Vital Signs

Clinton and the Troops

"I'm angry. I'd like to ask President Clinton why is my dad dead? And what are we doing fighting in Bosnia in the first place?" Coming from the 15-year-old son of Sergeant First Class Donald A. Dugan, the first operational fatality of the United States intervention in Bosnia, those questions command respect. But they are the last questions the Clinton White House wants to hear.

With Bill Clinton's much-hyped Bosnia trip earlier in the year, the President's relations with the military seemed to turn the corner. Although the trip came and went without consequence, it succeeded as a Kodak moment, producing as its chief legacy widely reprinted images of a grinning Commander-in-Chief enthusiastically embracing and being embraced by "the troops." To the extent that any public gesture by any politician can be considered genuine, the President in these photos appears to be genuinely enjoying himself. Indeed, our journalists reported that for the first time in his presidency, Mr. Clinton seemed relaxed and comfortable when venturing onto the military's own turf.

But to attribute any significance to a skillfully staged photo-op would be an error. Indeed, more than is usually the case, the image of Clinton surrounded by excited young soldiers is misleading. It further obfuscates a civil-military relationship freighted with contradictions that most government officials, journalists, and scholars...

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