So said Robert Scheer recently on the NPR program Right, Left and Center in a discussion about the nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel to be the next Secretary of Defense.
As we all know by now, Hagel was an enlisted NCO and recipient of two Purple Hearts during his tour in Vietnam, a war that I also was in. Hagel knows a lot about death and how young lives are constantly being lost in wars of questionable value where weaponry is never anonymous.
A few days before hearing the NPR program, I had read an annoying piece in The Washington Post by Eliot Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies and author of “Conquered Into Liberty: Two Centuries of Battles Along the Great Warpath That Made The American Way of Life.” His main thesis was that Hagel’s experiences in Vietnam should not be considered as a qualification to be Secretary of Defense.
Putting that question aside, one commanding qualification that Hagel does have from his military experiences is that he has never been a sideline cheerleader for an interventionist foreign policy or an enthusiastic apologist for our recent wars of military adventurism. He is suspicious of the use of military might and knows its expediency is usually counterproductive and invariably results in temporary, at best, success.
He certainly predates the “hardened professional army” days that Cohen extolls and falls smack dab in with what Cohen derides as nothing more than “a band of reluctant conscripts caught up in the Big Green Machine” to describe conscripted Vietnam veterans. If we fast-forward those lads of 45 years ago into the critical leadership roles of the world of 2013, are we to think they would be unlikely to be able to move off the proverbial dime in times when decisive action is needed, since their experiences taught them to be especially cautious in projecting military might abroad?
According to Cohen, “the defense secretary must be quite capable of sending young men and women into harm’s way. If he or she cannot do that and still sleep well at night, he or she has no business being in that job.” In defining the role of the Pentagon chief, Cohen lectures us that “it is the duty of the defense secretary to prepare for war, to make sure that our arms are the best, our servicemen and women not merely well-trained but keen, and our face to the world one of confidence in the power of our arms. If one hopes to deter war, or the things that lead to war (an Iranian nuclear weapon, for example), that is the visage a defense secretary needs.”
With regard to Hagel, what exactly is the message that Cohen is trying to convey?
Over in the Senate, we hear rumblings that Hagel will not be a shoo-in. Is it the implication that he is the wrong choice since he criticized the Bush administration? Do his former colleagues and fellow Republicans in the Senate dislike him because he is a thinking man and can make up his own mind rather than depend on a party line? Is he mistrusted because he compared the Iraq War to Vietnam and mocked Cheney’s assertion that the Iraqi insurgency was in its “last throes”? Did he get under someone’s skin in 2005 when he defended his criticism of the Iraq war, stating, ”To question your government is not unpatriotic–to not question your government is unpatriotic.”
Did he cross some line with the hardcore when he questioned the Patriot Act and stated, “I took an oath of office to the Constitution; I didn’t take an oath of office to my party or my president.” Did he slip forever out of the fold when he aligned with the Democrats and opposed Bush’s plan to send an additional 20,000 troops to Iraq in 2007, calling it “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it’s carried out.”
Does he not pass some kind of litmus test because he’s been a critic of Israel’s hard-line stance against Iran as well as the Bush administration’s lack of effort to mediate the 2006 mini-war the Israelis conducted in Lebanon?
By extension, are we being asked to think that he would be unwilling to conduct a foreign policy with the hammer of America’s might behind it should a real and viable threat need arise?
Does knowing that Death is never anonymous if you’re on the receiving end not count for anything?
Later that day after far too much reading about the Hagel nomination and recalling my own military days, my wife and I joined our small band of wannabe musicians in The Music Building on the campus of James Madison University. This was our first get together since the holidays and we were there to practice for our upcoming concert. We had old music we had been playing since September and were anxious to see what new stuff our band director would hand out so we could have a fuller program.
Much to my surprise and emotional response, one of the pieces was The Mansions of the Lord, a hymn written by Randall Wallace and set to the music of Nick Glennie-Smith. It was the rousing soundtrack to the film version of the story We Were Soldiers Once….and Young, the movie adaptation of the 4-day bloodbath in the Ia Drang Valley, the “Valley of Death,” in the Central Highlands of (South) Vietnam where over 300 American troops from the 1st Cavalry Division (Air Mobile) lost their lives in 1965. God only knows how many North Vietnamese perished in that short time.
This was an epic battle in which a small unit of about 400 men were ordered to “eliminate” the Vietnamese enemy that had recently attacked an American base. Despite the commanding officer’s misgivings about the operation, since he had scant intelligence about the enemy and how many combatants he would be up against, he followed his orders only to learn soon afterward that the real estate he and his force had just entered was actually the base camp for a veteran North Vietnamese Army Division of more than 4,000 men.
The Valkyries of war, that host of female figures who according to legend decide which soldiers die in battle and which live, were unrelenting and merciless in their work. They were there to escort fallen heroic warriors into Valhalla and everlasting glory. In the midst of such carnage, only they could fathom why such a killing field would be called The Mansions of the Lord.
As a potential defense secretary, is Hagel ineligible in the eyes of his critics because he doesn’t believe in fairy tales about war and how heroes are swept up into Valhalla?
I served with the 1st Cavalry in Vietnam from late ’68-late ’69. For the first few months, I was in I Corps west of Hue in the north of the country close to the DMZ. It was in this general area that the battle of the A Shau valley occurred a couple of years earlier before my arrival. This was another battle pitting U.S. forces against a regular North Vietnamese Division which had overrun a special forces base straddling a major infiltration route adjacent to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. After fierce hand-to-hand fighting and major losses, the American defenders and their South Vietnamese allies were overrun and had to be evacuated. Heavy anti-aircraft fire complicated the evacuation, with several helicopters shot down, before the North Vietnamese finally overran the camp. This camp later became an important base during the Tet Offensive to attack Hue and other South Vietnamese cities.
More work for the Valkyries.
In a short time, I also would be introduced to the charms of warfare in this region. Senator Hagel, two years younger than I, had arrived “in country” in 1967, a year ahead of me, and served as an infantry squad leader in the 9th Infantry Division (“Old Reliables”).
Wounded twice, he learned early on that there’s nothing anonymous about Death when you’re on the receiving end.
At our band practice some 45 years since these events occurred in a jungle far away from the calm of this university campus, the new music we had been given whooshed me back in time and space. Although I had not experienced any of the horror of the Ia Drang or A Shau campaigns, these formative fights had been imprinted on the collective psyches of soldiers of the time, especially those who were now members of those units. We had an unbroken chain linking us to our earlier comrades, those who had endured the fire, fought the nightmare, been maimed or lost, and would never be able to let loose of the hands around their throats and the sight of lost buddies blown to pieces at their feet.
So, in these days of great instability and danger throughout the world, one would think we should have learned from our mistakes, especially of thinking we can impose our will elsewhere as though we had the last word on what was best for others, of not recognizing the limits of our power. We should know, as Hagel knows, that there’s nothing anonymous about Death when you’re on the receiving end.
For old soldiers from another time like me, we thought the experience of Vietnam had provided some hard-won wisdom. If we have learned anything from history, we should know by now that ideological crusades are always suspect and questionable at best. The real lesson is that we can only respect ourselves and honor our own people by not leading them into the abyss. We must always be cautious around those who offer up simple and often simple-minded paths to follow. We must not think that perpetual warfare for perpetual peace is anything more than what Orwell showed it to be…the nightmare with no awakening.
All this discussion has served to focus my mind and convince me that Hagel is the ideal man for the job, despite the misgivings we’re already hearing from the McConnells, Grahams, McCains and Cohens and their ilk that he’s not “tough” enough to confront our enemies abroad. The implication is that he wouldn’t have the stomach to go along with the latest war cry and drop bunker busters on Iran. If you thought our ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have been cake walks, then let’s play more lethal games with the likes of Tehran which has a pretty formidable arsenal to talk back.
In the story of We Were Soldiers Once, the North Vietnamese commander, Nguyen Huu An reportedly said as the Americans were ‘choppered out of the killing fields:
“Such a tragedy. They will think this was their victory. So this will become an American war. And the end will be the same (as the French) except for the numbers who will die before we get there.”
Death in warfare is never anonymous.
Over a decade earlier, Nguyen Huu An had been at the fall of Dien Bien Phu which ended the French intervention. For his bravery and tactical brilliance, he was given the name “General of Battles” by the legendary Vietnamese Defense Minister Vo Nygyen Giap, principal commander in two wars, the First Indochina War and the Vietnam War. Nguyen Huu An knew of what he spoke.
And Hagel also knows of what he speaks. We live in a dangerous world and must be prepared against a variety of threats. It’s one thing, though, to be strong. It’s another not to be ideological, impetuous, driven by revenge, or seek fights where we have no business. Hagel comes from stock that has been tempered by battle and has learned invaluable lessons and is realistic about our future role in the world.
As we all know, the path to wisdom sometimes can be long and arduous, but the men and women of this world who have actually tasted hardship, the crushing kind that many of us can barely imagine, are more than suited to help guide us toward a better future. And he won’t be the kind of Secretary who would ever use a robo-pen to sign a letter of condolence to a grieving widow or parent.
We need more men like Hagel and fewer “think tank” warmongers and politicians who are eager to go to war as a result of bravado and too much testosterone. We don’t need so-called strategists, shadowy armchair warriors and godfathers of the neocon constituency who blather about American “exceptionalism” and the need to do something all the time to prove it. We need real leaders like Hagel, not little people who strut around with great pomposity, no more than cat’s paws who grow fat on a military-industrial complex, anti-heroes the Valkyries would never waste their time on.
In Hemingway’s words following another war even further in the past but with similar themes:
“The only way to combat the murder that is war is to show the dirty combinations that make it and the criminals and swine that hope for it and the idiotic way they run it when they get it so that an honest man will distrust it as he would a racket and refuse to be enslaved into it.”