Welcome to the Jungle

Welcome to the Jungle

Having been there makes a difference.

Crawling on your stomach in the pitch dark while you hear the clink, clink of a column of Viet Cong troops winding its way through the jungle only a few feet away. Fighting house to house, doorway to doorway in Saigon during the Tet offensive. Being wounded twice and promoted twice and decorated seven times.

Chuck Hagel was there — in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968, during some of the most intense fighting of the war. Now he is President Barack Obama’s nominee to be America’s next secretary of defense, and if he is confirmed, Hagel would be the first former enlisted man ever to lead the Defense Department. It’s a safe bet that what he experienced in the jungles of Vietnam would make a difference in the way Hagel would approach his job at the Pentagon.

"War is not an abstraction," Hagel wrote in a piece for the Omaha World-Herald in 2004. "I know. I’ve been to war."

When he was in the Senate, Hagel tried to help his colleagues understand war through the lens of the people who would actually be doing the fighting and dying. "We see war up here in very antiseptic terms," he said. "We see it in bright policy terms. In human suffering terms? No." The terms are different, of course, for someone who has been there.

Years before he arrived in Vietnam at age 21, Hagel had already been interested in international relations. His friends teased him when he started subscribing to Time magazine in junior high.

But his experience in Vietnam intensified and shaped the adult Hagel’s internationalist worldview. "Integration of the United States in the world is key," he said when I interviewed him in 2004. War may sometimes be an ugly necessity, but it is international relationships that maintain stability and security, he said.

The war Hagel confronted in Vietnam was ugly, indeed. Funny thing is, he wouldn’t have had to go there.

After enlisting and going through basic training in Oklahoma, he was sent to Fort Ord, California, and later, the White Sands Missile Range. He was one of 10 Army privates chosen from training camps around the country to learn how to operate a heat-seeking, shoulder-fired missile, a brand-new and highly secret weapon the Army was pretty sure the Soviet Union didn’t have.

After their three-month training period, the 10 elite recruits were to be sent to Europe and integrated into the NATO system. If necessary, they would use their weapons to bring down low-flying Soviet MiGs over Europe.

When the training ended, the soldiers went to Fort Dix, New Jersey, preparing for deployment to Germany. Compared to Vietnam, where most troops were headed those days, Germany was a luxury posting.

But as he lay on his bunk at Fort Dix, watching his buddies pack, Hagel had second thoughts. "I decided it was not the right thing to do," he said. "There was war going on. The right thing, if I was in the Army, was to go where the war was," to fight as his father had done in World War II.

The captain of his unit at Fort Dix couldn’t dissuade him; the chaplain couldn’t dissuade him. Eventually, they decided this guy who wanted to trade a cushy tour of duty in Germany for the misery of Vietnam wasn’t a mental case, and he was reassigned to Vietnam.

Hagel said he will never forget Dec. 4, 1967, the day his troop transport landed at Ton Son Hut air base. "It was oppressive heat like I’d never known — and the humidity and stench.… I was physically sick to my stomach." And, like his comrades in arms, he was scared. 

After a few weeks of jungle school, his unit was moved to the Mekong Delta, and Hagel was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry, Bravo Company. Most of the soldiers’ orders were for search-and-destroy missions. Based on intelligence, the officers would know the Viet Cong were in certain areas, and the squad would be sent out to find the VC. And destroy them.

Sometimes Hagel and his squad patrolled bridges or roads. Sometimes they would do night outpost work. "They would be almost suicide missions," Hagel said. "If anything happened, the base would never hear from you again."

A group of three soldiers would be sent into the jungle to establish a listening post, trying to discover any major enemy troop movement and to alert the company if an attack was on the way. The outposts had to maintain radio silence, so they communicated with the base camp by simply pushing a button on the radio.

In the pitch dark, all the troops at the outpost could do was listen. Any detection the squad would do was by sound, not sight. "In the jungle at night," Hagel said, "you cannot see your hand in front of your face."

One of those night outpost assignments, Hagel said, became an encounter that frightened him more than anything before or since.

Following standard operating procedure, one of the three soldiers stood watch while the other two slept on their tarps. Early one morning when Hagel was standing watch, he heard a clang. At first, he thought it was a cow bell. Then he realized what he was hearing was no herd of cows but a large group of Viet Cong, moving equipment right in front him. He actually heard whispered conversation in Vietnamese.

"It was so close you could almost reach out and touch them," he said.

He woke his two squad members, covering their mouths with his hands so they wouldn’t cry out.

"Grab your rifle; grab my boot and crawl," he whispered.

The three soldiers slithered out in a human chain, Hagel leading the way. "We knew the VC were coming right on top of us, getting closer and closer."

Hagel had the radio with him, and once the squad was well away from the Viet Cong, he called the base camp to report what had happened. They were ordered to stay outside the base camp that night, in case they were being followed.

When it was daylight, they went back to try to retrieve what they had left behind a few hours earlier. Everything was gone. "The VC had been there and had picked it all up," Hagel said. The story was still frightening when Hagel told it decades later. But that encounter didn’t end in injury the way two others did.

By some quirk of Army bureaucracy, Hagel and his brother Tom served in the same squad for most of a year. They spent a month during the Tet offensive in ferocious house-to-house combat, and they survived without injuries. Horrific as it was, it wasn’t as frightening as those listening patrols had been, Hagel said. "When you’re in a firefight, all hell breaks loose. You’re not scared. You’re not thinking about anything except what you’re doing."

However, danger came in many forms in Vietnam.

In March 1968, the brothers were walking an ambush patrol when the soldiers at the front of the column tripped a booby trap, and mines full of shrapnel, planted in trees, exploded all around the troops. That time Tom saved Chuck’s life, wrapping cloths around Chuck’s chest to stop extensive bleeding. The former senator still has some of that shrapnel in his chest.

A month later, after the brothers had recovered in an Army hospital, they were riding in a personnel carrier when a land mine exploded under the vehicle. Chuck thought Tom, the turret gunner, had been killed by the blast. He started pulling Tom and others from the carrier, trying to get everyone out before the ammunition in the carrier blew up. But he was still too close when the inevitable explosion came and set him on fire, burning his face severely. Tom survived, but, again, the Hagel boys were on their way to the hospital together.

Chuck Hagel remembers it well, lying in a medevac helicopter, waiting to be airlifted out of the jungle and listening to Linda Ronstadt singing on the radio: "You and I travel to the beat of a different drum." And Hagel remembers saying to himself, "If I ever get out, and if I ever can influence anything, I will do all I can to prevent war."

Almost 40 years later, the memory was still fresh. "Not that I’m a pacifist," he said. "I’m a hard-edged realist. I understand the world as it is. But war is a terrible thing. There’s no glory, only suffering."

Some things are worth fighting and dying for, Hagel said, but going to war should be a last resort.

Hagel arrived in Vietnam as an E3 private first class and was promoted to an E4 specialist, technically a corporal. Then he was promoted to sergeant. He downplays his movement up in the ranks, saying the United States was losing so many troops in 1967 and ’68 that soldiers often advanced quickly. But Gene Bacon, who served with Hagel, said it was more than just chance: "He was very articulate, very bright. He commanded real respect from the officers right away."

He earned two Purple Hearts, three Vietnamese Crosses of Gallantry, the Army Commendation Medal, and the Combat Infantryman Badge. And he came home still convinced that, horrendous as the war had been, it was legitimate and justifiable. Decades later, though, Hagel began to investigate the background of the war in Vietnam. By late 2004 he had tried to read everything he could find about the history of Indochina, about the French involvement there before the Americans went in. He began to doubt his earlier faith in the American government’s motivations behind the war.

When he listened to tapes of then-President Lyndon Johnson’s phone calls discussing the war with Georgia Senator Richard Russell, the chair of the Armed Services Committee, Hagel cringed. He began to believe that the war had been waged less to defend the United States and the world from the spread of communism than for "an abstraction of policy" and to save face.

His own very personal experience with the horrors of war has created a frame of reference for his consideration of policy decisions. Leaders who served in war "may have even more of an obligation to think through these big geopolitical issues and, more importantly, ask the tough questions," Hagel told a newspaper in 2004. That was his philosophy when he was in the Senate, and it’s likely to be his philosophy at the Department of Defense.

Having been there makes a difference.