The effort to derail the nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense has marshaled every possible argument against him, including claims that his “temperament” is wrong and that he cannot possibly manage such a large bureaucracy because he has no experience doing so. As almost no one has Pentagon-management experience until he actually starts doing it, that is an argument that does not admit any rejoinder.
More recently, however, critics have taken to characterizing Hagel’s strengths as weaknesses. One of the most unusual pieces to take that line was an op-ed in The Washington Post by leading neoconservative Eliot A. Cohen, “Hagel’s military service is a scant qualification for defense secretary,” which was then essentially replayed by Jennifer Rubin on her Post blog as “Old soldiers don’t make for good Pentagon chiefs,” lest anyone miss the point.
The Washington Post blasted the nomination of Hagel even before he was named in a lead editorial on Dec. 18, “Chuck Hagel is not the right choice for defense secretary,” that curiously argued that the former Republican senator was too out of the “mainstream” for confirmation because of his belief that the Pentagon is “bloated” and his unwillingness to use force as a first resort rather diplomacy. Cohen and Rubin continue the character assassination. For Cohen, Hagel’s problem is a case of flawed lessons learned in a bygone age of warfare with an army composed of feckless conscripts. For Rubin, it’s a plan to shrink the military and leave America defenseless, and what she imagines to be Hagel’s politically incorrect thoughtcrimes. She explores Hagel’s views about gays in the service and asks, “What does he think of women in combat?” She then provides her own authoritative answer–untroubled by her apparent ignorance of the fact that most combat Military Occupational Specialties are still barred to women–“It is likely colored by an obsolete vision of combat.”
Cohen argues that Hagel’s wartime service as an enlisted infantryman in Vietnam, where he was wounded twice, should be considered irrelevant or even a defect: “What is it, precisely, that one would bring by service as a sergeant in a war more than 40 years past? … It was an important, even searing, life experience, no doubt. But the technology, strategy, tactics and organization now are all utterly different.”
And what does Cohen know about combat? Well, he was an ardent supporter of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and is a hawk regarding Iran, calling for regime change and a preemptive strike by Washington and Israel to destroy that nation’s nuclear facilities. A protégé of fellow academic and Pentagon number two Paul Wolfowitz, he was appointed a senior adviser to Condoleezza Rice when she was at the State Department during the second term of George W. Bush. Like most other neoconservatives, Eliot Cohen has never actually served in the United States armed forces.
Rubin, the Post’s resident “conservative” blogger, also lacks any direct connection with the military and was one of the first to denounce Hagel for “his rank prejudice against American Jews” even before he had been nominated. Echoing Cohen, she maintains that Hagel and President Barack Obama together are “using Hagel’s service as cover for doing real damage to our national security.”
Neoconservatives characteristically idolize the military, but they have little real grasp of how it works, and they seem to have little insight into how human beings suffer and die in war, something Hagel intimately understands. Cohen intones, absurdly, “Does combat service uniquely produce empathy with the troops, an awareness of the horrors of wounds and violent death? Visits to a military hospital will bring one to that.” If Cohen truly believes that losing a leg and visiting someone who has lost a leg are analogous, he has been spending far too much time in academia and hanging around the seventh floor of the State Department sipping lattes.
Nor do Cohen and Rubin appreciate that in the military, as in any large bureaucracy, there is a management point of view and an employee point of view. The officer corps is the management level and the enlisted men correspond to the employees. Or, to put it another way, the officers make the sausage and the enlisted men are what goes into the casing. The higher an officer rises in the military the more detached he is from war-fighting and the more he is engaged in selling a product and managing an organization. Most officers aspire to get promoted as fast as they can after having their ticket punched with a combat command, and many are happy to get away from the drudgery of leading a platoon or company. Some avoid combat assignments altogether. Neither the recently retired Gen. David Petraeus nor the current army chief of staff, Ray Odierno, ever led troops in battle.
This means that officers and enlisted men frequently see war and the policies that produce war in completely different ways. As a former enlisted man myself who has experienced what Cohen dismisses as the Big Green Machine of the Vietnam War, I would far more readily trust the assessment of a war situation from the point of view of a sergeant on the ground in II-Corps than that of a serial liar like General William Westmoreland back in Saigon. The sergeants knew the war was unwinnable long before the generals did. In fact, the generals never admitted it, insisting to this day that their valiant effort was stabbed in the back by the media. Rubin derides what she perceives as the administration’s class warfare in defending “the little guy in the military” by appointing Hagel and asks, “Don’t colonels and generals deserve someone to look after their interests as well?” Believe me, Jennifer, the senior officers are doing just fine.
Cohen and Rubin argue that Hagel’s upfront and personal experience of war is a liability because it will make him less willing to send soldiers and sailors into harm’s way, a claim that might be made against any combat veteran, and which is utterly implausible in the event of the U.S. truly being threatened. But a little more skepticism about the use of force at other times would be a blessing. Ask the families of the 6,000-plus young Americans who have died over the past 11 years in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. The lessons of Vietnam apply today, Cohen and Rubin’s encouragement of more wars of choice notwithstanding. The denigration of a man like Hagel, who has actually been there and done it, by chair-bound Washington pundits recalls Shakespeare’s admonition that such folks should “hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.