The Flower Child goes
SO BILL CLINTON HAS FOUND
A CAUSE he thinks is worth
fighting for -- preserving the
autonomy of the Serbian province of
The question as to whether America
ought to use its military might to
prevent genocide and other
disasters is a worthy one. But
without reaching that question
(which I do not think yields easy
answers), we must ask: How does
Bill Clinton, an exemplar of
American liberalism, square his
belief in this war with his passionate "loathing" of the
war in Vietnam?
A glance back at his famous 1969 letter to Col. Eugene
Holmes is most interesting in light of the president's
newfound bellicosity. Some of the formulations are
classic Clinton: He tells the colonel (a survivor of the
Bataan Death March) that he has been so disturbed by
questions of war and morality that he has resorted to
"eating compulsively and reading until exhaustion
He also boasts about how hard he has worked and how
seriously he has studied the matter: " ... there was a
time when not many people had more information about
Vietnam at hand than I did." And he engages in arrogant
self-praise, hoping that his three-page rant will help the
colonel "understand more clearly how so many fine
people have come to find themselves still loving their
country but loathing the military ... "
During the 1992 campaign, this letter was engrossing
for the light it shed on Bill Clinton's character and
honesty. He claimed, for example, that conscience had
moved him to come clean about his misleading use of
an ROTC deferment, when, as The Washington Post
and others stated, changes in the draft law had given
Clinton notice two days before the letter to Holmes that
he was out of danger.
The president today advances three arguments in behalf
of a military commitment in the former Yugoslavia. The
first is historically ridiculous.
In his national address on the
matter, the president said we
must act to "defuse a powder
keg at the heart of Europe
that has exploded twice
before in this century with
implying that the Balkans
were the flash points for both world wars. In fact, of
course, an assassination in Bosnia did touch off World
War I (though it didn't cause it), and the Balkans were
irrelevant to the start of World War II.
The president further contends that American prosperity
depends upon what language they speak in Pristina.
Such arguments needn't detain us.
The president's third case is moral. We cannot allow
"defenseless people" to be slaughtered. Slobodan
Milosevic will interpret our failure to act as a "license
This may be true, but in the liberal worldview, how is
this so vastly different from the choices we faced in
Vietnam circa 1963? The people of South Vietnam
wished to be free from the communist tyranny the North
Vietnamese were determined to impose. There were
serious violations of human rights and even massacres
taking place. We know, in retrospect, that communist
victories in Cambodia and Vietnam resulted in massive
And yet that war was regarded by Bill Clinton and most
other liberals not just as ill-advised or not worth it but
as morally wrong. As Bill Clinton put it in 1969 (and in
1992, saying, "Twenty-three years later, I am still
proud of what I said then"), he had toiled in the United
States Senate for the chance "of working every day
against a war I opposed and despised with a depth of
feeling I had reserved solely for racism in America
Note the moral preening. What, the Holocaust didn't
inspire more outrage?
The Moscow show trials?
Today, President Clinton is asking his youngers and
betters to risk their lives for Kosovo. Doesn't he owe it
to them to explain why this crusade, which clearly
involves no risk to "the life of the people collectively"
as he wrote to Col. Holmes, is different from the
attempt to save South Vietnam? It would be instructive
for all of us to learn how the '60s generation, which
lectured us ceaselessly about how immoral it was to
intervene in a civil war, and which branded us as
criminals for choosing up sides, has now beat its
plowshares into swords.