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The American Legion has staged what may be a decisive preemptive strike against President Clinton's plans to widen the war against Yugoslavia.

The Legion has hand-delivered an extraordinary letter to the president, the secretaries of State and Defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and every member of Congress which called for the IMMEDIATE withdrawal of all U.S. troops involved in the war against Yugoslavia.

The message is clear, according to the Legion's national commander, Harold L. "Butch" Miller: The United Stares armed forces must pull out of Kosovo BEFORE American blood is unnecessarily shed.

Such an action by the nation's largest wartime veteran's organization with nearly 3 million members is unprecedented in its history. Therefore, it deserves our attention and the attention of every American in and out of uniform.

It is the Legion, founded while the smoke still lingered over the battlefields of World War I - the "War to End All Wars" - which is composed of the real - not reel - "Private Ryans." Members run from the deserts of Kuwait in 1991's mechanized, high-tech Desert Storm.

However, the letter is even more noteworthy given the curt language put forth by the Legion's National Executive Committee - its board of directors. Entitled Resolution 44 - "The American Legion's Statement on Yugoslavia" - it is unrelentingly tough in tone and context.

Adopted unanimously, the resolution deplores the further use of American troops in the Balkins and demands that this nation no longer participate as an active member in NATO's so-called "Operation Joint Force."

In blunt terms, these veterans - who served the nation, bore the burden, fought the battles, carry the scars of combat and never let us down - told Mr. Clinton that our armed forces should never be committed to wartime operations unless the following conditions are first met:

"That there be a clear statement by the president of why it is in our vital national interests to be engaged in hostilities;

Guidelines to be established for the mission, including a clear exit strategy;

That there be support of the mission by the U.S. Congress and the American people;

That it be made clear that U.S. forces will be commanded only by U.S. officers."

The letter, which was signed by their National Commander Miller, went on to say that "It is the position of The American Legion, which I am sure is shared by the majority of Americans, that three of the above listed conditions have not been met in the current joint operation with NATO..."

He went on to note that, "In no case should America commit its armed forces in the absence of clearly defined objectives agreed upon by the U.S. Congress in accordance with Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution of the United States."

In short, the Legion's point of view is: Not only does the president not have an exit strategy from the Yugoslavian tar pit, he never even had an entrance strategy.

In this, the Legion has made a very strong case and one, to date, the administration has dared not directly challenge. Indeed, it would make Mr. Clinton look rather foolish to try and demonize the Legion as being unpatriotic for opposing his latest military adventure in nation building as he has other opponents of the war.

For Mr. Clinton knows - as we all know - that the safety of the men and women in the nation's armed services is the first concern of the graying ranks of veterans who make up the Legion.

The only reason the Legion has taken this stand is because it refuses to allow American troops to be used as pawns in an ineptly played, but never-theless deadly, game of military chess.

As Mr. Miller put it: "They are our sons and daughters. If they must be sent into harm's way, it must be upon CAREFUL reflection of their commander in chief, and the consent of Congress and the American people."

Legion officials are quick to point out that their resolution does not in any way lessen their support for the troops. "The men and women of The American Legion support the troops 100 percent," Commander Miller said. "We support them by our prayers."

It would be well if Mr. Clinton and the other leaders of our nation heeded the wise council of those who have gone in harm's way rather than listen to those who are so eager to send others into harm's way.

Too often in this war, we have seen Mr. Clinton and his aides engage in heated and heady moral rhetoric - over the refugees, the politics and the high-tech splendor of bombing a land at 30,000 feet - while scrupulously avoiding the ultimate cost which will be reaped by the shadow of death in a seemingly ever more inevitable ground war.

Indeed, our own leaders' words have been used not so much to clarify intentions and purpose as to muddle up the very real difference between reality and emotion. It is emotion that led us into Kosovo and it is reality which will bring American boys home in body bags.

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