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The Political Veteran

Chuck refused to alter his view that Vietnam was a noble crusade. For years, the two brothers fought about this, forcing their mother to ban conversation about the war from all family gatherings. Today, Chuck Hagel acknowledges that his brother dealt with Vietnam trauma better than he did.

"I think I had suppressed too much of my feelings [and] what I saw. . . . I had a pretty ideological sense of the world, how the world should be, why we were in Vietnam, why I was there, why I thought it was right."

(Ted Kirk For The Washington Post)

Hagel pretended that adjusting to civilian life was easy. "I just kind of took the American Legion path and just said, '. . . I'm going to get along with my life, there's no baggage that I brought back, I'm fine.' "

But this didn't work. After returning home, both he and Tom enrolled at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and for a year they were roommates. Then Chuck decided he needed time alone, and he rented a little house on the edge of the city for $50 a month.

"It was like two rooms and a bathroom. . . . I didn't go to parties, I didn't talk to anybody. I did two things: I went to school and I went to my job. I didn't have a date in a year."

In that year, without articulating what was going on, he found a way to deal with the war, and then he resumed a more normal and sociable life.

It took years longer for Hagel to conclude that Vietnam, despite its "noble" origins, had turned into a bad war fought for bad reasons. On an airplane flying from Omaha to Washington last month, he explains how this happened:

"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."

The last straw was the release several years ago of Lyndon Johnson's White House tapes. Some of those phone calls made Hagel cringe. He remembers especially a conversation between LBJ and Sen. Richard Russell (D-Ga.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who thought Johnson should get out of Vietnam: "It isn't important a bit," Russell said. Johnson said he didn't want a war, but he worried: "They'd impeach a president . . . that would run out, wouldn't they?"

Reading Johnson's words, Hagel says, he had to accept that the Vietnam War had been waged dishonestly for "an abstraction of policy" and to save face. "That's when it shifted."

In that angry retort to the Omaha World-Herald, Hagel wrote that "the tough questions were not asked when we sent young men and women into Vietnam. Where were our elected officials then? Eleven years and 58,000 deaths later, we lost. I don't want that to happen in Iraq."

Making an Entrance

Some people elected to the Senate disappear into the Washington woodwork, making no claim on public attention or their colleagues' respect. Chuck Hagel is not one of those.

If you were watching the tornado he was kicking up in Nebraska during 1996, you saw him -- in his first run for public office -- knock over the sitting state attorney general for the Republican nomination for the Senate. Then Hagel shellacked the popular incumbent governor, Ben Nelson, in the general election, beating him 56 percent to 42 percent. When he came to Washington he was the only newly elected Republican senator willing to serve on the Foreign Relations Committee, a position he quickly turned into a pulpit.

His interest in foreign affairs, eagerness to travel and learn, and skills in front of a camera made him an instant star. Clinton administration officials saw an enthusiastic and intelligent counterpart. The television networks found him a cogent and attractive guest for the Sunday talk shows. The world was noticing Chuck Hagel.

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