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Don't Expect Anyone to Ask Chuck Hagel About an Orphanage Massacre During Vietnam

The confirmation hearings won't seriously address the dark legacy of the war.

| Thu Jan. 31, 2013 5:48 PM EST

The Hagel Hearings: America's Last Best Chance for the Truth

Recently, MacPherson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in support of Chuck Hagel's bid to serve as Secretary of Defense: "His experience has taught him the physical and mental toll of combat. He would surely think twice before sending young men and women into unnecessary, stupid, or unwinnable conflicts... One thing I know: Chuck Hagel will stand up to whatever is thrown at him."

Tom Hagel has recently talked about his brother in similarly glowing terms. "He's going to do a great job, he'll be totally committed to it," he told Politico. "I think he will bring special sensitivity for enlisted personnel to the job, because, of course, of his experiences as an enlisted person in Nam."

While he ultimately voted to authorize the war in Iraq—despite grave misgivings—there is a perception that, in the future, Hagel would be reticent to plunge the United States into yet more reckless wars and a strong belief exists among his supporters that he will stand up for America's sons and daughters in uniform. On one subject, however, Hagel's Vietnam experience shows him in a lesser light: sensitivity to the plight of the men and women who live in America's war zones. In this area, his seeming unwillingness to face up to, no less tell the whole truth about, the Vietnam War he saw should raise serious questions. Unfortunately, it's a blind spot not just for him, but for official Washington generally, and probably much of the country as well.

It's worth noting that the Hagel brothers left Vietnam just as their commanding general, Julian Ewell, launched a six-month operation in the Mekong Delta code-named Speedy Express. One whistleblowing veteran who served in that operation told the Army's top generals that Ewell's use of heavy firepower on the countryside resulted in a "My Lai each month" (a reference, of course, to the one massacre most Americans know about, in which US troops slaughtered more than 500 civilians, most of them women, children, and elderly men). That veteran's shocking allegations were kept secret and a nascent inquiry into them was suppressed by the Pentagon.

A later Newsweek investigation would conclude that as many as 5,000 civilians were killed during Speedy Express. A secret internal military report, commissioned after Newsweek published its account, suggested that the magazine had offered a low-end estimate. The document, kept secret and then buried for decades, concluded:

"While there appears to be no means of determining the precise number of civilian casualties incurred by US forces during Operation Speedy Express, it would appear that the extent of these casualties was in fact substantial, and that a fairly solid case can be constructed to show that civilian casualties may have amounted to several thousand (between 5,000 and 7,000)."

During the war, efforts by US senators to look into Speedy Express were thwarted by Pentagon officials. More than four decades later, no senator is ever going to launch an investigation into what actually happened or the Pentagon cover-up that kept the American people in the dark for decades. Theoretically, the Hagel hearings do offer the Senate a belated chance to ask a few pertinent questions about the Vietnam War and the real lessons it holds for today's era of continuous conflict and for the civilians in distant lands who suffer from it. But any such hope is, we know, sure to die a quick death in that Senate hearing room.

Chuck Hagel's views on the Vietnam War underwent a fundamental shift following the release of audio tapes of President Lyndon Johnson admitting, in 1964, that the war was unwinnable. That "cold political calculation" caused Hagel to vow that he would "never, ever remain silent when that kind of thinking put more American lives at risk in any conflict."

But what about lives other than those of Americans? What about children in shot-up orphanages or women who survive a murderous crossfire only to be gunned down in cold blood? Chuck Hagel may well be, as Mr. Obama contends, "the leader that our troops deserve." But don't the American people deserve a little honesty from that leader about the war that shaped him? In these few days, the senators considering his nomination have an opportunity, perhaps the last one available, to get some answers about a war whose realities, never quite faced here, continue to dog us so many decades later. It's a shame that they are sure to pass it up in favor of the usual political theater.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute. An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author most recently of Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books). Published on January 15th, it offers a new look at the American war machine in Vietnam and the suffering it caused. His website is NickTurse.com. You can follow him on Tumblr and on Facebook.

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