Time for Clinton to play his part in our long tragedy

MIKE LITTWIN

May 05, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

Come Memorial Day, Bill Clinton gets another shot at Vietnam. And he needs to do the right thing -- again.

He did the right thing the first time by opposing the war. It was a bad and misguided war. Nobody should have had to fight and die there. You don't have to trust me on this; check your history books.

The right course for Clinton this time is to stand up, in full view, and say that even though he didn't go to Vietnam, it was his war, too. It was everyone's war, everyone's tragedy.

Apparently, all these years later, it's something that still needs to be said.

Vietnam is, of course, the Energizer war -- it keeps fighting and fighting and fighting. The latest skirmish involves some veterans who don't want Clinton to visit the Vietnam Memorial wall on Memorial Day.

They don't want him visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, either. They call it hypocritical.

And so, they've sent out 350,000 postcards to veterans who are being asked to forward them to the White House, demanding that Clinton stay away.

You know why. Clinton avoided the draft. That's the nice way of saying it. His critics prefer to say he dodged the draft.

But where Clinton failed was not in his youth, but as a full-grown presidential candidate. He should have said then what everyone knows he believed to be true: "Like many of my generation, I thought it was a bad war, and I pursued all legal avenues in order not to go to Vietnam. I wish nobody had gone."

Instead, he hid behind excuses and half-truths and came to be known as the waffler.

This time, he can't hide. Although the White House says Clinton hasn't yet decided his Memorial Day itinerary, I don't see that he has any choice. How can he back away from this challenge?

He must go to the veterans' wall, talk over the protesters who are sure to be there and shout with all the passion he can muster that this wall was built to heal and not to divide. Something like: We can now stand on both sides of this wall -- together.

Twenty-five years later, it is finally time for Clinton to go hard-line on Vietnam. The country needs it. He needs it.

Even today, the war haunts Clinton.

When he tries to push for gays in the military, he is told that, since he failed to serve, he couldn't possibly understand the special bond soldiers form and how gays would disrupt that camaraderie.

He hears a similar story when the issue becomes women in combat.

When it comes to Bosnia, the story changes slightly: How can someone who refused to serve in the armed forces have the right to send our sons and/or daughters off to war?

Clinton will have to hear these arguments for as long as he is president. He can't change history, but we all get the chance to learn from it.

On the subject of Bosnia, Clinton can argue rather persuasively that he has fought against war, that he takes war seriously, that he would never commit troops unless he believed it was the right and moral course of action.

It's an argument that seems fitting in the face of the veterans' wall.

Have you been to the wall, that peculiar serpentine memorial to that most peculiar of wars?

You can understand the early objections. It seems too cool. It's obviously meant to be unheroic. Nobody's planting a flag anywhere.

But the cool lines are misleading. Trace your fingers along just a few of the tens of thousands of names of the fallen -- names of real people who died -- and try not to cry.

Trace the names of people -- real people -- who died because some politicians played a Cold War posture game with people's -- real people's -- lives.

I hate the phrase "the lesson of Vietnam," but I think it's as simple and as complicated as that.

You don't have to have been there to understand it.

And yet, there are those who still want to divide. I understand the anger people must feel who lost someone close to them. But directing the anger toward Bill Clinton, and those who protested with him, is yesterday's game.

Clearly, Clinton has the right -- in fact, an obligation -- to honor all who died those many thousands of miles away for who can say, even now, what cause.

It's his duty as president.

It's his place as an American.

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