January 30, 2013 2:09 pm

Hagel nomination awakens ghost of Vietnam

Chuck Hagel©Getty

Chuck Hagel, nominated as US defence secretary, earned two Purple Hearts as a soldier in Vietnam

When Chuck Hagel was elected a senator in 1996, he posed for a photo with the other five Vietnam veterans who were also then members. Mr Hagel, who hung the image in his office, stands beside John Kerry – confirmed on Tuesday as secretary of state – and two along from the only member of the group still in the Senate, John McCain.

Mr Hagel, who volunteered to fight in Vietnam and earned two Purple Hearts, returns to Congress on Thursday for a high-stakes confirmation hearing as the next secretary of defence. His criticism of the Iraq war rankled plenty of his former Republican colleagues, but the most closely watched exchanges will be with the man who was once one of his best friends, Mr McCain.

“My biggest concern is his overall attitude about the United States, our role in the world, particularly in the Middle East,” Mr McCain said last week. “We’ll be talking more about them in the hearing.”

The debate between the two men could be one of the defining moments of President Barack Obama’s second term, a clash over two very different visions for America’s global role, between Mr Hagel’s “principled realism” and Mr McCain’s full-throated defence of American exceptionalism.

The complex relationship between the two veterans is also a powerful testament to the way that, even after a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, experiences from and arguments about Vietnam still have a powerful hold.

With the election of Mr Obama, who was 14 when the war ended, America appeared to have escaped the divisive legacy of Vietnam that clouded politics for a generation. Yet if Mr Hagel is confirmed, the three most prominent public figures apart from the president in the country’s foreign policy debates – Mr Kerry in the state department, Mr Hagel at the Pentagon and Mr McCain, the most influential figure in Senate – will all derive a substantial part of their political legitimacy from their Vietnam experiences.

Mr McCain’s relationship with Mr Kerry is itself a striking tale of the lingering influence of Vietnam. Mr Kerry, who was a naval officer in Vietnam, became a national figure by testifying against the war. Mr McCain, a prisoner of war for six years, was in solitary confinement at the time but heard the story on the prison grapevine – messages sent by code through tapping the wall. More than a decade later, he travelled to Massachusetts to campaign against Mr Kerry.

Yet the two men worked so closely in the cause of re-establishing relations with Vietnam that they became friends. When Mr Kerry appeared at a Senate confirmation hearing last week, he was introduced by Mr McCain, who praised his “exemplary statesmanship”.

I don’t think my experience [in Vietnam] makes me better, but it does make me very sober about committing our nation to war

- Chuck Hagel, in an interview with GQ in 2007

Mr McCain’s relationship with Mr Hagel has gone in the opposite direction. Both headstrong, Reagan conservatives, they quickly formed a friendship when Mr Hagel arrived in the Senate. He was one of the co-chairmen of Mr McCain’s 2000 presidential run and accused George W. Bush of having “sold his soul” when flyers appeared in the South Carolina primary claiming Mr McCain was the biological father of his adopted Bangladeshi daughter. “I admire him and consider his friendship to be a treasure of inestimable value to me,” Mr McCain said in 2001.

However, by the time Mr McCain was the party’s presidential candidate in 2008, the relationship had cooled. Mr Hagel refused to endorse him, telling The New Yorker magazine that “we so fundamentally disagree on the future course of our foreign policy and our role in the world”. Mr Hagel’s wife, Lilibet, was a guest of Michelle Obama at one of the 2008 debates.

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Mark Salter, one of Mr McCain’s closest advisers, says that there was no particular reason the two men drifted apart and that it was not directly linked to the Iraq war. One of Mr Hagel’s friends agrees that there has been no falling-out but adds that Iraq “certainly sharpened their differences”.

Mr Hagel voted in favour of the resolution authorising military force in Iraq but was an early critic of the Bush administration’s eager drive to war. In 2002, he complained that many supporters of invading Iraq “don’t know anything about war”. He added: “They come at it from an intellectual perspective versus having sat in jungles or foxholes and watched their friends get their heads blown off. I try to speak for those ghosts of the past a little bit.”

When the Bush administration proposed a “surge” of 30,000 troops into Iraq in 2007, Mr McCain was one of the biggest supporters. Mr Hagel described it as “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam”.

Indeed, their argument over Iraq in some ways reflected deeper fissures about the conflict in Vietnam. The son and grandson of admirals, Mr McCain returned from Vietnam a national hero and has often blamed the strategy and tactics of military leaders, rather than criticise the war itself – just as he criticised the early handling of the Iraq invasion but not the overall objectives. He has not abandoned a belief in the use of military force to project American interests and values.

“The demand for our leadership in the world has never been greater,” he told the Republican convention in August. “People don’t want less of America. They want more.”

Mr Hagel, who was an infantryman in the jungle during the Tet offensive, returned from Vietnam convinced of the rightness of the war. But over the years he turned critical, especially after discovering that President Lyndon Johnson recognised the war was fruitless but feared being impeached if he reversed course.

In many ways, the Iraq war clarified his thoughts on Vietnam. “When I got to Vietnam, I was a rifleman. I was a private, about as low as you can get,” he told GQ magazine in 2007, comparing his attitude with Mr McCain’s. “I don’t think my experience makes me better, but it does make me very sober about committing our nation to war.”

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