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Vietnam's latest casualties are candidates


NASHUA, N.H. -- The war in Vietnam ended more than a decade and a half ago, but in a certain sense it is still being fought today.

It is the war Americans cannot agree upon. It is the war we cannot forget, yet do not wish to be reminded of.

And because of the way Bill Clinton avoided fighting in Vietnam 23 years ago, it may mean he cannot be elected president today.

It is not the first time Vietnam has become a political grenade. When Dan Quayle's military record became an issue in 1988 -- he avoided the Vietnam draft by joining the Indiana National Guard -- the public reaction was negative and at least one Republican official later admitted that Quayle hurt rather than helped the ticket.

But how can it be that a war that was so unpopular while it was being fought, has become such a litmus test today?

And how can it be that those tens of thousands of Baby Boomers who used student deferments and other means to escape the draft can now criticize politicians for doing the same thing?

One reason is guilt. Many who did not go to Vietnam say today that they regret not doing so and, if they had it to do all over again, this time would go. (Which admittedly is pretty easy to say since they are now too old to go to any war.)

Another reason is the double accusation of hypocrisy and privilege. Dan Quayle had always been a hawk in his public life, yet when it came time for him to fight, he spent his time safeguarding Indianapolis rather than Saigon.

Further, it was alleged that Quayle's wealthy and powerful family pulled strings to get him into the Guard, which Quayle has always denied.

Bill Clinton's family was not powerful, but he gained certain privileges by being the pride of Hot Springs because he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.

A few days ago, Bill Clinton told reporters: "I was opposed to the Vietnam War. I still believe the policy was wrong-headed and a lot of people died for no good end and was mistaken."

And if he had then said, "And that is why I did not go and I do not regret the decision today," he might have escaped the hypocrisy question.

But that is not what Clinton said. What he has always said is that he had such deep regrets over avoiding the draft, that he asked that his name be put back into the draft pool.

Others claim that he did so as a maneuver, knowing full well he had little chance of being called.

Besides, his claim of regret begs the question: If he felt so badly, why didn't he enlist? That would have solved all his problems.

After all, Bob Kerrey, also running for president, didn't want to be drafted after college, either. So he enlisted in the Navy, went to Vietnam, got blown up, lost a leg, and got the Medal of Honor.

(It is a sign of how conflicted we are about the Vietnam War, however, that Kerrey has gotten no great boost in the polls from Clinton's fall. The real beneficiary has been Paul Tsongas, a former Massachusetts senator, who never went to war, either. He went into the Peace Corps.)

Nor is the war an issue that troubles only Democrats today: As Clinton pointed out on "Nightline" Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney never served. And Clinton also could have added the names of House Whip Newt Gingrich and some other prominent Republicans.

But Clinton is especially vulnerable on the issue because his political base is the South.

To a significant extent, the officer corps in Vietnam came from small Southern towns. And these men took high casualties. Second lieutenants would land in Vietnam one day and begin leading patrols virtually the next.

And if small-town Southern whites were the officers, many urban Northern blacks were the grunts, the foot soldiers. Many enlisted -- the military has always been a way out of the ghetto -- and many were drafted because they were unable to get student deferments because they were unable to get into college. And their casualties were high also. And so the hope that a Bill Clinton nomination held out to his party -- a Democrat who could retake the South from the Republicans and also appeal to Northern blacks -- may have been --ed on the rock of Vietnam.

Because the man that Clinton would most likely face even if he did manage to get the nomination is George Bush, who enlisted in the Navy the day after graduating high school in 1942, becoming the youngest naval aviator in World War II, and ended up with the Distinguished Flying Cross.

And, just a few days ago, on the day Bush announced for re-election, Barbara Bush pointedly introduced him by saying: "I knew George as a straight and handsome teen-ager in a Navy flier's uniform . . ."

World War II was, of course, America's "good" war, the war we have few doubts or moral qualms or disagreements about.

Vietnam is the war we can't decide how we feel about. Except that we wish we didn't have to feel anything about it at all.

The Vietnam War ended nearly 17 years ago. But it may go on claiming victims for a long, long time.

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