x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Newsmaker: Chuck Hagel – the Pentagon's prudence

A look at the life of Chuck Hagel, the US secretary of defence

Illustration: Chuck Hagel by Kagan McLeod for The National
Illustration: Chuck Hagel by Kagan McLeod for The National

Watching the US Senator John McCain lock horns in January with fellow Republican Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama's nomination as the next US secretary of defence, was a little like watching comic-book heroes Captain America and Sergeant Rock come to blows over the definition of patriotism.

Both men had fought and bled in Vietnam - Captain McCain as a navy pilot, shot down in 1967, wounded, tortured and held for two years in solitary confinement as a prisoner of war; Sergeant Hagel as an infantryman who had volunteered and emerged twice wounded and decorated for bravery.

But what emerged from the smoke and fury of McCain's bullying attack on 66-year-old Hagel at the Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing - a street fight eventually won narrowly by Hagel, 14 votes to 11 - was not only the extent to which the long shadow of the Vietnam national trauma still affects modern-day American military thinking, but also how the very same experience has had a profoundly different impact on the man who is now running the Pentagon.

Back in January, McCain was still smarting over Hagel's 2007 "betrayal" of the Republican party, his opposition to George Bush's "surge". Hagel and other members of Congress condemned the controversial increase in the number of US troops in Iraq, declaring it to be "not in the national interest of the United States to deepen its military involvement in Iraq".

The surge, said Hagel at the time, was the "most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam", and polls showed that two out of every three Americans agreed with him.

And in Sergeant Hagel, sworn in on February 27 as the first combat veteran of enlisted rank to be made secretary of defence and now on a tour of the Middle East that brought him to the UAE on Wednesday, the world can expect to find a Pentagon chief who is less likely than most to shoot first and ask questions later.

"The sergeant is the army," President Eisenhower once said. Now that adage has become a literal truth, and this sergeant has seen more than his share of blood and guts. "We are each a product of our experiences," Hagel has said, "and my time in combat very much shaped my opinions about war."

Hagel's first taste of the impact of war came as a young boy, born into poverty in North Platte, Nebraska, a year after the end of the Second World War.

His father, Charles, served as an US Army Air Force tailgunner in the Pacific Theatre and, as Chuck Hagel's brother Tom told Esquire magazine in January, "I don't think there's any question that he had what we came to call post-traumatic stress syndrome".

In 1946, Charles married Betty Dunn, a secretary, and in October that same year they had Chuck, the first of four sons.

In his 2008 book, America - Our Next Chapter, Chuck Hagel recalled the poverty of his youth and how his father couldn't even afford an American Legion uniform.

"Those blue uniforms cost money," Hagel recalled, "and like a lot of young vets after World War II, my folks had more immediate needs."

He never forgot hearing his mother promise his father, "Charlie, we'll get that uniform", and somehow they did. His father didn't get to wear it for long; on Christmas morning, 1962, when Chuck Hagel was 16, his father died in bed of an aneurysm, at the age of 39. To this day, Hagel keeps that uniform cleaned and pressed.

In 1966, 21-year-old Hagel enrolled in college but dropped out after a year. With the Vietnam War raging, he and his younger brother Tom, 19, inspired by the memory of their father, enlisted in the army.

Unusually, both brothers served in the same unit, the 9th Infantry Division, during the Viet Cong's bloody Tet Offensive in 1968. The extraordinary story was summed up last year by Frederick Kempe, president of the Atlantic Council think tank, who introduced Hagel as a speaker at that organisation's Military Leadership Awards.

"These two enlisted soldiers were literally brothers in arms, serving side by side," he said. "They as often as not walked point together, the most dangerous spot at the head of their ambush-and-reconnaissance patrol. ... They watched as their comrades perished around them, still managing to forge ahead in acts of bravery that resulted in five Purple Hearts, two for Chuck and three for Tom."

The two also saved each other's lives. On one occasion Chuck pulled his unconscious brother out of a burning armoured personnel carrier just before it blew up, injuring him badly. As he lay wounded in a field hospital, Hagel later recalled, "I made a promise to myself, that if I got out of that place and was ever in a position to do something about war. ... I would do whatever I could to stop it."

And, after getting home from Vietnam, Hagel set about getting himself into just such a position.

In 1969, he enrolled at the University of Nebraska to study history, combining his studies with part-time gigs as a talk-show host on local radio. One of his interviewees was a future Republican congressman for Nebraska and, when John McCollister went to Washington in 1971, Hagel went with him, working his way up in two years to become his chief of staff.

Hagel gained vital experience with life in Washington during McCollister's six-year run. When his boss bowed out in 1977, Hagel stayed on as a lobbyist and got his big break in 1981, when President Reagan appointed him deputy administrator of the Veterans Association (VA).

He quickly found himself in direct conflict with his new boss, VA director Robert Nimmo, who had publicly accused veterans of being greedy and dismissed the cancer-inducing effects of Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant used by the US in Vietnam, as "a little teenage acne".

In 1982, barely a year into his tenure at the VA, Hagel resigned in protest, an act that won him many friends in the military.

The Agent Orange issue, as Hagel's recently posted biography on the Department of Defense website attests, "became one of the causes of his life", leading to the distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars to harmed veterans through the Agent Orange Payment Program, which he chaired.

Hagel then turned to business, co-founding a company called Vanguard Cellular Systems. At the forefront of a then nascent industry, it quickly grew to become one of the biggest cellular carriers in the US and made Hagel a millionaire.

During 12 years in business, however, he never lost touch with politics or the military, serving as president of the United Services Organisations, which provides entertainment to US forces, and on the boards of organisations including the Eisenhower World Affairs Institute and the American Red Cross.

Washington, however, remained in his sights, and in 1997 he became the first Republican in 24 years to take a Senate seat in Nebraska.

He was re-elected with an overwhelming majority in 2002 and that same year he faced his first military dilemma - whether to support President Bush's resolution seeking to authorise the use of military force against Iraq. In the end he backed the resolution, but with grave reservations.

"How many of us really know and understand much about Iraq, the country, the history, the people, the role in the Arab world?" he said. Later, he described the Iraq War as one of America's "greatest foreign policy fiascos", responsible for "the haemorrhaging of our national treasure and the sacrifice of thousands of young lives in the meat grinder of a Mid-East conflict".

In March 2007, however, Hagel stood his ground, joining Democrats in a 51-46 vote in a war-funding bill - ultimately vetoed by Bush - that sought a one-year deadline for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

Retiring from the Senate in 2009, Hagel turned to academia, serving as Distinguished Professor in the Practice of National Governance at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. That same year he was appointed chair of the Atlantic Council, the influential non-partisan foreign affairs think tank, and went on to become co-chair of President Obama's Intelligence Advisory Board and a member of the Secretary of Defence Policy Board.

Such has been Hagel's career-long record of bipartisan politics that by the time it was announced in January that he had been nominated as secretary of defence he almost seemed like the natural choice for a Democrat president.

Yet the appointment of a man who has frequently spoken out candidly about America's relationship with Israel - "The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people [in Washington]," he said in 2008 - appeared a particularly brave one. In December, the Zionist Organisation of America lobbied the president to think again about appointing "the Iran-and-terrorist apologist and Israel basher".

Part of the purpose of his visit this week to Tel Aviv, he told reporters at the start of a tour that took in Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, was to reassure Israelis that "the United States is committed to their security".

Most important for all of America's allies in the Middle East, of course, is the fact that Hagel comes bearing arms - a planned US$10 billion (Dh36.7bn) weapons deal with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which, he said on Sunday, sent a "very clear signal" to a nuclear-posturing Iran that military options remained on the table.

Yet however the current Iran crisis plays out, it seems likely that the new man at the top of the Pentagon is unlikely to prove trigger-happy.

"I still believe, as my father did, in serving our country," he wrote in 2008. "But history has taught me that we must require better answers than we have been given before we ask our young men and women to sacrifice their lives."

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