Monday, January 7, 2013

Chuck Hagel, War Skeptic, Nominated as Secretary of Defense

Despite angry reactions in some quarters, Obama has nominated former Senator Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary. Hagel is controversial mainly because, having voted for the Iraq War, he turned so strongly against it that he suggested impeaching President Bush for refusing to bring our troops home.  In this 2007 profile, John Judis explains that Hagel's change of heart was all mixed up with re-evaluating his own experience in Vietnam. Despite being wounded twice, Hagel came home from Vietnam convinced that the war was right and the sacrifice worth it. While his brother Tom became a liberal Democratic and something close to a pacifist, Chuck "took the American Legion path," and when he entered politics it was as a Republican. This started to change in 1999, when Hagel was involved in re-opening relations with Vietnam, traveled to the country, and started to read about its history:
Tom Hagel says his brother's reevaluation of Vietnam began in earnest a few years later. "It was the run-up to the invasion of Iraq where you [began to] see all of this just flood out," he says. "Since that time, standing back, watching and talking to him, there were at least a few times a year, it was like watching someone growing increasingly obsessed and frustrated with what he sees going on around him and feels powerless to change it." According to Tom, during "the last year or two," as Chuck read more about the history of the war, his views on Vietnam changed dramatically. "I have never seen him change an opinion on anything in my life so quickly as he did after this information," Tom says. "It shocked me when he told me about it."

The first public inkling of Hagel's changed outlook would come in a profile of him in November 2004 by Washington Post reporter Robert Kaiser. Hagel described the learning process he was going through. "I read everything I could about Indochina, about the war, about the French, about Vietnam, about our policy, what got us there. ... And the more I read, the more I understood. ... I got a sense that there was just so much dishonesty in it. And it was chewing these kids up. ... So I started connecting all the deaths and all the suffering and the chaos and wounds. I started to sense a dishonesty about it all." Hagel now saw the war in Vietnam, like the war in Iraq, as a war of choice--one that had been built on an edifice of lies. . . .

Sometime in the last year, Hagel began to apply these conclusions to Iraq. Two things spurred him to do so. First, during several trips to the Middle East with Reed, he came to believe that the United States was throwing soldiers into the midst of another nation's civil war. "Chuck and I had the realization that this was a profoundly political and not a military problem," Reed says. "The Iraqis have to resolve this civil war and conflict." . . .

That August, after Dick Cheney had made the case for invading Iraq in a speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Nashville, Hagel recoiled. He warned against attempts "to scare the American public by saying this guy is a couple of months away from not only possessing nuclear weapons, but a ballistic missile to deliver those." A few days earlier, he had told Newsweek, "It's interesting to me that many of those who want to rush the country into war and think it would be so quick and easy don't know anything about war. They come at it from an intellectual perspective versus having sat in jungles or foxholes and watched their friends get their heads blown off. I try to speak for those ghosts of the past a little bit."
The vitriol coming from critics of Hagel puzzles me. After all, he remains moderate about all these issues and far from being a pacifist or any other kind of radical. Andrew Sullivan believes that the neocons hate Hagel precisely because the Iraq War made him reconsider his attitude toward war and foreign intervention. By repudiating his own part in the disaster, he implicitly calls on all the war's backers to examine their own culpability. And that they absolutely cannot stand to do.

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