Former Sen. Chuck Hagel speaking at the Pentagon, Sept. 2012.
This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
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 US-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 US 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 US 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…"
But the war Tom Hagel detailed to MacPherson wasn't one punctuated by a few isolated "incidents." He would talk about officers ordering the mutilation of enemy dead and soldiers shooting up and burning down a village, about how helicopter gunships and napalm decimated large areas of the countryside, about the lethality of indiscriminate weapons fire and about coming upon the bodies of women and children when firefights were over. He also recounted, in detail, a July 1968 assault on a "hardcore" enemy village in which their unit took part. After the battle had ended, he said, a lieutenant shot and killed a civilian in cold blood. "We're collecting all the NVA [North Vietnamese Army] bodies and this woman walks out of a hootch. He just shot her dead," Tom recalled.