Feeling snubbed by administration, military views Clinton with growing distrust

THE BALTIMORE SUN

An article on President Clinton's relations with the military i Sunday's Sun should have said that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was assistant secretary of the navy during World War I.

The Sun regrets the errors.

WASHINGTON -- Last weekend, at a North Atlantic TreatOrganization meeting in Ebenhausen, Germany, government officials from one nation in the alliance were not represented -- the United States.

"It was embarrassing," recalled retired Army Col. Don Snider, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Although there were place cards for the missing Americans, none of their names has been sent to Congress for confirmation yet -- a revelation that produced "laughs all around."

To the U.S. military establishment, however, there isn't much funny about what they perceive as the Clinton administration's utter disregard for the military.

"More than 60 days into his administration, he hasn't appointed the third person at the Pentagon," Mr. Snider said. "There's a secretary who's getting a pacemaker, and a deputy. That's it. The military has some rude things to learn -- namely, that this guy doesn't care about them."

Clinton administration officials say this is not true. But privately, they concede that the president has a lot of convincing to do.

"He holds the highest rank, and he has not served -- as Bush has done," said Army Spc. John Cover, a food inspector who works at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County. "He doesn't know what it's like to work in the military. I am definitely not for him . . . and I don't like anything about him."

Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, director of the Hoover Library in Iowa, said the depth of feeling against Mr. Clinton is unlike that of any relationship between the military and its civilian leadership in modern history.

"It's not been personal before," Mr. Smith said. "You're seeing a historic clash of cultures. The military is a conservative institution with conservative values. And fairly, or not, millions of people who are in this community have concluded that not only does the president not share those values, but that he's actually hostile to them."

Interviews and polls with enlisted personnel, with veterans' groups, with wounded veterans and with the influential corps of officers, both former and current, show that these sentiments are common and center on five main issues:

* Mr. Clinton's avoidance of the draft during the Vietnam War.

* The attempt by Mr. Clinton to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military.

L * The military's trepidation about deep defense budget cuts.

* Resentment over Mr. Clinton's proposal to freeze military pay.

* The prevalent view that Mr. Clinton and his staff neither understand military life nor like military people.

"I've watched this military all my life -- I've taught at the Army War College -- and it's so sad," said Stephen Ambrose, a presidential historian who teaches at the University of New Orleans. "This group of officers are so good, so bright, but they feel they've been cut adrift."

The first issue, that of the draft, was aired thoroughly in the campaign, and Mr. Clinton's advisers thought it was behind him. This was undoubtedly true for most Americans and apparently for most veterans as well.

Network exit polls showed on election night that the support for the three presidential candidates among veterans -- 41 percent for Mr. Clinton, 37 percent for President George Bush and 22 percent for Ross Perot -- nearly mirrored the support among nonveterans.

The night of the inauguration, the American Legion, the nation's largest veterans' group, held an inaugural ball. It was the first one visited by Mr. Clinton and Vice President Al Gore and their wives, and for the 25 minutes that the president and vice president were there, the crowd stood out of respect.

As it turns out, not everyone was so forgiving -- especially not wounded veterans and career military officers who had led men in battle.

Particularly galling to them was a letter Mr. Clinton wrote as a student at Oxford University to Army Col. Eugene Holmes in which he conceded that he had "written and spoken and marched against the war" in Vietnam and had organized anti-war demonstrations in England.

"And remember, he used that word 'loathe' in that letter," said one Navy lieutenant from Southern California who asked not to be identified. "He said he loathed the military."

Mr. Clinton's youthful aversion to the military has carried over to his White House, where no career officer is among the staff.

The president's unfamiliarity with the military is apparently why the White House was unprepared for the vehemence of the reaction against his effort to lift the military ban against homosexuals.

This issue has united the four services in a way that they have rarely been united. Lifting the ban is opposed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, the Retired Officers Association and the Association of Non-Commissioned Officers.

In-depth surveys by the Gallup polling organization show that at least 83 percent of retired officers oppose the ban. And a Los Angeles Times poll found that even among younger, more liberal enlisted men and women, 74 percent disagree with the president. Only 18 percent are in agreement.

"I don't think he realizes what he is doing," said Army Spc. William Lucas, who is stationed at Fort Meade as a food inspector and served in Panama and the Persian Gulf as an infantryman in the 82nd Airborne. "He made a bunch of promises during the campaign, and now he is trying to keep them. . . . I hope Congress stands up to him."

When Mr. Clinton visited the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt last week, the ship's skipper made sure that the president saw the close quarters where the men live while on cruises that often last six months.

Asked beforehand whether the president might change his opinions on the issue after seeing the ship, Capt. Stan Bryant replied, "It could."

With the end of the Cold War, the issue of deep military budget cuts would have been faced by any president -- and has been faced by presidents in the past.

President Harry S. Truman was bitterly criticized by the brass for reducing troop strength and defense spending rapidly after World War II. The same criticism was leveled at President Dwight D. Eisenhower after the Korean War.

But those men had war records to fall back on. Truman was an artillery officer in World War I. Eisenhower was a five-star general who led the largest invasion in history.

Still, no matter who is president, demobilizing is a tough job.

"All of a sudden, you're telling people, some of whom have a

couple of Purple Hearts, 'Bye-bye,' " said Jack Powell, a Vietnam veteran and Orlando, Fla.-based official in the Paralyzed Veterans of America. "Some of these people simply have no desire to go into civilian life."

Likewise, those who have risked everything for their nation do not understand why the new president would want to include them in a pay-freeze proposal that they had earlier figured was aimed at do-nothing desk jockeys in the federal bureaucracy.

Finally, there is the issue of respect. It is one thing when the president salutes casually and incorrectly. Much more serious are the prevalent rumors in the military community of outright rudeness by the White House staff. One example, confirmed by a close friend of Lt. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, is particularly disturbing.

General McCaffrey is the special assistant to Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is also the only active-duty military man who has been awarded two Distinguished Service Cross medals. He served several tours in Vietnam and was the division commander on the land assaults in Iraq during the Persian Gulf war.

Recently, a well-placed source said, General McCaffrey was in the White House for meetings when he was told by a White House aide, "We really don't want people in uniform over here, unless it's absolutely necessary."

White House officials are reluctant to discuss the matter but do not deny that the episode occurred.

The fundamental question raised by such an attitude is whether it will hurt U.S. military readiness in the event of war. Interestingly, even Mr. Clinton's fiercest critics say no.

Adm. Tom Kilcline, head of the Retired Military Officers Association, said that he knows of many top-drawer officers who are leaving the service rather than serve under Mr. Clinton. But those who stay, he says, will perform superbly -- and so will the enlistees.

Mr. Clinton has often spoken of looking up to President John F. Kennedy. To the military mind, Mr. Clinton is no Jack Kennedy -- young Kennedy was a war hero in World War II.

But there is a president whom the officer corps disliked intensely, however, and Mr. Clinton can take solace in the fact that he was elected president four times.

"Franklin Roosevelt cut the military pay 10 percent," recalled Mr. Ambrose, the historian. "The jokes they tell about gays or about Hillary were nothing compared to the jokes they told about Eleanor Roosevelt. There were hundreds of 'em, all too awful to repeat. Roosevelt had a wife who just stirred up conservative military types."

Mr. Ambrose said that although most enlisted men revered Roosevelt, the officer corps was made up largely of Republicans, some of whom grew up in households where Franklin Roosevelt's name was not allowed to be spoken. Many officers could not forgive FDR for sitting out World War I as secretary of the Navy.

"Some of them had parties when he died," Mr. Ambrose said.

In the long run, however, Mr. Ambrose said, the ramifications of such antipathy for the commander in chief probably were not too great.

"We won World War II, didn't we?"

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