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A Little Discipline From the Military : Officers don't have to like Clinton, but they must respect the commander in chief

June 13, 1993

At the top of the U.S. military chain of command is the President, a civilian whose role as commander in chief is constitutionally fixed and whose right to be publicly respected by the armed forces is mandated in military law. The Air Force is now investigating reports that one of its own, Maj. Gen. Harold N. Campbell, violated that law when he referred to President Clinton as "draft-dodging," "pot-smoking," "womanizing" and "gay-loving." Those alleged characterizations, in a public speech last month, would constitute impermissible "contemptuous" behavior toward the commander in chief and could cost Campbell dearly.

The White House is saying little and, it indicates, doing nothing about the incident, and that is exactly the course it should follow. At this point, certainly, Bill Clinton's well-known uneasy relations with the military need no further gloss. As time goes on those relations will probably become less strained, but it's to be doubted that they will ever be truly easy. The discomfort that exists between the military and Clinton grows out of history, but it's also fueled by several more recent developments that, for the military at least, add to existing tensions.

Clinton is the first President since 1945 not to have gained direct experience of military culture through military service. That in itself ought to be no cause for resentment, but for many in the military the way in which Clinton stayed out of uniform is. Not only did he labor mightily to avoid being drafted, he also vigorously opposed the war in which most of today's senior officers fought.

Gen. Colin L. Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has spoken eloquently--"as the senior Vietnam veteran on active duty"--about the need to give Clinton the respect his office demands. Many, perhaps most, officers would agree. But agreeing on the need to respect their supreme commander does not mean they will be happy under his command.

Clinton's necessary effort to end the military's archaic prejudice against homosexuals in uniform certainly has upset traditionalists in the armed forces. Defense cutbacks, which are eliminating thousands of officers' jobs, inevitably add to the atmospheric tensions. In time the military will adjust to these changes, as it has adjusted to others before. Meanwhile, griping on a mass scale, among officers and enlisted personnel alike, of course will accompany this flux. But private griping is one thing, a nasty public demeaning of the commander in chief's character is something else.

The military lives--indeed, lives or dies--by strict adherence to rules. It is senior commanders like Gen. Campbell who above all others have an obligation to honor those rules.

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