Chuck Hagel. (AP Photos/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
This post originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.
He’s been battered by big-money conservative groups looking to derail his bid for secretary of defense. Critics say he wants to end America’s nuclear program. They claim he’s anti-Israel and soft on Iran. So you can expect intense questioning — if only for theatrical effect — about all of the above (and undoubtedly then some) as Chuck Hagel faces his Senate confirmation hearings today.
You can be sure of one other thing: Hagel’s military service in Vietnam will be mentioned — and praised. It’s likely, however, to be in a separate and distinct category, unrelated to the pointed questions about current issues like defense priorities, his beliefs on the use of force abroad, or the Defense Department’s role in counterterrorism operations. You can also be sure of this: no senator will ask Chuck Hagel about his presence during the machine-gunning of an orphanage in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta or the lessons he might have drawn from that incident.
Nor is any senator apt to ask what Hagel might do if allegations about similar acts by American troops emerge in Afghanistan or elsewhere. Nor will some senator question him on the possible parallels between the CIA-run Phoenix Program, a joint U.S.-Vietnamese venture focused on identifying and killing civilians associated with South Vietnam’s revolutionary shadow government, and the CIA’s current targeted-killing-by-drone campaign in Pakistan’s tribal borderlands. Nor, for that matter, is he likely to be asked about the lessons he learned fighting a war in a foreign land among a civilian population where innocents and enemies were often hard to tell apart. If, however, Hagel’s military experience is to be touted as a key qualification for his becoming secretary of defense, shouldn’t the American people have some idea of just what that experience was really like and how it shaped his thinking in regard to today’s wars?
Chuck Hagel on Murder in Vietnam
"In Chuck Hagel our troops see a decorated combat veteran of character and strength — they see him as one of their own," President Obama said as he nominated the former Republican senator from Nebraska to become the first former enlisted service member and first Vietnam veteran to serve as secretary of defense. He went on to call him “the leader that our troops deserve.”
Chuck Hagel and his younger brother, Tom, fought together in Vietnam in 1968. The two are believed to be the only brothers to have served in the same infantry squad in that war and even more remarkably, each ended up saving the other's life. “With Chuck, our troops will always know, just as Sergeant Hagel was there for his own brother, Secretary Hagel will be there for you,” the president said.
Largely unnoted was the falling out the brothers had over the conflict. After returning home, Tom began protesting the war, while Chuck defended it. Eventually, the Hagel brothers reconciled and even returned to Vietnam together in 1999. Years before, however, the two sat down with journalist and historian Myra MacPherson and talked about the war. Although their interpretations of what they had been through differed, it’s hard not to come away with the sense that both witnessed U.S. atrocities, and that Chuck Hagel’s vision of the war is far more brutal than most Americans imagine. That his experience of Vietnam would include such incidents should hardly be surprising, especially given the fact that Hagel served in the 9th Infantry Division under one of the most notorious U.S. commanders, Julian Ewell, known more colorfully as “the Butcher of the Delta.”