HAVRE de GRACE -- It may not merit a chapter in the history of the Clinton administration, but the story of the White House aide who rudely snubbed an Army officer by declaring that she never spoke to the military should be worth a least a footnote on sociological grounds.
The incident confirmed an impression of the administration as staffed by people, from the Oval Office on down, who never got over the 1960s. The snubber was never publicly identified, but in what looked a lot like damage control, the snubbee was later named by the president to head his anti-drug campaign.
In every administration, and in society in general, there's always a certain degree of tension between military and civilian attitudes, and between the polarities of discipline and freedom which are present in each. Nationally, this tension tends to be self-correcting, drawing the country back from one extreme or another.
Thus, three decades after the generation of the '60s pushed individual freedoms far beyond their old boundaries, we now find cadets at our enlightened, diversified and sensitized military academies desperately pleading for restoration of some of the discipline, structure and tradition jettisoned by their superiors as no longer relevant.
An enduring conflict
In an essay some months ago in the Suwanee Review, a former Army officer named Pat C. Hoy II perceptively -- and remarkably neutrally -- discussed the enduring intellectual conflict between the military and civilian viewpoints. He was well equipped to do that, having taught writing at both West Point and Harvard.
West Point, in its selection procedures and its curriculum, stresses teamwork and decisiveness and getting the job done. Harvard stresses individuality, quirkiness and a willingness to challenge the status quo that can easily progress -- Mr. Hoy observed presciently not long before the arrest of the accused Harvard '62 Unabomber -- to destructiveness.
Harvard tends to mock the cadets at the service academies as automatons, while the cadets stereotype Ivy Leaguers as intellectual dilettantes with no comprehension of sacrifice. Both judgments are superficial and far too facile. In truth, neither buttoned-up West Point nor unbuttoned Harvard is superior to the other, and a healthy society needs the best of both in order to survive.
The tension between the two worlds these two institutions symbolize is real, however. During a 28-year military career, Mr. Hoy often found himself wishing for more freedom; later, teaching at Harvard, he yearned for a greater sense of community, and concluded that ''the reality of shared responsibility and teamwork is as hard to experience at Harvard as unfettered freedom is at West Point.''
Mr. Hoy's essay also makes the valid and complicating point that whether they are military or civilian by training and temperament, bright people frequently don't take kindly to opposition. To a military person, it's often perceived as a breach of discipline that can threaten the mission. To a politically-correct professor, a challenge can imply that the challenger harbors a disapproved ideology, and can thus be safely ignored.
I was reminded of all this last month after I wrote about the late developer James Rouse and made the mild suggestion that despite his many admirable personal qualities, the final verdict on Columbia, Harborplace and some of his other projects wasn't yet in, and that when it was in it wouldn't be unanimous.
Those comments drew an epistolary rocket from a former military man, William Donald Schaefer. Colonel Schaefer declared that the verdict on these celebrated developments was in, and that it was unanimous, presumably because the views of those who might think otherwise don't count.
The offended rocketeer added a few personal notes to the effect that Mr. Rouse was a wonderful man who had accomplished more in a few months of his life than I would during all of mine -- which is certainly true, at least in terms of real-estate development -- and that I ought to stay home and talk to my sheep, which I probably would do if I had some.
In their day, Mr. Schaefer and Mr. Rouse were both often praised for being ''men of vision,'' which they surely were. They were intelligent, energetic people, and I have no doubt that they had the welfare of their fellow men in their hearts as well as in their speeches.
As for the substantial tangible rewards they earned in their careers, high office in the one case and a fortune in the other, these probably weren't important to them at all.
We owe a lot to our men of vision -- and our women, too. But they do sometimes tend to run people over in their haste to get where they're going. So if a few of us do occasionally slow them down a little by standing on the roadside and hollering ''Whoa!'' as they charge by, that's probably useful, too.
Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.
Pub Date: 5/12/96