The imminent nomination of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary means that we could have two Vietnam veterans as leaders of the nation’s diplomatic and military departments. John Kerry opposed the Vietnam War early, while Hagel defended it to the bitter end, but both share a worldview, and indeed a personal approach, that is shaped by that searing conflict.
It is worth a re-immersion in that war to understand who Chuck Hagel is. The best books on Vietnam I have ever read are: “The Long Gray Line,” about the West Point Class of 1966, which had the highest casualty rate of any class in academy history; “We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young,” and the novel, “Matterhorn.” I mention these books, and there are many other excellent ones, because for those of us who didn't experience the war, they are essential to understanding how it shaped the character and outlook of the people who did. And that understanding, in turn, is important to understanding Chuck Hagel and perhaps his odds of being confirmed. (For a shorter but equally compelling read that goes to the heart of Chuck Hagel's character, see Joseph Lelyveld’s profile of the former Nebraska senator.)
The war impacted people in public life today differently. For John McCain and Colin Powell, it reinforced the view that American power must be projected robustly and definitively. It made others, such as Chuck Hagel and John Kerry, more cautious.
As Lelyveld writes:
Chuck Hagel never became a dove, but he became a bird that's nearly as rare in the Republican aviary. He became an internationalist, someone who's capable of feeling intensely about alliances, multilateral endeavors, the value of global institutions; a fellow traveler of the Council on Foreign Relations, a politician who actually reads Foreign Affairs. A singular Great Plains Republican, in other words, who cares about the rest of the world for reasons that don't begin and end with agricultural exports. Tellingly, when he was elected to the Senate in 1996, he was the one new Republican whose first choice for a committee assignment was the Foreign Relations Committee, which had declined steadily in prestige since the Vietnam-era days of a Democratic chairman he sometimes mentions as a role model, J. William Fulbright.
Of course, this sense of internationalism is viewed as a weakness by neoconservatives, as dithering doubt.
Another consequence of Hagel’s Vietnam experience, which included being wounded twice, may be a very low threshold for political nonsense and drivel. Regardless of the reason, directness certainly seems to be a mainstay of Hagel's personality.
Again, from Lelyveld's profile:
Michael McCarthy, an Omaha merchant banker who once made Chuck Hagel president of his investment bank and is now among his most stalwart backers, said he doubted that Hagel could get very far in presidential politics. But he didn’t rule out a race. “Chuck's a complicated guy,” he said. “He thinks with the clarity of an actuary but decides with the heart of an Irishman, so I don't know where at the end of the day he'll land. He sure as hell can overcome doubt and decide to go where his heart tells him to.”
It will be interesting to see how this bluntness is modified or plays out in his confirmation hearing. The few people I have spoken to believe Hagel will be confirmed after a fight but that he will have to do some groveling to amend for past statements on gays, Israel and Iran. This would seem out of character for the plain-spoken Nebraskan (a politically redundant phrase, by the way). When considering a run for the presidency in 2008, he prescribed for Lelyveld the limits on how much he would contort himself to achieve that office:
“I don't have to be president; I don't have to be a senator,” he said over dinner in an Omaha steakhouse. “I have to live with myself.” More striking than the words was the urgency with which he spoke them. He seemed to be speaking more to himself than his companions, as if repeating a vow.
That vow is likely to be tested again soon.