MEN OF a certain age, the debate over Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton's avoidance of the draft during the Vietnam War stirs very personal, familiar recollections.

It's easy, now that there is no draft, to overlook what it once meant to every draft-age man in the Vietnam era. The "leaked" letter that Mr. Clinton wrote in 1969 at age 24 to an ROTC director shows the dilemma over which his generation agonized.

Back then the choice had to be made or it was made for you. Many, like Democratic candidates Tom Harkin and Bob Kerrey, were drafted and saw combat. A few draftees convinced authorities of their pacifist convictions and served in noncombat roles.

Others, Vice President Dan Quayle among them, joined the National Guard to avoid full-time duty. Some men fled to Canada. Many contrived ailments. Some married and quickly conceived a child. Others fought their draft status with the aid of pacifist groups. A few went to jail.

Mr. Clinton got a deferment by entering graduate school, a common option, and promising to join ROTC. He didn't, and later gave up his deferment, after the draft was canceled.

It was inevitable that individual behavior during the Vietnam War would become an issue when that generation of leaders came to the fore. It's a healthful development. The choices that each man made then helped shape what he is and believes today. But the debate should focus on what the impact of that generation's dilemma of choice should be on U.S. foreign policy now.

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