Everyone has something to say about Chuck Hagel. Conservatives decry his past statements on Israel, concerns about his willingness to cut the military budget, and his “soft” positions on Iran. Liberals have spoken out against him for past comments about a gay ambassador, the fact that he’s a Republican, and the idea that a woman—former Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy—might have been a better pick.
But all the hubbub over a potential confirmation fight drowns out some voices that really matter. We’re talking about the Secretary of Defense here. What do soldiers and veterans have to say about Hagel?
As it turns out, plenty—and much of it good. The Veterans of Foreign Wars issued a statement saying that it “considers Chuck Hagel — a twice-wounded Vietnam War infantryman and former two-term U.S. senator from Nebraska — to be uniquely qualified to lead the Department of Defense.” A group of decorated former military brass has publicly endorsed Hagel. And in various columns and online comments, Hagel’s past military service—if confirmed, he would be the first Secretary of Defense to have served as an enlisted soldier—wins him applause. “I like the fact that he is an independent thinker with first-hand knowledge of what it's like to serve in the military as an enlistee,” writes Kerry Patton, a veteran, in an opinion column. Another vet commenting on an Army Times story had similar praise: “I hope he succeeds because he understands what most of the decision makers don't.”
Hagel’s experience as an enlisted soldier gives him something no one else in the Secretary of Defense position has ever had. He didn’t try to avoid the draft. He volunteered to go to Vietnam after being posted to Germany. He has twice been awarded the Purple Heart, and still walks around with bits of shrapnel in his chest. In the jungles of Vietnam, he saved his own brother’s life, dragging him, unconscious, from an armored personnel carrier just before it exploded.
You can’t buy that kind of credibility. You can’t earn it in the bowels of a Washington agency, or in a defense-focused think tank, or at a university. Whatever Hagel’s views may be on Iran, or on military budget cuts, or on the Iraq war, he has been there, in the trenches, eardrums blown out by exploding land mines, waiting for a medical rescue helicopter deep in the jungle.
Does that make him the right man for the job? Not being a defense policy expert of any kind, I can’t say. But having someone in that job who truly understands—first-hand, which is the only way someone can truly understand the horrors of war—what it’s like to be on the front lines seems to me like a pretty good thing. It helps CEOs who got their start behind cash registers and worked their way to the top. It helps professional sports managers who’ve spent time on the fields. Shouldn’t we also expect the person making decisions about the lives of 19-year-old kids in war time to know what it’s like to be there?
Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill and the media can—and will—debate Hagel’s merits all they want. But maybe it’s worth focusing a little more on what the people he will actually lead think of him, too.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.