NEW ORLEANS -- Everyone in America watched the Vietnam generation come of age -- that massive bulge of 26 million men and 27 million women whose adolescence was played out in endless detail on the nightly news. They were captured in freeze frames of yesteryear -- drug-gutted "flower children" seeking nirvana in Haight-Ashbury flophouses, revelers stoned and mud-soaked at Woodstock, protesters bleeding from the nightsticks in Chicago 20 years ago.

And television brought the war home to America -- capturing in Vietnam's fields of fire bleeding and dying soldiers as baby-faced as those at campus barricades, sometimes as stoned as the mob at Woodstock, as vulnerable as any adolescents.

Now it's being replayed again. Ever since vice presidential nominee and Senate hawk Dan Quayle lobbed the grenade Tuesday night that "phone calls were made" to aid his entry into the National Guard in 1969, Republicans here have been sifting through the political damage.

As baby boomers move into positions of political prominence, Quayle -- the publisher's son whose family connections may havehelpedhim get into the Guard -- will not be the last to have to explain what he did in the nation's most unpopular and divisive war -- a war that, predictably, left a welter of conflicting legacies.

Today, as time blurs that war of much confusion and uncertainty, there has come the Ramboing of Vietnam, Ronald Reagan's attempt to make it a "noble cause" and a general desire to gloss over who did the fighting and why.

The less privileged -- from the ghettos and the hills of Appalachia and Midwest steel mills and automobile factories -- fought that war in disproportionate numbers; the best and the brightest planned the war but did not send their sons.

For the first time, it was chic and righteous in influential circles not to go to war. Approximately 60 percent of draft-age males who did not serve took positive steps to avoid it, through legal and illegal means. Millions clung to student deferments. Doctors willingly wrote letters attesting to enough physical and psychological problems as to suggest a whole generation of weak, halt and lame. Although Republicans defensively infer that criticism of Quayle's actions amounts to a criticism of the patriotism of Guardsmen, the Guard of Quayle's youth was a privileged sanctuary. By the time Quayle joined, Lyndon Johnson, determined not to incur the wrath of the privileged, had virtually made certain that Guardsmen would not be called up.

Many a blue-collar bar featured the peace symbol and the slogan "footprints of the American chicken," but the climate on college campuses was one of self-righteous avoidance. Publishers churned out "how-to" books on draft avoidance that became dormitory staples. Some potential draftees sincerely protested the war, but a vast legion of young men held no views on Vietnam and began to coolly chart their way toward yuppie success. For them today, Vietnam has little more impact than a forgotten headline.

The vast majority of that generation's 26 million males escaped through student deferments, letters from doctors, high draft lottery numbers, the reserves and the National Guard. Of some 9 million in military service, 3.7 million served in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. A much smaller number saw combat.

Given the confusion about American goals in Vietnam, wanting to avoid the war has an understandable reasonableness to it today, even among some Vietnam veterans.

In recent years, however, a bevy of politicians who did not serve in Vietnam now defend that war and today's hawkish policies. For many in America, there is a distasteful irony in that. Vietnam veterans, who carry their scars and their memories, have a name for them. They call them "war wimps" and "chicken hawks" -- chicken then and hawks now.

In Bobby Muller's high school yearbook, there is a picture of him in adolescence, gracefully pole-vaulting into the air. Today, he is confined to a wheelchair. His spine was severed by a bullet in Vietnam. He has been named by Esquire magazine as one of the outstanding men of his generation and until recently was president of the 20,000-member Vietnam Veterans of America. Muller is among those veterans who advocates no contra aid and cautions on military intervention. He explodes when Dan Quayle is mentioned.

"Our whole generation had to face the question of dealing with that war," he says, "but this chicken hawk copped out and now is today's warmonger! That is what is so distasteful. If he simply confessed that, 'Hey, I wanted to advance my career,' I could respect him, but he's ducking. It will not set well with veterans across the ideological board; it was a sheer case of expediency versus principle."

On Capitol Hill today, there is an interesting alignment of yesterday's Vietnam generation. The ones who went are more dovish than the ones who did not. Of the five combat veterans of the Vietnam generation in the Senate (Sen. John McCain, a combat veteran who spoke at the convention, is 51), four are Democrats who have actively opposed contra aid and have taken less hawkish positions on military spending: Tom Harkin, John Kerry, Tom Daschle and, to a lesser extent, Al Gore Jr. (The fifth is Republican Larry Pressler.)

Says Iowan Harkin, "If he {Quayle} did use pull, I find it so onerous. If you couldn't get out, you either went to Canada, or, if you had enough pull, you got in the National Guard -- or you went to theology school" -- a pointed crack aimed at Reagan's former budget director, David Stockman, who went to divinity school.

Harkin predicts the Quayle revelation will not sit well in the Farm Belt -- the very area he was supposed to help. "He wouldn't be the first, certainly to have skipped out and used pull, but if it is shown that he absolutely used pull it will hurt them {the Republicans} badly. People in the Midwest take your duty to country seriously."

Harkin laughs at the hawk talk that rumbles forth from his colleagues who didn't go to Vietnam. "It's so ironic, they get in Congress or the government and become big hawks. Don't they have any shame at all?"

Often on the opposite side on the military issue are members of the Vietnam generation who spent their adolescence far from the jungles of Vietnam. Sen. Paul Trible Jr. of Virginia, who is retiring to run for governor, is a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and a staunch supporter of Reagan's foreign policy. He got a medical deferment for a "slight malformation" of his right arm. Trible says he has cannot completely straighten his arm, but can play tennis.

To symbolize his strong defense posture, one campaign advertisement showed Trible, 41, in an Air Force pilot's flight suit in the open cockpit of a jet fighter, although he never served in the military. He was giving the thumbs-up salute, using the arm that kept him out of the service. As for going to war, Trible says, "I don't think it would have saved the world for me to fight in Vietnam."

Other staunch hawks -- for example Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and former assistant secretary of state Richard R. Burt -- now feel that they "missed something" by avoiding the war. Burt had a minor and correctable ailment but was temporarily taken off the priority, 1A draft list, then got a high lottery number. Fierce military champion Gingrich was deferred by marriage and student status. "A large part of me," he has said, "thinks I should have gone over."

Stockman earned the wrath of veterans when he tried to cut veterans programs, especially the Vet Centers outreach program for Vietnam veterans. Acknowledging that he went to Yale Divinity school for a year after college in part to escape the draft, Stockman has said that while his "primary motive" was to study theology, "the secondary is that it did give me a deferral."

Now comes J. Danforth Quayle, perched hawkishly on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who gets a 90 percent favorable rating from the hard-line American Security Council and a zero rating from the dovish Council for a Livable World. In 1976, as a member of the House, Qauyle showed little concern for those who avoided Vietnam by going to Canada; he fought Jimmy Carter's amnesty program. More recently, he enraged disabled Vietnam veterans by opposing significant legislative changes in the Job Training Partnership Act to help veterans. "The Republicans lost my vote when they put Quayle on the ticket, because of his lack of response for Vietnam veterans on the employment issue," said a prominent Vietnam-generation officer of the Disabled American Veterans.

Trying to put the best face on the issue that has inflamed this convention and become headline news, Quayle says of his National Guard service, "Had my company been called to Vietnam, I would have gone, pure and simple."

The pure and simple fact, however, is that Quayle was in an Army, all right, but one with the slimmest chance of seeing combat. "Joining up" for safety was one way to beat the system. There was about as much risk in being called up as being hit by lightning. Of the 1,040,000 Guardsmen and reservists, only 15,000 went to Vietnam. Nearly one million (973,000) were never mobilized.

The National Guard claimed in 1970 that as many as 90 percent of all Guard enlistments were draft-motivated. A Pentagon official at that time labeled Guardsmen and reservists "Sergeant Bilkos -- trying to look brave while making sure that someone else does the fighting." They were better educated, more affluent and whiter than their active forces peers. The National Guard and reserves became such a dodge for football players, for example, that if there had been a call-up there would have scarcely been a season.

From 1968 to 1970, 28,000 more college-trained men entered the National Guard or reserves than were enlisted or inducted into all active forces combined, according to "Chance and Circumstances," the landmark compendium study about facts regarding the Vietnam generation.

As the war grew increasingly unpopular, using pull was often vital to get in; the waiting list was staggering -- in 1968, as many as 100,000 males were on it. But by 1971 -- a time of shrinking draft calls -- such patriotic fervor suddenly dissipated; by then, the Guard was 45,000 under strength.

It is still too soon to know how Quayle's revelations will play out in the country. Many of the delegates here are not sure yet what the relative unknown stands for today, let alone what he did in the '60s. And many contend that being a hawk is the way to deter war.

But Peter Hart -- the Democratic pollster who did the massive Rolling Stone magazine poll that shows today's younger generation feels that the only war worth fighting is one that directly threatens our borders -- says "we don't know how people will view this. But one thing is sure, it's a wrong year to have a basic character question. It feeds into everything else the American voter has been feeling.

"Whether it's Ed Meese and the Justice department or Iran-contra scandals, they are saying there is one set of rules for them, a different set of rules for everyone else. They look at religion and see one set of rules for Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Bakker -- and a different set of rules for them. On Wall Street, it's one set of rules for them and another set for the rest of us.

"Now you have a vice presidential nominee with one set of rules for himself and a different set for everyone else."

But what of the vast legion of men his generation who did either what Quayle did or took other steps to avoid the war?

"I don't think this will be viewed as a judgment of a generation -- it is a judgment of an individual.

"What he is telling people is, 'look at my standards.'"

Hart paused. "All I can say is it is just an awful way for the Republicans to come riding out of their convention."

Myra MacPherson is the author of "Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation."