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Nick Turse: Chuck Hagel and Murder in Vietnam

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here

Think of it as the Great Obama Shuffle.  When U.N. ambassador Susan Rice went down in flames as the president's nominee for secretary of state, he turned to ally, former presidential candidate, and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry (who had essentially been traveling the world as a second secretary of state during Obama's first term). Next, he nominated his counterterrorism "tsar" and right-hand man in the White House-directed drone wars to be the next head of the CIA, which dominates those drone wars.  Then he picked White House chief of staff (and former Citigroup exec) Jack Lew to head the Treasury Department.  Meanwhile, he tapped his key foreign policy advisor and West Wing aide Denis McDonough to replace Lew as chief of staff.

He also renominated Richard Cordray, whose recess appointment as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was recently endangered by a federal appeals court, to the same position, and picked B. Todd Jones, the acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, as the man to reinvigorate that agency.  Otherwise, Tom Donilon will remain his national security advisor and James Clapper, his director of national intelligence.  And so it goes in Obama's Washington where new faces and fresh air are evidently not an operative concept.

In such an atmosphere, the nomination of retired Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, the co-chairman of the president's Intelligence Advisory Board, as secretary of defense was the equivalent of a thunderbolt from the blue.  Republicans, in particular, reacted as if the president had just picked Noam Chomsky to run the Pentagon, as if, that is, Hagel were the outsider's outsider.  When it comes to military and foreign policy, the former Nebraska senator remains the sole breath of fresh air in today's Washington.  That's because he has expressed the most modest of doubts about the U.S.-Israeli relationship, as well as the efficacy of the U.S. sanctions program against Iran and a possible attack on that country's nuclear facilities, and because he has spoken, again in mild terms, of "paring" a Pentagon budget that has experienced year after year of what he's called "bloat."

Of course, what little fresh space might exist between the Obama I and Obama II years (not to speak of the George W. Bush II years) has been rapidly closed.  Hagel was soon forced to mouth the pieties of present-day Washington, offering an ever friendlier take on Israel and an ever-tougher set of positions on Iran, while assuring everyone in sight that his previous positions had been sorely misunderstood.  This should be a healthy reminder that, at least when it comes to war and national security policy, debate in Washington can be fierce and bitter (as over the Benghazi affair), even as what Andrew Bacevich calls "the Washington Rules" ensure that not a genuine new thought, nor a genuinely different position, can be tolerated, no less seriously discussed in that town.

Barack Obama arrived in Washington in 2009 buoyed by the slogan "change we can believe in."  The bitter Hagel hearings will be a fierce reminder that, when it comes to foreign policy, old is new, and the words "change" and "Washington" don't belong in the same sentence.  It remains something of an irony that, whether it's John Kerry or Chuck Hagel, what little breathing room exists in the corridors of power can be credited to a now-ancient war whose realities, as Nick Turse reminds us in his remarkable new book, Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, most Americans -- Chuck Hagel evidently among them -- could never truly face or take in. Tom

The Hagel Hearings
The Last Best Chance for the Truth About a Lost War and America's War-Making Future
By Nick Turse

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."

The Hagel brothers, MacPherson recounts in her moving and important history Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation, argued over whether American troops were "murdering" people.  Chuck disagreed at first, pointing instead to the depredations of Vietnamese revolutionary forces.  Tom reminded his brother of the CIA's Phoenix Program which, with an estimated body count of more than 20,000 Vietnamese, too often turned murderous and was no less regularly used by corrupt Vietnamese government officials to settle personal grudges.  "There was some of that," Chuck finally granted.

Tom then raised an example that hit closer to home -- the time, after an enemy attack, when a sergeant from their unit took out his frustrations on a nearby orphanage.  "Remember the orphanage, Chuck" That sergeant was so drunk and so pissed off that he crawled up on that track [armored personnel carrier] and opened up on that orphanage with a fifty-caliber machine gun," Tom said.

When Chuck started to object, MacPherson writes, his brother was insistent.  "Chuck, you were there!  Down at the bottom of the sandhill."  Skeptically, Chuck asked his brother if he was saying the sergeant had "slaughtered children in the orphanage."  Tom granted that he didn't know for sure, "because none of us went in to check."  Chuck responded, "In any war you can take any isolated incident""

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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