Politics, Morals, and `Opting Out' of War

IF the crowd response to President Clinton's powerful speech at the United States cemetery on the bluffs above Omaha Beach was any indication, Mr. Clinton was passing an important test: The veterans were beginning to accept him as their commander in chief. But the next morning at a Monitor breakfast the Republican's national party chairman, Haley Barbour, would only say of what so many observers were hailing as a major Clinton triumph: ``He certainly got good press coverage.''

Mr. Barbour's words were probably predictable from a leader of the out-of-presidential-office party. He continued: ``We should all expect and be grateful for the exuberance and happiness that these people felt. But I don't think we ought to confuse that with approval of this administration's policies and other things.''

Barbour's reference to ``other things'' doubtless related to Clinton's efforts to dodge service in the Vietnam War and his participation in protests against it. The military has been slow to excuse him for that.

Clinton, himself, has again blurred his Vietnam-War-related actions by expressing conflicting views in two television interviews. He said in one: ``I don't regret the fact that I opposed the conflict in Vietnam and our policy there and I did what I could honorably to bring it to an end.'' And in another: ``I had very mixed feelings about it [the Vietnam War]. I tried to get myself even back into the draft because I was so confused about it.''

Of this last statement the New York Times editorializes: ``The evidence is strong that Mr. Clinton gave up his deferment after it became likely that reduced draft calls would keep him out of the Army.''

The president doesn't seem to realize that his different and often contradictory explanations for not serving in the Vietnam War have hurt his credibility, not only on military matters but on all of his actions, and not just with military people but with the public at large.

Of Clinton's talk of ``mixed feelings'' about the war the Times observes that ``he showed that pernicious desire to edit his own history to suit every constituency.'' My thought is this: Why can't Clinton just say he did what a lot of American young men were doing at the time - that he took steps to avoid getting into that war?

A straight answer wouldn't relieve Clinton of the criticism of those who rightly say, ``Why should he be able to skip a war where so many other Americans were killed or wounded?'' But Clinton should face his past honestly and straightforwardly instead of continually waffling. Again, it would help his credibility.

Should the public forgive artifices used to avoid military service? That's a moral question that rests heavily on this nation's conscience. More specifically, should individual Americans be able to choose what wars they want to fight?

I served five years in World War II in what later became the US Air Force, after enlisting nearly a year before Pearl Harbor. I didn't like going to war. I didn't want to be killed any more than anyone else. But I - like all my friends - had the same attitude, a prevailing one at the time: It was right to serve our country. It was wrong to do otherwise.

The ``wisdom'' I so often hear now is that World War II was a ``good'' war - where it was so clear that our side was on the right side and that we were opposing evil: Hitler. That is contrasted to Vietnam, described as a ``bad'' war, one that individuals might well decide to pass up.

But can we let individuals exempt themselves from national commitments? What if we had had that attitude in World War II? I've spoken about the prevailing willingness to serve at that time. Yet there also was a widespread keep-out-of-the-war isolationism in this country. What if we had let those who so believed opt out of serving? Could we have put together the mighty, unified effort that we just celebrated on those Omaha Beach bluffs?

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