The Relevance of Chuck Hagel’s Combat Service

I have in the past defended Senator Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s choice for Secretary of Defense, against allegations that he is “anti-Semitic,” against attacks for his lack of appetite for “elective” wars, etc. That has been easy because those accusation are either unfounded or — in the case of Hagel’s reluctance to take our nation into unnecessary wars — because they are the kind of attacks that Hagel should wear as a badge of reason and honor.

But how does one deal with the truly offensive comments by those who call Hagel’s Vietnam War service non-relevant and, in particular, the comments by those who focus on the enlisted nature of Hagel’s military service in order to even more reprehensibly diminish such service and experience.

It was not unexpected to read such comments by Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens in his “Chuck Hagel’s Courage” or even by the Washington Post’s Eliot A. Cohen.

Responding to Cohen’s “Hagel’s war service admirable, but not relevant here,” I wrote in the Stars and Stripes:

While there have been several recent columns dismissing former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s military service as not being “relevant” to his possible role of secretary of defense, none has been as offensive as Eliot A. Cohen’s Jan. 14 column “Hagel’s war service admirable, but not relevant here.”

It is offensive not only because Cohen ignores how prior military service has enriched the experience and enhanced the performance of hundreds of representatives, senators, Cabinet members and of the more than 30 U.S. presidents with such prior service and ignores how, during recent campaigns, such service has been considered, especially by Republicans, as one of the highlights in their candidates’ biographies — but also because Cohen attempts to use the fact that Hagel “only” saw enlisted military service (that he was “just” a grunt, “just” a sergeant) as additional ammunition to try to derail Hagel’s nomination.

In his column, after ridiculing what he alleges to be “President Barack Obama’s chief case for nominating [Hagel]: that he served honorably as a sergeant in Vietnam, where he was twice wounded in combat,” Cohen says this about Hagel’s enlisted wartime service: “What is it, precisely, that one would bring by service as a sergeant in a war more than 40 years past — almost as distant from today as the charge up San Juan Hill was from D-Day, or the Battle of New Orleans was from Gettysburg? It was an important, even searing, life experience, no doubt.”

Apparently Cohen believes that Hagel has been in some state of suspended animation for the past 40 years, a period during which Cohen assumes that Hagel has not kept up with the “utterly different” technology, strategy, tactics and organization we have today, which have transformed “a band of reluctant conscripts caught up in the Big Green Machine” into “a hardened professional army.”

Such comments are not deserving of our present and former enlisted men and women, of the tens of thousands of enlisted personnel — including this writer — who have gone on to receive their commissions in our armed forces, of the thousands who have gone on to become successful generals, entrepreneurs, CEOs, diplomats, congressmen and senators, even after 40 years. And they are hardly deserving of a man who served honorably and heroically in combat in Vietnam, a man who was awarded two Purple Hearts and of a man whose military experience as “just” a sergeant — when combined with his other vast business, financial, executive, political and senatorial and Department of Veterans Affairs experience — will make him a great secretary of defense.

As mentioned in the “Letter to the Editor” above, I was offended by Cohen’s remarks — as I was by Stephens’ column in the Journal.

On the other hand, I was disappointed to read Monday’s Op-Ed column by the New York Times’ Bill Keller — a journalist and former Times Executive Editor whom I have always respected, and still do.

Disappointed because in his “Chuck Hagel’s War” — while duly recognizing that “most of the arguments for voting against Hagel’s confirmation are flimsy at best” and while exposing them as such — Keller, in turn, provides flimsy fodder to Hagel’s foes when it comes to the relevance of Hagel’s military service and experience.

Disappointed because Keller claims, “the notion that experience of war imparts a special wisdom is one of our enduring fallacies.” How America wishes that a certain President and members of his administration had had the opportunity to benefit from the “experience of war,” before committing to a fallacy called the Iraq War!

Disappointed because Keller views combat experience “with skepticism” and “even worth considering whether [Hagel’s] military service could be a handicap” because “a non-bullying management style, strategic judgment, political dexterity and an open mind” are not qualities “likely to have been perfected in the jungles of Vietnam.” Apparently Keller agrees with Cohen that Hagel has been in some state of suspended animation for the past 40 years, a period during which Keller assumes that Hagel has not “perfected” management qualities, strategic judgment, political dexterity and an open mind.

By “skepticism” Keller is certainly not referring to Nicholas Kristof’s belief that Hagel harbors “a healthy skepticism about deploying American troops…because he also harbors shrapnel in his chest from Vietnam and appreciates the human costs when Pentagon officials move pins on maps.”

Disappointed because Keller diagnoses that Hagel may have the symptoms of “Vietnam syndrome,” a tendency to recoil from conflict. Such a diagnosis about a man who served heroically in combat in “the jungles of Vietnam,” a man who was awarded two Purple Hearts, a man who when his armored personnel carrier hit a land mine was badly burnt, but did not “recoil” from dragging his unconscious brother from the vehicle, just before it exploded.

Finally, and just to be clear, I still respect Bill Keller and I do agree with his “just to be clear”:

Just to be clear, I think the president is entitled to pick a defense secretary who is compatible with his views and has his trust

As it should be.

Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

7 Comments

  1. Unfortunately, or fortunately, the book “Kill Anything that Moves” has just been released 50 years after the Vietnam war. It makes the case that My Lai was unusual in what often happened only in the numbers killed. The military leadership in that war can only be described as grossly negligent.

    Mr. Hagel’s actions in that war will certainly be examined more closely than any other “grunt”. Hopefully, he will not be grossly negligent in his new position of Secty. of Defense should he be appointed.

  2. “Mr. Hagel’s actions in that war will certainly be examined more closely than any other “grunt”. Hopefully, he will not be grossly negligent in his new position of Secty. of Defense should he be appointed.”

    I am confident that — if Hagel’s Vietnam service actions are “examined more closely than any other ‘grunt’” — “they” will only find honorable service and brave actions — nothing “grossly negligent.” He will make a great SecDef, I am sure.

    Thanks, T.O.

  3. I think having seen a war close up and personal as a “grunt”, or an officer, has value for any SOD, because it might give pause to actions that put “real” people in harm’s way. That being said, I would hope that other skills, traits, experience and knowledge would also be very important. And, there is still the need to in sync with the CIC and the Generals.

  4. “That being said, I would hope that other skills, traits, experience and knowledge would also be very important.”

    I agree, Chuck has had 40+ years since he was a “grunt” to amass an impressive slate of skills, knowledge and experiences that will make him a great SecDef.

  5. I think beyond his 40+ years as a politician that will certainly give Mr. Hagel the necessary tools and insight into DC’s machinations, it will be a much more important tool…sympathy. While many of us who have not served can have empathy for our brothers- and sisters-in-arms, we will not be able to take it to the deeper level of sympathy which, IMO, can only be gleaned from actual experience.

    One of my brothers served in the Marine Reserves and (thankfully) only wound up doing one tour in Iraq. However, the experience he had over there caused observable changes in him when he first returned. As time has gone on either he has adjusted or I have become used to the changes to where I don’t usually notice them, even though I am sure parts are still there. I can never serve our military so when I’ve tried to ask my brother about certain things, I always see a certain glint, wistfulness and, yes, sorrow in his eyes when he speaks about it. A connection I cannot fully fathom.

    My point is that, like him, Mr. Hagel will take that military experience and make sure that our troops are taken care of; that they’ll be sent to battle with all the resources they need (not with just what they have already ala Sec. Rumsfeld). When our men and women come home, I believe he’ll have a better understanding of the trouble adjusting back to civilian life and, as such, give them the resources and tools they need to make that transition easier.

    So, yes, I believe that Mr. Hagel’s service is an important foundation to his leading the DoD in addition to his experience in Washington as a Senator. He might be able to be that unique individual that will advocate for our military not just abroad, but also here at home–the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines; and be able to lessen the bloat of a certain building in Arlington, VA that it’s in danger of becoming a decagon.

  6. I could not have said it better,brcarthey.

    No one is claiming that military service is “sufficient and necessary” to make a good SecDef, but — as you say — the sympathy and empathy that come with “having been there” should not be sneeerd at.

    Thank you.

  7. Only someone who has been in war knows it is something to be avoided.

    Just what DOES constitute the type of leadership these guys think necessary. Perhaps if they present their readership with a checklist, or more accurately a JOB DESCRIPTION, we can all see where the choice of Hagel is truly lacking.

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