Feeling snubbed by administration, military views Clinton with growing distrust

March 21, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau Staff writers Peter Hermann and Bruce Reid contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON — An article on President Clinton's relations with the military i Sunday's Sun should have said that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was assistant secretary of the navy during World War I.

The Sun regrets the errors.

WASHINGTON -- Last weekend, at a North Atlantic TreatOrganization meeting in Ebenhausen, Germany, government officials from one nation in the alliance were not represented -- the United States.

"It was embarrassing," recalled retired Army Col. Don Snider, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Although there were place cards for the missing Americans, none of their names has been sent to Congress for confirmation yet -- a revelation that produced "laughs all around."


To the U.S. military establishment, however, there isn't much funny about what they perceive as the Clinton administration's utter disregard for the military.

"More than 60 days into his administration, he hasn't appointed the third person at the Pentagon," Mr. Snider said. "There's a secretary who's getting a pacemaker, and a deputy. That's it. The military has some rude things to learn -- namely, that this guy doesn't care about them."

Clinton administration officials say this is not true. But privately, they concede that the president has a lot of convincing to do.

"He holds the highest rank, and he has not served -- as Bush has done," said Army Spc. John Cover, a food inspector who works at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County. "He doesn't know what it's like to work in the military. I am definitely not for him . . . and I don't like anything about him."

Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, director of the Hoover Library in Iowa, said the depth of feeling against Mr. Clinton is unlike that of any relationship between the military and its civilian leadership in modern history.

"It's not been personal before," Mr. Smith said. "You're seeing a historic clash of cultures. The military is a conservative institution with conservative values. And fairly, or not, millions of people who are in this community have concluded that not only does the president not share those values, but that he's actually hostile to them."

Interviews and polls with enlisted personnel, with veterans' groups, with wounded veterans and with the influential corps of officers, both former and current, show that these sentiments are common and center on five main issues:

* Mr. Clinton's avoidance of the draft during the Vietnam War.

* The attempt by Mr. Clinton to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military.

L * The military's trepidation about deep defense budget cuts.

* Resentment over Mr. Clinton's proposal to freeze military pay.

* The prevalent view that Mr. Clinton and his staff neither understand military life nor like military people.

"I've watched this military all my life -- I've taught at the Army War College -- and it's so sad," said Stephen Ambrose, a presidential historian who teaches at the University of New Orleans. "This group of officers are so good, so bright, but they feel they've been cut adrift."

The first issue, that of the draft, was aired thoroughly in the campaign, and Mr. Clinton's advisers thought it was behind him. This was undoubtedly true for most Americans and apparently for most veterans as well.

Network exit polls showed on election night that the support for the three presidential candidates among veterans -- 41 percent for Mr. Clinton, 37 percent for President George Bush and 22 percent for Ross Perot -- nearly mirrored the support among nonveterans.

The night of the inauguration, the American Legion, the nation's largest veterans' group, held an inaugural ball. It was the first one visited by Mr. Clinton and Vice President Al Gore and their wives, and for the 25 minutes that the president and vice president were there, the crowd stood out of respect.

As it turns out, not everyone was so forgiving -- especially not wounded veterans and career military officers who had led men in battle.

Particularly galling to them was a letter Mr. Clinton wrote as a student at Oxford University to Army Col. Eugene Holmes in which he conceded that he had "written and spoken and marched against the war" in Vietnam and had organized anti-war demonstrations in England.

"And remember, he used that word 'loathe' in that letter," said one Navy lieutenant from Southern California who asked not to be identified. "He said he loathed the military."

Mr. Clinton's youthful aversion to the military has carried over to his White House, where no career officer is among the staff.

The president's unfamiliarity with the military is apparently why the White House was unprepared for the vehemence of the reaction against his effort to lift the military ban against homosexuals.

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