Should Chuck Hagel be Secretary of Defense?

By Albert Santoli

I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man. –  George Washington

The nomination of former-Senator and Vietnam veteran Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense has generated debate whether he has the right qualities for the job.

Protests raised by pundits who question his qualifications are based on whether he is capable of managing the largest agency of the U.S. Government with global responsibilities, a world in violent dysfunction that threatens the survival of the United States and our allies who rely upon our resolve.

I do not personally know Mr. Hagel and have never had a prolonged policy or philosophical discussion with him.

However, we are fellow infantry combat veterans of Vietnam [he was twice wounded in action and I was three times wounded]  and we both know the realities of war.  Not “professional” soldiers, but “citizen” soldiers we were both non-commissioned officers responsible for small units of 19 and 20 year old soldiers with our own lives on the line.

I still work on the front line in war and terror  zones – without any funding from US Government —  through my non-governmental humanitarian Asia America Initiative. I do not seek DOD funds because of their corrupting tendencies.

A strong independent minded Secretary of Defense is needed to protect our national security from these same corrupting influences.

During the Reagan Administration, while Hagel was Assistant Director of the Veterans’ Administration, I was the author of the first history book on the Vietnam War written by a veteran that appeared on the New York Times Best Seller List.  In that role I did substantial media interviews representing veterans by sometimes hostile anti-war interviewers.

In addition, while he was a Senator on the Armed Services Committee, I was a Special Assistant to the Chairman of the House of Representatives Military Personnel Subcommittee and an unofficial advisor  to the U.S. House the Chairman of the International Relations Committee on issues related to armed conflicts and human rights and the Vice-Chairman of the Armed Services Committee on weapons of mass destruction proliferation.

In our respective roles we had many opportunities to interact on key issues related to national security and the responsibility of policy makers towards members of the Armed Forces.

From my observation, the character of Sen. Hagel can be described in two words:  Unselfish Integrity.

The effectiveness of a leader in battle is based on whether the troops believe that he will not sell them out when the going gets tough.  This is especially true among Vietnam veterans whose leaders put blame for the war on those on the front line just a few years after proclaiming  they must “bear any burden” for the good of freedom. Only 1/3 of all Vietnam field veterans are still alive today, 20 years under the life expectancy of our generation.  Those who survived must be made of exceptionally strong stuff. And most would not be sullied by the unsavory duplicity of professional politicians.

A few of us have entered that arena not because we “enjoy” politics but because some non-politicians must be there to stand for the well being of not only soldiers but all Americans.

Several issues shape my opinion of Mr Hagel.

His integrity to stand for the well being of veterans, to include the willingness to sacrifice his own political prominence against the wishes and political power of defense contractor corporations or neo-conservatives – most of whom were never tested in real battle.

His actions include his resignation from the Veterans Administration in protest of not taking care of thousands of Vietnam veterans who suffered illness from Agent Orange dioxin exposure.

He was proved spot-on when the government and the callous petrochemical companies finally conceded to paying minimal compensation to veterans dying of cancer and their children born with birth defects.

In addition, during the height of casualties and corruption of the Iraq War-on-Terror Senator Hagel tried to protect  Defense Department Inspector General Office members who were about to be fired before their report on massive corruption and waste in the war zone.

Some of the IG members were removed by the military-industrial mafioso and bureaucratic cowards who usually have their sway within the Pentagon.

But at least one of the investigators was saved and the corruption report [among others eventually released]  did have some positive results.

And, finally, October 1999, during the last year of the Clinton Administration, Senator Hagel joined Congressman Gerry Solomon, Chairman of the House Rules Committee to assure a vote was taken in both bodies of Congress to create a National Moment for Remembrance on every Memorial Day to honor all Americans who have perished defending our freedom throughout our nation’s history.

I have full knowledge of this process because I wrote the language for this legislation [with permission from Rep. Dana Roharabacher] in partnership with the founder of the Commission, Hon. Carmella LaSpada, who devoted her life to assisting surviving families of soldiers killed in combat.

Sen. Hagel’s commitment to institutionalize the remembrance of soldiers’ sacrifices is the type of respect and compassion of leaders needed to restore some of the morale that has been destroyed during a decade of relentless small wars that has worn down what may have been the most powerful military force in modern history.

Sen. Hagel’s first-hand experience to be in a small unit at the mercy of distant political policy is an intangible quality that separates a “former sergeant” from many politicians and former-generals.  It is also a truly American trait of citizen soldiers within a democracy that great past leaders such as George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower would call the “virtue” that distinguishes a true leader.

Whether or not Sen. Hagel is acceptable to certain ethnic lobbies should not determine how the Congress perceives his qualifications to be Secretary of Defense.

We need an honorable and fair-minded Pentagon leader, who during a tight national budget has experience in the real world of owning and developing successful businesses, to see our large defense budget in practical terms.

I am not an Obama supporter and there are some issues where my own opinion on world events tends to differ with Senator Hagel.

But based on his past performances as a lawmaker and public servant, it appears he can be trusted to engage honorable people in honest debates.

The results of such dialogue will dramatically effect the lives of millions within the United States and in the increasingly dangerous world around us.

Albert Santoli is founder and CEO of Asia America Initiative, a non-profit humanitarian organization, with field programs in areas of conflict in Mindanao, Philippines.  He is a Vietnam veteran and author of the New York Times Best Selling book:   Everything We Had, an Oral History of the Vietnam War.

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