National Security

Welcome to the Jungle

How Vietnam taught Chuck Hagel to hate war.

Having been there makes a difference.

Crawling on your stomach in the pitch dark while you hear the clink, clink of a column of Viet Cong troops winding its way through the jungle only a few feet away. Fighting house to house, doorway to doorway in Saigon during the Tet offensive. Being wounded twice and promoted twice and decorated seven times.

Chuck Hagel was there -- in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968, during some of the most intense fighting of the war. Now he is President Barack Obama's nominee to be America's next secretary of defense, and if he is confirmed, Hagel would be the first former enlisted man ever to lead the Defense Department. It's a safe bet that what he experienced in the jungles of Vietnam would make a difference in the way Hagel would approach his job at the Pentagon.

"War is not an abstraction," Hagel wrote in a piece for the Omaha World-Herald in 2004. "I know. I've been to war."

When he was in the Senate, Hagel tried to help his colleagues understand war through the lens of the people who would actually be doing the fighting and dying. "We see war up here in very antiseptic terms," he said. "We see it in bright policy terms. In human suffering terms? No." The terms are different, of course, for someone who has been there.

Years before he arrived in Vietnam at age 21, Hagel had already been interested in international relations. His friends teased him when he started subscribing to Time magazine in junior high.

But his experience in Vietnam intensified and shaped the adult Hagel's internationalist worldview. "Integration of the United States in the world is key," he said when I interviewed him in 2004. War may sometimes be an ugly necessity, but it is international relationships that maintain stability and security, he said.

The war Hagel confronted in Vietnam was ugly, indeed. Funny thing is, he wouldn't have had to go there.

After enlisting and going through basic training in Oklahoma, he was sent to Fort Ord, California, and later, the White Sands Missile Range. He was one of 10 Army privates chosen from training camps around the country to learn how to operate a heat-seeking, shoulder-fired missile, a brand-new and highly secret weapon the Army was pretty sure the Soviet Union didn't have.

After their three-month training period, the 10 elite recruits were to be sent to Europe and integrated into the NATO system. If necessary, they would use their weapons to bring down low-flying Soviet MiGs over Europe.

When the training ended, the soldiers went to Fort Dix, New Jersey, preparing for deployment to Germany. Compared to Vietnam, where most troops were headed those days, Germany was a luxury posting.

But as he lay on his bunk at Fort Dix, watching his buddies pack, Hagel had second thoughts. "I decided it was not the right thing to do," he said. "There was war going on. The right thing, if I was in the Army, was to go where the war was," to fight as his father had done in World War II.

The captain of his unit at Fort Dix couldn't dissuade him; the chaplain couldn't dissuade him. Eventually, they decided this guy who wanted to trade a cushy tour of duty in Germany for the misery of Vietnam wasn't a mental case, and he was reassigned to Vietnam.

Hagel said he will never forget Dec. 4, 1967, the day his troop transport landed at Ton Son Hut air base. "It was oppressive heat like I'd never known -- and the humidity and stench.… I was physically sick to my stomach." And, like his comrades in arms, he was scared. 

After a few weeks of jungle school, his unit was moved to the Mekong Delta, and Hagel was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry, Bravo Company. Most of the soldiers' orders were for search-and-destroy missions. Based on intelligence, the officers would know the Viet Cong were in certain areas, and the squad would be sent out to find the VC. And destroy them.

Sometimes Hagel and his squad patrolled bridges or roads. Sometimes they would do night outpost work. "They would be almost suicide missions," Hagel said. "If anything happened, the base would never hear from you again."

A group of three soldiers would be sent into the jungle to establish a listening post, trying to discover any major enemy troop movement and to alert the company if an attack was on the way. The outposts had to maintain radio silence, so they communicated with the base camp by simply pushing a button on the radio.

In the pitch dark, all the troops at the outpost could do was listen. Any detection the squad would do was by sound, not sight. "In the jungle at night," Hagel said, "you cannot see your hand in front of your face."

One of those night outpost assignments, Hagel said, became an encounter that frightened him more than anything before or since.

Following standard operating procedure, one of the three soldiers stood watch while the other two slept on their tarps. Early one morning when Hagel was standing watch, he heard a clang. At first, he thought it was a cow bell. Then he realized what he was hearing was no herd of cows but a large group of Viet Cong, moving equipment right in front him. He actually heard whispered conversation in Vietnamese.

"It was so close you could almost reach out and touch them," he said.

He woke his two squad members, covering their mouths with his hands so they wouldn't cry out.

"Grab your rifle; grab my boot and crawl," he whispered.

The three soldiers slithered out in a human chain, Hagel leading the way. "We knew the VC were coming right on top of us, getting closer and closer."

Hagel had the radio with him, and once the squad was well away from the Viet Cong, he called the base camp to report what had happened. They were ordered to stay outside the base camp that night, in case they were being followed.

When it was daylight, they went back to try to retrieve what they had left behind a few hours earlier. Everything was gone. "The VC had been there and had picked it all up," Hagel said. The story was still frightening when Hagel told it decades later. But that encounter didn't end in injury the way two others did.

By some quirk of Army bureaucracy, Hagel and his brother Tom served in the same squad for most of a year. They spent a month during the Tet offensive in ferocious house-to-house combat, and they survived without injuries. Horrific as it was, it wasn't as frightening as those listening patrols had been, Hagel said. "When you're in a firefight, all hell breaks loose. You're not scared. You're not thinking about anything except what you're doing."

However, danger came in many forms in Vietnam.

In March 1968, the brothers were walking an ambush patrol when the soldiers at the front of the column tripped a booby trap, and mines full of shrapnel, planted in trees, exploded all around the troops. That time Tom saved Chuck's life, wrapping cloths around Chuck's chest to stop extensive bleeding. The former senator still has some of that shrapnel in his chest.

A month later, after the brothers had recovered in an Army hospital, they were riding in a personnel carrier when a land mine exploded under the vehicle. Chuck thought Tom, the turret gunner, had been killed by the blast. He started pulling Tom and others from the carrier, trying to get everyone out before the ammunition in the carrier blew up. But he was still too close when the inevitable explosion came and set him on fire, burning his face severely. Tom survived, but, again, the Hagel boys were on their way to the hospital together.

Chuck Hagel remembers it well, lying in a medevac helicopter, waiting to be airlifted out of the jungle and listening to Linda Ronstadt singing on the radio: "You and I travel to the beat of a different drum." And Hagel remembers saying to himself, "If I ever get out, and if I ever can influence anything, I will do all I can to prevent war."

Almost 40 years later, the memory was still fresh. "Not that I'm a pacifist," he said. "I'm a hard-edged realist. I understand the world as it is. But war is a terrible thing. There's no glory, only suffering."

Some things are worth fighting and dying for, Hagel said, but going to war should be a last resort.

Hagel arrived in Vietnam as an E3 private first class and was promoted to an E4 specialist, technically a corporal. Then he was promoted to sergeant. He downplays his movement up in the ranks, saying the United States was losing so many troops in 1967 and '68 that soldiers often advanced quickly. But Gene Bacon, who served with Hagel, said it was more than just chance: "He was very articulate, very bright. He commanded real respect from the officers right away."

He earned two Purple Hearts, three Vietnamese Crosses of Gallantry, the Army Commendation Medal, and the Combat Infantryman Badge. And he came home still convinced that, horrendous as the war had been, it was legitimate and justifiable. Decades later, though, Hagel began to investigate the background of the war in Vietnam. By late 2004 he had tried to read everything he could find about the history of Indochina, about the French involvement there before the Americans went in. He began to doubt his earlier faith in the American government's motivations behind the war.

When he listened to tapes of then-President Lyndon Johnson's phone calls discussing the war with Georgia Senator Richard Russell, the chair of the Armed Services Committee, Hagel cringed. He began to believe that the war had been waged less to defend the United States and the world from the spread of communism than for "an abstraction of policy" and to save face.

His own very personal experience with the horrors of war has created a frame of reference for his consideration of policy decisions. Leaders who served in war "may have even more of an obligation to think through these big geopolitical issues and, more importantly, ask the tough questions," Hagel told a newspaper in 2004. That was his philosophy when he was in the Senate, and it's likely to be his philosophy at the Department of Defense.

Having been there makes a difference.

Library of Congress


Saving Afghanistan

It can be done, but only if the international community truly invests in democracy.

In the year 2000, well before the tragic Sept. 11 attacks on the United States and the subsequent liberation of Afghanistan, a secret meeting took place in northern Afghanistan, one of the few areas not conquered by the Taliban. A man named Hamid Karzai, as part of a delegation representing the former king of Afghanistan, flew in to meet Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the anti-Taliban United Front, and me to discuss the future of the country.

Our conversation might have seemed presumptuous, focused as it was on outlining a post-Taliban government. We discussed plans to exert pressure on the government of Pakistan to halt its support for the Taliban, who were now despised by the Afghan people, achieve military gains in the resistance against the insurgency, create an interim Afghan administration, convene a constitutional loya jirga to approve a constitution, and lastly to call for elections based on a simple idea: One person equals one vote.

Following 9/11 and the global response, these ideas became the structure for the future Afghan government. But today, despite incredible amounts of blood and treasure and unprecedented support from the United States and the international community, Afghanistan is perceived as on the brink of collapse, with the shadow of the 2014 withdrawal date casting a pall on everything from soldier morale to the economy.

Despite the overwhelming list of challenges, however, from corruption to an economy dependent on foreign aid, Afghanistan can still experience a successful political transition in 2014. For this to happen, all the stakeholders involved must stop thinking strictly in terms of military means.

Afghanistan arrived at this point through a tragic combination of errors, some internal and some external. The initial mistake was to entrust President Karzai with the sacred duty of securing the fate of our embattled nation. His lack of faith in his fellow countrymen is perhaps best exemplified by his request that the CIA, even before he was officially inaugurated as president, provide bodyguards to protect him not from al Qaeda but from the Afghans who helped install him in power. Despite high hopes, he has rarely pursued local support for his policies and alienated many U.S. and international partners with his xenophobic pronouncements, thus tainting any opportunity for genuine leadership.

Karzai's lack of trust led directly to the ill-conceived policy of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, best described as Iraqi-style de-Baathification but in practice targeted against those who had fought as U.S. allies against the Taliban. The end result was a power vacuum that pitted a government with limited resources and capability against a nascent but determined and foreign-supported insurgency. Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's fateful decision to continue to view elements of the Taliban, and Islamic extremism more broadly, as a strategic asset for use in Afghanistan set the stage for the current conflict and fed the insecurity, while the United States became more focused on Iraq, Iran's nuclear program, and the rise of China. 

Yet other obstacles to success in Afghanistan are much harder to quantify. The tolerance of the Afghan government and foreigners alike toward high-brow corruption has today become a significant threat to a stable Afghanistan, along with the Taliban. It would be a tragic mistake for the international community to conclude that democracy doesn't work in Afghanistan, while the only thing that doesn't work is democracy as Karzai's government understands it. The Afghan government has done little to ensure that the institutions of democracy, from our parliament to our courts and civil society, are supported and nurtured. Instead, it has confused the Afghan people by being passive toward corruption and pursuing an inconsistent and ambivalent policy regarding reconciliation with the armed insurgency. As the current Afghan government has repeatedly made clear, a red line of reconciliation with the Taliban must be their acceptance of the Constitution -- and Karzai needs to illustrate his own commitment to this same standard. No wonder Afghans feel no connection to this government and understand democracy to be code language for anarchy.

Because of these countless psychological and structural missteps, influential, democratically minded Afghans -- and those who support them -- must focus more sharply on a political transition, without which any "military transition" will ultimately be meaningless. And for a successful political transition, Afghanistan needs every country involved in its rebuilding effort to send a clear message to today's Afghan leadership demanding a democratic transition of power based on the principles of free and fair elections. Instead of abandoning democracy because it hasn't worked under a kleptocracy, Afghanistan and the international community must clean it up.

Can this be done in just over a year? Yes. The time until the 2014 elections must be used to implement procedures that support democracy. Our international partners, in particular the United States, should ensure the positioning of foreign observers to keep a clean tally of the votes. Karzai and the Afghan parliament should approve new voter registration procedures to ensure that every voter's voice -- new and old -- is heard. Our parliament needs to mandate the vetting of all election officials who will oversee election centers, rather than accepting them as a result of presidential decree, as they are now. There needs to be an independent body to resolve all electoral disputes -- an independent Electoral Complaints Commission whose members are selected transparently and with meaningful consultations among Afghan political opposition groups, parliament, civil society, and others.

Karzai must clearly illustrate his willingness both to step down when his constitutionally limited time is up and to promise not to interfere in the election process, addressing the top two concerns of the Kabul political elite. Taking into account our recent presidential and parliamentary elections in 2009 and 2010, state resources should not be used to influence the outcome of the elections.

The political transition, based entirely on credible and transparent elections, is of paramount importance because it will restore the Afghan people's faith and sense of ownership in their government. Despite all the fraud and mismanagement in previous elections, it is, remarkably, not yet lost. And if the government obtains this mandate from the people, it can act with confidence on issues from dealing with the Taliban to stabilizing the economy and receiving long-term assistance from the West and the international community that will ensure Afghanistan's security, stability, and prosperity. By playing a constructive role in facilitating necessary electoral reforms and overseeing a credible and legitimate transfer of power in 2014, Karzai can still take advantage of this unique opportunity and moment in Afghan history to be remembered as a reformist.

The structure of Afghanistan's political process, which was discussed in that meeting in 2000, further implemented in the 2001 Bonn agreement, and painfully built over the past decade, is still the right one. But work remains on that central point -- ensuring that every person gets the opportunity to choose his or her government. With a push from the international community, and in particular, the United States, to help Afghanistan conduct free and fair elections, Afghanistan can be saved -- and move into the next decade from a position of strength. Together with our international partners, the Afghan nation has come a long way in our transition toward democracy and stability. We must march on forward.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)