Chuck Hagel

Nati Harnik, Associated Press

Hagel, Kerry bring doubts about war born in Vietnam

  • New York Times
  • January 8, 2013 - 8:14 PM

Between them, Sen. John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, who shared a harrowing combat experience in the Mekong Delta, received five Purple Hearts for wounds suffered in Vietnam, a war that tore their generation apart.

In nominating one as secretary of state and the other as defense secretary, President Obama hopes to bring to his administration two veterans with the same sensibility about the futilities of war.

Kerry, D-Mass., who is the president's choice for the State Department, came home from commanding a Swift boat in Vietnam to throw away his military decorations in a protest at the Capitol and tell the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska who is the nominee for the Pentagon, returned home thinking of the war as justified and did his best to put it behind him. "I wanted a life," he later said.

Hagel eventually turned against the leadership of the war -- "I can't fathom that this country would allow something like that to happen, 16,000 young men killed in one year," he told Vietnam magazine, a history publication, in October -- but not its warriors.

Today, he is the chairman of the Pentagon's advisory group for commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.

Supporters of Kerry and Hagel say that despite their different responses, their combat experience has had the same effect, making them question the price of U.S. involvement overseas. "I have some pretty strong feelings that those who have been to war are the best to keep us out of it," said Max Cleland, a former Democratic senator from Georgia who lost three of his limbs in Vietnam. "They have felt the wounds of war, physically, mentally and emotionally. They bring to the table all that they need to bring, and that is that wars are disastrous."

To Obama, the lessons Kerry and Hagel took from combat were crucial in his decision to name them. "Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction," the president said on Monday as he announced Hagel's selection. "He understands that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud, that's something we only do when it's absolutely necessary."

In announcing Kerry's nomination last month, Obama said that "having served with valor in Vietnam, he understands that we have a responsibility to use American power wisely, especially our military power."

If confirmed, Kerry and Hagel would be among the very few Vietnam veterans to reach the top of the national security hierarchy. (Colin Powell, a former secretary of state and national security adviser, served two tours in Vietnam.) Hagel would be the first person who was an enlisted soldier to run the Pentagon.

The views of Hagel and Kerry make them highly compatible with a White House that is almost certain to push for a more rapid withdrawal of the remaining 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan than the military command would like. "The reason we are losing Afghanistan is that it wasn't ours to win or lose," Hagel told Vietnam magazine. "After 10 years in Afghanistan, what are we going to have when we get out? What have we done here?"

Like Kerry, Hagel voted for the resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq but became an early opponent of the Bush administration's execution of the war.

Friends say it is fitting that Hagel, who received two Purple Hearts, is in line to run the Pentagon, while Kerry, who was awarded a Silver Star and a Bronze Star, as well as three Purple Hearts, is headed for the State Department. "They sort of ended up where you'd think they'd end up," said Jan C. Scruggs, the founder and president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and who knows both men.

Over the decades, Hagel's support for the Vietnam War began to fade but what changed him most, he has said, was hearing taped telephone calls, made public in the 1990s, of President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 confiding that he saw the war as pointless. "The dishonesty of it was astounding -- criminal, really," Hagel said in 2007.

Ultimately, Vietnam powerfully influenced his opinions about war. "I'm not a pacifist, I believe in using force, but only after following a very careful decision-making process," Hagel told Vietnam magazine. "The night [his brother] Tom and I were med-evaced out of that [Vietnamese] village in April 1968, I told myself: If I ever get out of this and I'm ever in a position to influence policy, I will do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war."

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