The Link Between D-Day and the Ghost of Vietnam

June 02, 1994|By TRB

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Ronald Reagan spent World War II in Hollywood. ''My job,'' he recalls artlessly in his autobiography, ''was to narrate the [pilot training] films . . . then say 'Bombs away' at the appropriate time.''

He was ostensibly barred from overseas duty due to poor eyesight. It is possible, I suppose, that a man who could read perfectly from a TelePrompTer on D-Day 1984 had worse eyesight four decades earlier than all the millions of Americans who did risk their lives in battle. But I cherish suspicions.

In any event, Mr. Reagan's own war record didn't even merit a mention in the Washington Post report 10 years ago on his famous 40th anniversary speech at Omaha Beach. ''They knew some things are worth dying for,'' President Reagan declared. ,, ''One's country is worth dying for; and democracy is worth dying for.''

You can bet that Bill Clinton will not be so lucky when he delivers his own D-Day speech next week. Already, the alleged difficulties arising from Mr. Clinton's avoidance of military service form the predominant theme in the coverage of his European trip.

The contrast must infuriate him. Why could Ronald Reagan get away with noble talk of men dying for a great cause without snickers of contempt, when he can't?

There are several answers. First, there was Mr. Reagan's famous ''magic'' -- which is another way of saying his performance skills could ride over little anomalies like his own record in the very war being commemorated. Mr. Reagan was an ''actor;'' Mr. Clinton is a ''phony.'' The difference is a matterf style, not morality, but c'est la guerre.

Then too, the press is a lot harder on President Clinton than it ever was on President Reagan. The political opposition, too, is more poisonous, and more organized, than Mr. Reagan ever faced. It keeps the ''draft dodger'' issue bubbling.

But there's also no denying that Mr. Clinton's slippery avoidance of military service keeps coming up because it plays into larger, and legitimate, doubts that people have about his character. Those doubts, unfortunately, are metastasizing with every day's newspaper. He's got to do something to stop this. His presidency's at stake: no kidding.

That's why I hope Mr. Clinton uses a bit of time in his own D-Day speech next week to take a risk and reach deeper than he has in the past on the subject of his generation's war and his own relationship to it.

Mr. Clinton's previous riffs on this theme -- such as his remarks to hecklers when he spoke at the Vietnam Memorial on Memorial Day 1993 -- have been banal reflections that America is a great country because we're all free to disagree. ''Just as war is freedom's cost, disagreement is freedom's

privilege. . . . Let us not let it divide us as a people . . . ,'' etc. That's evasive.

The key points are three. Unlike Ronald Reagan (or Dan Quayle), Bill Clinton avoided putting his life at risk in a cause he thought was morally wrong. What's more, he devoted considerable effort to foreclosing the necessity for others to put their lives at risk, either. Most important, the country ultimately decided that Bill Clinton was right. This was a war that, in the end, a large majority of American citizens didn't want to fight.

That doesn't absolve him completely. Whether it is morally correct to ''dodge'' a war you deeply disapprove of was a question debated widely among young men at the time, to no firm conclusion. Mr. Clinton pulled several fast ones to escape military service, and his motives almost certainly were mixed. But -- with all due honor to Vietnam veterans -- no American needs to feel ashamed of not having fought in Vietnam. And any American who participated in the nonviolent protests that helped to end the killing and dying in that war can be proud of his or her ''record.''

President Clinton has nominated Sam Brown to be U.S. ambassador to the CSCE (an international organization based in Vienna; you don't care what ''CSCE'' stands for any more than I do). The nomination has been blocked by a Republican filibuster in the Senate, because Mr. Brown was the leader of one of the big -- and peaceful -- anti-war marches on Washington. He ''opposed actions to block communism,'' explains Senator Bob Smith.

The Brown episode is mainly about blind Republican malevolence. But the reason they can get away with this is that the country is not being honest with itself about Vietnam. We decided as a nation that the game was not worth the candle. Now many wish to blame the anti-war movement for losing the war for us. We decided that Sam Brown was right. Now we are punishing him for that decision.

President Clinton's tendency, as many have noted, is to try to please everybody. It would certainly not please everybody if he were to use the occasion of D-Day for a word or two in forthright defense of his own opposition to a later war. But, fairly or unfairly, Mr. Clinton will not enjoy Ronald Reagan's luxury of gliding past D-Day on a cloud of tears and pretty language. His own avoidance of military service will be on many minds, and those minds will be pondering whether it was mainly a matter of principle or a matter of cowardice. Some rhetorical courage on the day might help to resolve doubts.

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.

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