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Hagel Says Vietnam Shaped Perspective on War

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 31, 2013 – Having seen war “from the bottom,” President Barack Obama’s nominee to be the next secretary of defense said today, that experience informs him as he looks at policy.

Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel spoke about his experiences in Vietnam during his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing.

Hagel and his brother Tom served together in Vietnam in 1968. It was the year of the Tet Offensive, and the young infantryman was wounded twice during his tour. “I saw it from the bottom,” he said today. “I saw what happens. I saw the consequences and the suffering and horror of war.”

More than 16,000 Americans died in Vietnam in 1968. Hagel said his experiences in Vietnam informed the decisions he made as a senator, and will continue to inform him if he is confirmed to succeed retiring Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.

Hagel used his stance in regard to the surge in Iraq as an example. As a senator, Hagel opposed the surge. He felt it was a mistake, he told the Senate panel today.

“I did question a surge,” he said. “It wasn’t an aberration to me, ever. I always ask the question, ‘Is this going to be worth the sacrifice?’ Because there will be sacrifices.”

The United States lost almost 1,200 service members during the surge and thousands of others were wounded, Hagel said. “Was it required? Was it necessary?” he asked. “I’m not sure. I’m not that certain that it was required. Now, it doesn’t mean I’m right. It doesn’t mean I didn’t make wrong votes. But that’s what guides me.”

Questioning the need for a surge goes back to being an Army sergeant walking point in the Mekong Delta, Hagel said. “I’m not shaped, framed, molded, consumed by that experience,” he said. “But it’s part of me. … We're all shaped by those experiences.”

Hagel said he hopes his experiences in Vietnam will help him if he assumes the top job at the Pentagon. “I hope if I have the privilege of serving as secretary of defense, it will put someone in charge at the Pentagon … who understands the realities and consequences of war,” he said. “It doesn’t mean I’m better. But that’s who I am. I don’t walk away from that.”

The United States is the greatest military power on Earth, Hagel said, and America has been judicious and careful with its power.

“I want to make sure we continue to do that, as you all do,” Hagel told the senators.

Good people can have honest differences, he told the committee.

“All I can do is my best based on my own experiences,” Hagel said, “and … reaching out, listening, learning, never knowing enough, understanding that circumstances change.” 

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