Clinton did the gusty thing

William Broyles Jr.

September 25, 1992|By William Broyles Jr.

I WAS at Oxford just before Bill Clinton, but while he was lobbying to get a deferment I was undergoing Marine Corps training, utterly convinced I was preparing to be killed.

When he received his high lottery number and went off to Yale Law School, I was leading a platoon of high school dropouts west of Danang.

More than once, as I lay with my face in the mud, getting shot at, I thought I'd rather be at Yale Law School too. I would also much rather have been in the National Guard with Dan Quayle or have avoided the war in any of the ways available to resourceful young men.

The Republicans insist the issue is Mr. Clinton's credibility -- why won't he come clean about how he avoided the draft? -- and not that he didn't serve. But the real goal is to draw a more powerful comparison: George Bush, war hero, vs. Bill Clinton, draft dodger.

I wish Mr. Clinton had been more forthcoming about how he avoided the war, but when I pay attention to what he says I find myself deeply impressed with his moral and political courage -- and patriotism. His experience wrestling with the moral issues of service in Vietnam is as valuable as Mr. Bush's heroism in World War II -- certainly more valuable than Mr. Quayle's avoiding Vietnam by quietly serving in the National Guard.

Like Mr. Clinton and the vast majority of college-age men of my generation, I did everything I could to avoid the war. Like Mr. Clinton, I opposed it on moral and political grounds, but it troubled me, as it did him, that my friends from my Texas hometown were bearing its burdens while I was sipping tea at Oxford.

Why were they there and I was not? Why were any of us killing and dying in a war of such confusing purpose?

These questions haunted a generation during those years. Mr. Clinton struggled to answer them and came to the same conclusion I did: He would not enlist in a war he opposed, but if he were drafted he would serve.

Do I think Mr. Clinton should have enlisted in the fall of 1969 and joined men in Vietnam? Absolutely not.

We weren't fighting for freedom in 1969 and 1970. We were fighting for what Henry Kissinger called "negotiating strategies." Citizen armies don't fight well for subtle diplomatic goals.

I'm grateful for the service of Mr. Bush's generation in World War II, but that generation also bears the responsibility for mismanaging the Vietnam War.

Ronald Reagan and Mr. Bush sent my beloved Marine Corps to Beirut and took away their weapons. They were massacred there, the largest number of Marines to die in a single day since World War II. Military experience is no substitute for common sense.

One thing Mr. Clinton did not forget was why he opposed that war and how he wrestled with his conscience about it.

To the American Legion convention he said, "I opposed the war in Vietnam [because] I believed so strongly that our policy in Vietnam was wrong. I still believe that. It weakened the divided America. I know that many of you disagree with me. I respect that."

That took courage. Nothing slick or evasive about it. The political and moral issues he raised in that speech are directly descended from the ones he confronted in the 1969 letter he wrote from Oxford to the commander of the University of Arkansas ROTC.

My son comes of age for military service during the next presidency. I would far rather have his commander in chief be a man who has struggled with the deep moral issues of sending men to war for narrow political reasons than one lost in nostalgia for the noble sacrifices of a heroic crusade that will never come again.

I fought in Vietnam. Bill Clinton didn't.

If that doesn't bother me, whom should it bother?

William Broyles Jr., author of "Brothers in Arms: a Journey from War to Peace," is co-creator of the TV series "China Beach."

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