Why Combat Matters

Are you kidding me? Of course it's important that Hagel fought in Vietnam.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Recently there have been several articles in our major newspapers arguing not only that Senator Chuck Hagel’s Vietnam combat experience may not be relevant to his ability to be an effective secretary of defense but could actually be a hindrance.

Eliot Cohen in the Washington Post argued that President Lincoln was a better wartime president in the Civil War than Confederate President, West Point graduate, and combat veteran Jefferson Davis. (Does this mean that if Lincoln was president of the Confederacy, the South would have won the Civil War?) Fouad Ajami, also in the Post, claims that because of Hagel (and John Kerry’s) Vietnam heroism, they would be unwilling to help people in distress — as the United States did in a different era. (He does not give any examples and overcooks situations like Poland, Hungary, Cambodia, and Romania where we did not help people in distress). Finally Bill Keller argues in the New York Times that the fact that Hagel has tasted combat should not be a reason to confirm him. In fact, according to Keller it could be a handicap.

Reading these critiques reminds me of an interview I did with Bill O’Reilly during the 2004 presidential campaign. When I mentioned that both President Bush and Vice President Cheney had avoided the Vietnam War, O’Reilly asked me what difference it would have made had they gone. I told him that they would have realized that it a great power cannot invade a country with a different culture and expect to be greeted as liberators. This was made clear to me in 1966 at Cam Rahn Bay by a Vietnamese Catholic priest who asked me why I thought the United States would make out any better in Vietnam than the French. Had Bush and Cheney, like Kerry and Hagel, been to Vietnam, they would have paid more attention to people like Hagel who in the Senate debate in 2002 on invading Iraq said, "We should not be seduced by the expectation of dancing in the streets." Instead, they believed and quoted Ajami, who said exactly that.

Of course, being a combat veteran does not mean that you automatically oppose war. As Leon Wieseltier points out in The New Republic, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), decorated Vietnam veteran and prisoner of war, not only supported the invasion of Iraq and the surge, but argues the United States should get involved militarily in Syria. But what the experience means to other veterans like Hagel is that war should not be a first choice, that U.S. strategic interests must be substantially involved, and that the ends and means must be in sync. As Wieseltier notes, the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq was undone because it tried to attain large ends with small means, a mistake the Obama administration is not repeating.

Moreover, serving in Vietnam or the military or combat by itself does not make one an effective secretary of defense. But it does say a lot about what kind of person you are. Hagel joined the Army and volunteered to go to Vietnam when he could just as easily have avoided service by beating the draft as so many of our recent presidents and vice presidents did. Not only does this demonstrate love of country but it also shows the awareness that if you beat the draft someone less fortunate than you would be forced to go in your place — and possibly killed or wounded.

In addition, serving in the military makes you aware that not all career officers are motivated by the good of the country. Some are more concerned about their own careers, their reputations, or the needs of their service — something that became clear to me during my time on active duty and that was confirmed by my service in President Reagan’s Pentagon.

The secretary of defense often has to overrule the brass on social issues, budget questions, military interventions, or troop levels; and a veteran secretary comes with additional credibility. Military leaders will not be able to complain that their civilian boss did not serve his country when called or that they don’t understand what it’s really like on a battlefield. And, at a time when we’re winding down a war and preparing for budget cuts, that’s no small thing.

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