Thursday, January 31, 2013

What Chuck Hagel Knows

The Brothers Hagel

Obama's Republican nominee for Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, is getting mauled in his confirmation hearings by his former colleagues like Ol' Grumpy (John McCain).  Obama has praised Hagel as a Vietnam combat veteran today's soldiers can follow.

Hagel was an outspoken critic of Bush's war on Iraq (although he reluctantly voted for it initially) and he plans to steer America clear of entanglement in the Sahara.   His views have rubbed former colleagues like Senator "Bomb, bomb, bomb; bomb, bomb Iran" McCain the wrong way.

In 1968, while McCain was being held in a North Vietnamese POW camp, Hagel and his brother, Tom, were combat infantrymen serving in the same unit.   They fought together, saved each other's life, and came back deeply divided on the Vietnam war.   Tom opposed the war, Chuck defended it.  They eventually reconciled and were interviewed about their experience by Myra McPherson.

...Chuck Hagel’s vision of the war is far more brutal than most Americans imagine.  That his experience of Vietnam would include such incidents should hardly be surprising, especially given the fact that Hagel served in the 9th Infantry Division under one of the most notorious U.S. commanders, Julian Ewell, known more colorfully as “the Butcher of the Delta.”

The Hagel brothers, MacPherson recounts in her moving and important historyLong Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation, argued over whether American troops were “murdering” people.  Chuck disagreed at first, pointing instead to the depredations of Vietnamese revolutionary forces.  Tom reminded his brother of the CIA’s Phoenix Program which, with an estimated body count of more than 20,000 Vietnamese, too often turned murderous and was no less regularly used by corrupt Vietnamese government officials to settle personal grudges.  “There was some of that,” Chuck finally granted.

Tom then raised an example that hit closer to home -- the time, after an enemy attack, when a sergeant from their unit took out his frustrations on a nearby orphanage.  “Remember the orphanage, Chuck… That sergeant was so drunk and so pissed off that he crawled up on that track [armored personnel carrier] and opened up on that orphanage with a fifty-caliber machine gun,” Tom said.

When Chuck started to object, MacPherson writes, his brother was insistent.  “Chuck, you were there!  Down at the bottom of the sandhill.”  Skeptically, Chuck asked his brother if he was saying the sergeant had “slaughtered children in the orphanage.”  Tom granted that he didn’t know for sure, “because none of us went in to check.”  Chuck responded, “In any war you can take any isolated incident…”

But the war Tom Hagel detailed to MacPherson wasn’t one punctuated by a few isolated “incidents.”  He would talk about officers ordering the mutilation of enemy dead and soldiers shooting up and burning down a village, about how helicopter gunships and napalm decimated large areas of the countryside, about the lethality of indiscriminate weapons fire and about coming upon the bodies of women and children when firefights were over.  He also recounted, in detail, a July 1968 assault on a “hardcore” enemy village in which their unit took part.  After the battle had ended, he said, a lieutenant shot and killed a civilian in cold blood.  “We’re collecting all the NVA [North Vietnamese Army] bodies and this woman walks out of a hootch.  He just shot her dead,” Tom recalled.

Recently, MacPherson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in support of Chuck Hagel’s bid to serve as Secretary of Defense: “His experience has taught him the physical and mental toll of combat.  He would surely think twice before sending young men and women into unnecessary, stupid, or unwinnable conflicts... One thing I know: Chuck Hagel will stand up to whatever is thrown at him.” 

I hope she's right and I think she probably is.   I've known a number of veterans of that war, all of them enlisted guys and I think most of them had the war-monger pretty much erased out of them.

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