What makes a hero?

March 01, 1996|By Theo Lippman Jr.

BOB DOLE, who is scheduled to meet with a veterans group in the Baltimore area Sunday, is well known as a war hero. Less well known is the fact that he was, like Bill Clinton, a draft dodger.

Dole was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Kansas on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He had no desire to go into the service, much less to go to war. That was probably typical. Despite those old World War II movies where the recruiting offices were mobbed every day, many if not most men of the era preferred the civilian life.

Fateful letter

Dole stayed at Kansas through his freshman year. He returned for a second year in the fall of 1942. He hoped the war would end before Uncle Sam sent him that fateful letter that began ''Greeting.''

But the news from his hometown was that the local draft board was getting close to those his age and status. So early in 1943 he joined the Army Reserve Corps as an enlisted man. That kept him on campus till the end of the school year.

He was called up and after basic training volunteered for a couple of specialty schools.

In the spring of 1944, still apparently expecting the war to end soon, he applied for and got into officer candidate school. He was sent from there to an officer- replacement camp in Italy in December, 1944.

There he met Dean Nesmith, a former trainer from the athletic department at the University of Kansas. Dole had played football and basketball and run track at Kansas. Nesmith respected him.

He said he would like to give Dole a job in his Special Services unit. ''Sports and games for the guys behind the lines, a coach for the troops,'' as Dole biographer Richard Ben Cramer (whose book, ''What It Takes,'' is the source for this history lesson) put it.

Dole wanted the job. But orders sending him to a unit in combat had already been cut. Dole told Nesmith he didn't want to go, but Nesmith said he could no longer help him.

He was sent to the front in the winter of 1945 -- and grievously wounded that spring.

Now the point of this is not -- repeat not -- that Senator Dole is not a hero. I'd say the fact that he did his dreadful duty in the mountains of Italy even though he would have preferred to have been back in Rome makes him more of a hero than those rare patriots and danger lovers who seek out the risks and rigors of combat.

The point is that in his own way, and in a way that is not all that unusual among young men in wartime, he would, if he could, have avoided the sacrifice he was called to make.

Just like Bill

Just like young Bill Clinton.

If Bill Clinton had been forced into the Army and ended up in combat in Vietnam, would he have been as resigned and heroic as Bob Dole?

I don't know that he would have. I don't know that he wouldn't have, either.

It might be argued that Bob Dole, having suffered in that particular way, then developed positive, admirable character traits that Bill Clinton has not developed, because his draft dodging was more successful than Bob Dole's.

But if a desire by a young man not to go to war discredits him politically or morally many years later, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole both have a mark -- the same mark -- against them.

Some might even say that reluctance to fight against Nazi Germany in the 1940s is a worse failing than a reluctance to fight against North Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s.

Theo Lippman Jr. is a former editorial writer and columnist for The Sun.

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