The recent controversy over presidential candidate Bill Clinton's Vietnam-era draft status is a pointed reminder to us all of the social and political divisions spawned by the Vietnam war that continue to haunt us, and also of the many lingering hypocrisies that have fed these divisions.
However disruptive this media tempest may have been to Mr. Clinton's candidacy, it has forced the rest of us -- those who served in Vietnam and those who didn't -- to confront ourselves, to question whether we as a people have acquired the necessary maturity to move beyond war as the defining measure of both manliness and patriotism, to decide what criteria we ought to use in selecting our presidents.
Unlike many of our generation, yet not unlike some, I volunteered for Vietnam, a newly minted West Point lieutenant, fully imbued with the military academy motto, "Duty, Honor, Country," a self-professed patriot, gung ho in the manner of all true believers. For me at the time, avoiding the war was not an option; it was not even a consideration. I disdained all who sought to avoid the war for what, in my mind, could only have been blatant acts of cowardice.
Unknowingly burdened by such baggage, I went to Vietnam an oblivious idealist, intent on fulfilling the noble quest of leading men into battle for a noble cause. I made my way though the war with what I only later would come to realize was a largely unformed philosophical basis for being there -- even though I was convinced then that I had thought fully and deeply about what I was doing. I came out of the war somewhat angry, more than slightly jaded, on the way to a state of disillusionment that later would prompt me to leave the military.
Like most combat veterans, I suppose there will always be a side of me which feels morally and experientially superior to those who have not answered the call to arms. I paid my dues. I stared death in the face, and death blinked.
The distorted logic that accompanies the misplaced air of superiority asks: What gives any individual who didn't serve the right to send other young people off to war when he himself never put his own life on the line, never weathered nature's elements, never saw a comrade fall? There is little rational basis for such feelings, but they are there.
Thankfully, time and reflection have helped me overcome such unreason. Faced again with the decision of whether to support and participate in an undeclared, unpopular war of dubious value and vague purpose, I'm not so sure I wouldn't take the road more traveled by members of my generation.
And knowing as I do now how politicians often use the rhetoric of strategic necessity to disguise baser motives of political and bureaucratic expediency, I wouldn't hesitate to support my sons if they chose that other road. I have reached a point in my thinking, in fact, where I'm willing to concede that Bill Clinton and others of his persuasion may have acted more wisely -- perhaps even more courageously -- than I and others like me.
Therein lies the true significance of the recent Clinton episode. .. Although Mr. Clinton's actions and motives of 23 years ago ostensibly are being held up to public scrutiny as a reflection of his character -- and thus his fitness to be president -- in reality the entire affair is a measure of our character, of our fitness to choose presidents. It is a way of sorting out how we meet our obligations as citizens. It is a way of expunging, once and for all, the sordid Vietnam experience from our damaged public psyche. It is, most importantly, a way of flushing out the hypocrites among us.
And who are these hypocrites? First, there are the members of the World War II generation, for most of whom going off to war was not even a choice -- certainly not a moral one. The rules and the stakes were clear. For the most part, if you could breathe and walk, you went. For that generation then, it is insultingly easy to rationalize their service as purely an act of patriotism and to reject the ambiguities of Vietnam.
Then there are those who escaped Vietnam service -- legally, they are quick to point out -- and then went on to become arch-conservative proponents of military power and activism. The names of Dan Quayle, Dick Cheney and Newt Gingrich come readily to mind.
Then there are the draftees who went to Vietnam against their will, somehow made it through the war alive, and forever since have assumed the sanctimonious air of the dedicated, though aggrieved, veteran.
Finally there is me -- and those like me who volunteered. I have little trouble presenting myself, as we are wont to do, as having gone to Vietnam for only the noblest of reasons: to free the Vietnamese people to govern themselves, to stave off the depredations of communism, to protect vital American interests, obey the lawful orders of my commander in chief.