THE salient part of the "draft issue" facing Bill Clinton is not really the alleged discrepancies in what the candidate has said about events 23 years ago - not when the Republicans are hiring an airplane to drag the words "draft dodger" through the sky over Mr. Clinton's campaign events.
They know, and we should all recognize, that the politically cutting part of the issue is whether avoiding military service during the Vietnam War was dishonorable. It was an issue 23 years ago, and it still is - or else Clinton's opponents wouldn't be using it.
I am one month older than Bill Clinton and faced the question of military service at the same time he did. The Class of '68 was right on the cusp between the "silent generation" who rarely dissented and the years of rage and outrage - beginning on the streets outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and ending in the hearing rooms of Watergate.
Our last semester at college was broken by the rising sound of gunfire - from the Tet offensive in Vietnam to the riots in American cities following the assassination of Martin Luther King. And because of the draft, it looked as if our own government was willing to include us in the violence.
As the sons of men who had fought in World War II, we loved our country. But as the most highly educated class of young people in American history up to that time, we were taught to think for ourselves. And when it came to Vietnam, that's what we did.
Americans who are either a decade older or younger, who were never at risk of being forced to fight in a war that tore apart the fabric of the country, seem easily to forget the alienation it caused.
The carnage of war can never fully be redeemed by the heroism of those who are sacrificed to its purpose.
But when the purpose of a war is unclear or seriously in doubt, when the government that can take you off the street and send you to fight in such a war does not have the courage either to win or abandon it - then the demand for lives to sacrifice is not honorable.
That's the nature of the demand that the men of my generation had to face, and those - like Clinton - who found ways around it were in some ways more honorable than those who demanded our lives or who now condemn his actions.
Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon committed enormous human and financial resources to a losing proposition in Southeast Asia (and they were supported to the end by George Bush). They lacked the moral courage to face that loss, and their presidencies were - directly or indirectly - destroyed by it. They, and their war, were wrong. But many of the young men - Clinton among them - whose fate they commanded and who opposed the war were right.
Would he have shown more integrity if he'd subordinated his sense of what was right to the dictates of a state power that lacked that sense? Recall his eloquent letter to his ROTC colonel, which argued the moral basis for the way he came to terms with the possibility of serving in the war.
It is one thing to have supported the war but to have stayed out of Vietnam, as Vice President Dan Quayle did, and quite another thing to have opposed the war and taken action consistent with that belief, such as Clinton did.
Losing your life in combat for your country is the ultimate act of citizenship, and war is the ultimate commitment of a nation. That is why the Constitution requires an act of Congress to declare it. Failing that, why should we discredit those who declined to fight in what their government never succeeded in justifying?
Even in the Civil War, when the very existence of the Union was at stake, the draft sowed dissension and was widely avoided. So why should we not be less surprised and more forgiving of those who avoided the war in Vietnam - when no threat to America's people or identity was present.
All those who consciously faced the issue of serving in Vietnam, regardless of whether they chose to go or stay behind, had moral courage, because they confronted the single most divisive issue that has faced a generation of Americans in this century.It is always honorable to serve your country in military uniform. That is what I chose to do. It is also good not to participate in something which damages your country, which the war in Vietnam certainly did. That was Clinton's choice, and it was no less co nsistent with personal honor.
If we condemn Clinton now because of how he came to terms with Vietnam, we will once again allow the war in Vietnam to warp our history and distract our politics. For the sake of the country, let us finally end the war about Vietnam. And let us judge Bill Clinton on other grounds.