HATE THE WAR if you must, but love the warrior. Distrust, even disrespect, the American leadership in that war, if you must, but love the warrior. And no matter what your view of the recent allegations that U.S. troops used nerve gas in a covert operation to kill American defectors, love the warrior.

If there's anything about the Vietnam war that we simply can't afford to take for granted or over-emphasize, it's the love we must unfailingly have for our Vietnam vets. And central to that love must be an understanding of why many in their present-day ranks, without a whisper of skepticism, have no trouble believing the recent CNN/Time story about the use of nerve gas by the U.S. military.The explosive story alleged that in September 1970 U.S. Air Force pilots twice dropped sarin gas on a Laotian village, and that commandos from the super-secret Studies and Observation Group killed about 100 people, mostly civilians, as well as two men they believed to be American defectors.

Whom we should believe in this case is neither a clear nor simple matter, especially given the several well-known and highly respected military leaders with Vietnam experience who so strenuously deny the allegations. On the other hand, CNN and Time just as strenuously uphold the veracity of their report, citing more than 200 interviews and eight months of research.

Perhaps, as the old and oft-reliable saying goes, truth is to be found somewhere in the middle. I must confess, however, given the Pentagon's track record - of non-comments and denials heaped upon non-comments and denials, belatedly followed years later by begrudging quasi-admissions - that it's all too understandable to me why people would be quick to believe the media on this one.

Problem is, the palpable and unmistakable buzz in our nation's capital - in and out of both media and military circles, and even among high-profile Vietnam vets - is that the most sensational allegations of this story are actually bogus. Hmm. We'll see, and hopefully soon.

Regardless of what we learn, it's important that we appreciate why so many Vietnam vets would be so quick to believe the allegations.

From the very beginning of the Vietnam conflict, one of our greatest stumbling blocks to grasping the war's significance has been our reluctance or even unwillingness to believe, or at least understand, our Vietnam warriors. And one of the hard-hitting realities they've wanted us to appreciate is the degree to which so many of them felt - feel - utterly betrayed by an insincere, double-talking, amoral, dishonorable and often incompetent leadership. Not just the military leadership in place at the time of the war, mind you, but the political leadership as well.

War is bad enough as it is for the warrior (a gross understatement, indeed), but to be put into a situation in which you cannot even rely on your commanding officers, your top brass, your political leaders - your country, as it were - that's not merely pitiable, regrettable, unfathomable. That's unconscionable, immoral: to the warrior, and to the citizenry and freedoms for which these warriors are literally and sacrificially putting their lives on the line.

But it's something else as well, something not so obvious. The Vietnam-War tour of duty, for all too many American soldiers, was character "assassinating" - a point driven home clearly yet disturbingly in Jonathan Shay's brilliant 1994 work, Achilles in Vietnam: The Trauma of War and the Undoing of Character.

What Shay's book reveals is the frightening extent to which our military and political leaders had destroyed the legitimacy of our army's moral order by betraying "what's right" what's honorable, dutiful, truthful, responsible and the like - thereby inflicting manifold psychological and emotional injuries on our troops. We could more precisely describe these, as Shay does, as moral injuries, for they were tantamount to the literal and systematic deconstruction, dismantling and "undoing" of personal character.

In such a dark and dire light, it's difficult indeed to blame or second-guess our Vietnam vets.

Which brings us full circle: the feeling of betrayal and distrust runs very deep, understandably so, and no doubt looms large in explaining why many Vietnam vets have no problem believing the CNN/Time report. No matter what we personally believe, and no matter what comes to light concerning the veracity of that report, let's not allow yet another wave of allegations and counter-allegations surrounding this tragic war to obscure or diminish our belief in and indebtedness to our Vietnam warriors.

In truth, given the self-destructive cauldron of moral madness they endured on our behalf, they deserve nothing short of our continual heartfelt love and understanding.