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DAVID HARRIS

 Interviewed June 19, 1996


HARRIS:

My own war experience was not one that I expected to have. I grew up wanting to be a military officer, hoping to go to West Point, and hoping that if I had a war to fight that it would be like my father's war. And needless to say it was not that. So my experience was very different from the one I expected to have. I learned from it that it's possible for America to be wrong. That if you care about things and values and have things that you believe in, that you have to act them out. It's a requirement of life. Ultimately on issues of war and peace which are really issues about life and death, you deal in the first person singular. First and foremost. Although there are plenty of we's that inflict the damage of war, ultimately, it is consumed and digested by "I's" not "we's."

All of us have a kind of coming to terms with that experience. It is the most serious experience that civilization holds. You can't do anything more serious than kill other people. To do so requires that you make a decision that that is indeed what you want to do. I made a decision that that wasn't what I wanted to do, that there was no good reason to kill these people, and that I was not going to part of that process and I don't care who else was part of it, I was not going to be part of it. Ultimately, to be the person I had in mind, I had to disobey a whole series of orders. And the consequence was of course they put me in prison. But I would take that any day. I gave up twenty months of my life behind bars and got myself in return. That seems like a great bargain to me.

FL: What did you learn about yourself that helps you look at Dole and Clinton who had very different kinds of experiences?

HARRIS:

For starters, I assume its formativeness about both of them. For young men, well for me there's no more critical time than when you're young, and for young men there is no more critical time than when they call you to arms. That is the way our culture works. And so for both of them I think this was obviously sort of a watershed kind of experience. I think my perception of both of them, is that in very different ways they have both learned from their experience. I think that Clinton has been unwilling to admit that he had qualms about the war, that he acted on those qualms, he perceived that as potentially politically damaging to him and wants to avoid it at all costs. Bob Dole in his own way has done the same thing. I think his own war experience was a lot more complex than we would think or that he would let on, but he insists on treating it as a simple. And I think the emotional realities of that gauntlet that he had to run were to remain unknown because he has not fronted up on those.

Both men, I keep thinking, I want to hear more. I want to know more, what was it you thought, what was it you really felt about it. I perceive Clinton as a man who's still hung on those exact same dilemmas that are present in that letter he wrote to that ROTC committee. Trying to make a decision he can't really come to taking the kind of risks that making the decision he wants to make involve. With Dole, I perceive someone as facing an enormous emotional reality of someone who was sacrificed on a front that may not have made any difference and was penalized with years spent in hospital beds trying to put himself back together, who has translated all that into a simple "my country right or wrong" period.

In both cases, I think they have truncated their own experience to such a degree that it becomes essentially meaningless to the rest of us who have to consume it from outside of them. In both of them, I want more, I want to know what this really did and what you really felt, because I don't think that has come out and I think both men reflect the nature of the experience that they had. I can see Bob Dole as a teeth gritter who is determined to make it through. I perceive Bill Clinton as a vacillator who is trying to find a way out of a hopeless dilemma. I think both of those pictures I get from their war experience. And they are the dominant pictures I have of each of them.

FL: What was Dole's war experience. Let's talk about it on an emotional level. Assuming you know nothing about him, what happened to him......

HARRIS:

What I know of his war experience obviously I know from the media representation of it and that's it. I mean, Bob Dole does not talk to me about his war experience. I mean here's a guy who's basically late to the war, by the time he gets to where the fighting is being done, the war is certainly in its last stages. He is on the Italian front which I sometimes describe as the Vietnam of WWII, I mean it was the worst-run military front of the war, in which there was a lot of very stupid sacrifices made, and a lot of good soldiers turned into what looked like cannon fodder. Dole walked into the middle of that situation at the tail end of the enterprise, gets in, is barely into combat when he goes out to save somebody who is already dead, gets shot up in the process, gets left behind to die himself, and does not die. He then is shipped home and spends the next great piece of his life trying to put himself back together.

Well, I don't know what Bob Dole's experience was, I try to imagine myself having been through that same experience, you know, I'd have a lot of why in there. Why this, why me, why did all this happen, what does it mean? What was the sacrifice, was the sacrifice worth it? What does make a sacrifice worth it? What can I learn from what I've been through here? While Dole talks about the war, he talks about the war by saying I was in the war, I was wounded, and it took me a long time to recover and it means a lot to me, and sometimes it even makes me cry. Well, I want to hear more than that. Ok, I can understand that, but what did you learn about the activities of the organized state, and the exercise of military force? And what moves men into battle, and what sustains them in that situation, and what makes a sacrifice worthwhile? I'm sure he has feelings about that. Whether he's in touch with those feelings or is prepared to talk about those feelings I don't know. But I would feel much more comfortable with him as a candidate if he were prepared to talk about them.

I mean my doubts about Dole are, what did he learn from all this? He walked into it consuming a standard brand Kansas interpretation of what one does when one fights for one's country, and walked out of it promoting a standard brand Kansas version of what one does when one fights for one's country. I would like more subtlety than that at least. You know when it came to the experience of Vietnam, it's unclear to me that he learned anything from his experience in WWII, because it certainly didn't prevent him from being a whole-hearted supporter of wasting a whole lot of lives in Southeast Asia.

So my doubts about Dole are whether he learned anything from what he went through. Learned enough to value what it means to send somebody into that process. I know he claims that he does. But the big chance he had to illustrate that as far as I was concerned is Vietnam, and when he had the option of trying to bring his sensitivity about battle to the Vietnam equation, he simply walked along in Richard Nixon's footsteps. Which teaches me that he learned nothing, and that he simply came out of this an advocate of hopeless sacrifice and wasted manpower and wasted lives.

As for Clinton, I think Clinton being of my generation, is certainly more recognizable to me. And I feel like I knew guys like Bill Clinton during the war. I mean I was student body president at Stanford University, I knew all the student politician types. And Bill Clinton was a student politician type to the nth degree. This was a guy who decided before he got out of junior high school at least that he was going to be President of the United States. I mean I knew at least a hundred guys exactly like him and he was the guy that made it obviously. Forever he's been building his political career. I see his relationship to the draft first in that context. Here's a guy who, like most of these student politician types that I knew, manipulated the selective service system to their own advantage as best they could, they kept their student deferment as long as they could, and when they couldn't keep their student deferment anymore, they got an occupational deferment for awhile, and Bill Clinton messed around trying to see if he could get an ROTC program when he was worried about being drafted, and you know he basically spent his time covering his ass. At the same time, for him, that in itself was a big step. Remember that politicians in this era, the first building block to a political career was a military record. And it was assumed at that time if you did not have a military record that was honorable, that you didn't have a prayer as a politician. So for Bill Clinton to not serve in the army itself was a big step, a big risk as far as he was concerned. That said, he was also clearly somebody who was moved by the morality of the situation. That he did not believe in what was going on in Vietnam was obvious. But the issue was whether he was really prepared to say that, and how clearly he was prepared to say that. And he was not prepared to say that to the exclusion of any career possibilities. Certainly if he had done what I did, his chances of being elected President of the United States would be approximately equal to mine, which are approximately zero.

So at a time when he [had] the opportunity to make a very clear statement, he didn't make it. But he made the best one he could, and I'm perfectly prepared to grant him that. My problem with Clinton, is that in the aftermath of that decision, he has not been willing to accept it. First he claimed basically he never made it. To hear him talk, you'd think that there was never a Vietnam war that he was part of. Here's a guy who talks about everything in the world, and if he goes down to the McDonalds to get himself a burger, you're going to hear about it in his next speech. He's always reprocessing his experience for his constituents. He managed to live through the entire Vietnam war and not once in his Presidency have we heard any lesson that he learned in this. You know never once has he said to the American people, well when I was facing this I learned... or, quite the contrary, he has run from the experience and tried to obscure as much as possible. As a consequence I think he's made it much more difficult for the entire society to come to grips with what that Vietnam experience was.

So I perceive him as a man who is trying to rewrite his history. And since the history he's trying to rewrite is extraordinarily precious to me, and I think extraordinarily important to the country, I think we are all ill-served by the attempt to hide from it. I wish the guy had just said, look, I thought the war was wrong. I didn't want to be part of it. I did everything I could to stay out of it. In a sense, great, Ok. I think that's a viable position for him to take. I think it's an honest one, I think he'd still be elected President of the United States if he'd said that. But he didn't. And I think that tells us a lot about Bill Clinton. And ironically, both of these men are defined by what they do not say, as opposed to what they say. And I think this is what creates our dilemma as voters, trying to choose between the character of two people when that character remains largely unsaid.

FL: What does it say about Bill Clinton?

HARRIS:

I think it tells us that Bill Clinton is definitely afraid of being identified with the position that eliminates him from any significant block of people in the society. I think it also tells us that he's not very good at making decisions and then taking the consequences for it. And I think it tells us that he worries a lot about his political advantage. And that he hasn't come to terms with his own experience yet. If he had, he'd be comfortable with it. And whatever he did back there, he's not comfortable with it. Because if he was more comfortable, we'd hear about it.

Certainly one of the dividing lines in my generation around the issue of the Vietnam war, was not just the issue of do you like the war or don't you like the war. It was whatever your position, what risks are you prepared to take. Because remember, one of the characteristics of the Vietnam war is that virtually everybody had a way of getting out. An option not to have to face up to this issue. I mean it was designed to be as comfortable as possible. Nobody in society even had the option of paying prices except young men between the ages of 18 and 26. and those had a number of ways of opting out of potential crisis.

So one way of looking back at that experience is to divide the crowd into those people who paid prices and those who did not. And I think Bill Clinton is obviously uncomfortable paying the price. And I think to the contrary, Bob Dole was in a situation where he paid a price. He made a decision, he went out, he paid a price. And on that front, I think certainly, his war experience did more for him that Bill Clinton's. Bob Dole is a man who knows what it means to take the consequences, who knows what taking a risk means. Because nobody knows what taking a risk means until you lose that, when you lose that, then you know what a risk is about. And Bob Dole knows what a risk is about. He took that risk when he ran out to try and pull that poor boy who was dying out there back to safety. He took a risk. And he paid the price for it. And Bill Clinton did not take a risk, and as a consequence, I think, he knows less about himself that way and has less substance to his character in some ways because he hasn't had that risk.

Now, on the other hand, I think the other way to divide the question of the war is around issues of right or wrong. And for me, those issues while not simple, are clear. And I think we were wrong. I think we killed three million people for no good reason. I think everybody in this country, whether they participated in the war or not, as long a they were citizens of this country are responsible for that wrong. It was an enormous wrong. You do not kill three million people and walk off and say excuse me, we made a mistake. That doesn't do it. We had a moral issue to face up to about the force we were using in Southeast Asia, and Bob Dole missed that one entirely. I think whatever his experience in WWII was, it did not guide him well in Vietnam.

FL: The significance of Vietnam......

HARRIS:

I think the war, and how you responded to it was certainly a defining issue for my generation. And I don't think the country has yet recovered from it. I think the decisions that led us into Southeast Asia are still haunting us to this day. And I think they haunt us as a large society, and I think they haunt us individuals. And I think, for both of these men, the issue of what kind of warriors they were, is defining. And I think in saying that, I want to be clear that I don't think that we should credit Dole with WWII and Clinton with Vietnam. I don't think the two should become synonymous with that. Because I think it's important for us to recognize how formative WWII was for people like Bill Clinton and myself. I mean we were out trying to redo WWII, our fathers' war, that was what we were taught to do. Second, I think it's important to understand that Vietnam was Bob Dole's war too. The WWII generation and the lessons that that generation took out of WWII, they brought to Vietnam. Without WWII it's impossible to imagine Vietnam either. So I think we are talking here about the deepest recesses of the American state. A place where who we are as individual people and who we are as a whole people, come together and have to be sorted out.

I think this is an election about who these men are. And I think there is no more important measurement of who they are than how they responded to the wars that they faced and the experiences they went through in that war.

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