Shards from a Viet Cong mine are still embedded in Chuck Hagel’s chest, 44 years after his infantry squad walked into a booby trap in the Vietnam jungle. Scar tissue marks the left side of his face from another mine explosion, barely a month after his first brush with death.
“I remember,” Hagel told an interviewer for the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project in 2002, “thinking to myself, you know, if I ever get out of all of this, I am going to do everything I can to assure that war is the last resort that we, a nation, a people, calls upon to settle a dispute. The horror of it, the pain of it, the suffering of it. People just don’t understand it unless they’ve been through it.”
Today, Hagel, 66, heads President Obama’s shortlist of candidates to lead the Pentagon. If he is nominated by the White House and confirmed by the Senate, he would become the first defense secretary with a Purple Heart, the combat decoration for those wounded in battle, since Elliot L. Richardson, who held the job briefly during the Nixon administration.
Hagel served 24 months in the Army as an enlisted grunt before embarking on successful careers in business and politics that saw him earn millions and win election to the Senate, twice, as a Republican from Nebraska.
Although his views on whether the Vietnam War was justified have changed over time, Hagel’s combat experiences have consistently driven his approach to foreign policy, his political passion.
As a senator, he voted to authorize the war in Iraq but soon became the most vocal and cutting Republican critic of the George W. Bush administration, accusing it of bungling the occupation. In 2007, he warned that Bush’s plan to send 30,000 more troops to Iraq would be “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it’s carried out.”
His unbridled assessments left other Republicans wondering whose side he was on and thoroughly alienated the GOP’s neoconservative wing, which still hasn’t gotten over its resentment. In recent days, some of them have intensified a campaign to shoot down his potential nomination even before Obama has made an announcement, ripping Hagel for what they consider his weak stance on Iran and his insufficient support of Israel.
“Stopping a war is a hell of a lot harder than starting it, and Chuck understands that,” said Bob Kerrey, another former Nebraska senator and Vietnam War hero. “Sometimes it provokes cries from the right that he’s soft. But it’s just that he’s experienced it, and it animates him.”
At times, however, Hagel has almost seemed to delight in thumbing his nose at his party. During this fall’s campaign, signs supporting Obama and Democratic candidate for Senate Timothy M. Kaine were posted on the front yard of his Northern Virginia home. Hagel said his wife, Lilibet, put them up, but he didn’t disavow them, either.
Four days before the election, he further irritated the GOP by publicly endorsing Kerrey, a Democrat, making an ultimately futile bid to reclaim an open Nebraska Senate seat, even though Hagel had previously said he wouldn’t take sides in the race. Hagel said he acted in an attempt to help break the partisan “nonsense that’s literally strangling our country.”
Hagel declined to be interviewed for this article. But in recent years, he has repeatedly complained that he no longer feels comfortable in the GOP.
“I think the case could be made that I am the true Republican and that the party came loose of its moorings,” he told the Lincoln, Neb., Journal Star days before he left the Senate in January 2009. “I’ve heard so many times from Republicans that, ‘You’re right, but why do you have to say it?’ And I say: ‘I’m going to tell you what I think.’ ”
Like another blunt-spoken Vietnam veteran — Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — Hagel styles himself as an independent thinker. Whether that has helped or hindered his political career is an open question.
After toying with the idea of running for president in 2008, first as a Republican and then as an independent, Hagel decided instead to retire from the Senate and leave politics. Disaffected Republicans in Nebraska said he was scared of a primary challenge.
“There was just so much disdain for Senator Hagel. It wasn’t so much his policy positions as the way he conducted himself, appearing on every Sunday talk show, attacking President Bush day in and day out,” said Mark Fahleson, the Republican Party chairman in Nebraska. “It wasn’t the Nebraska way. He did burn a lot of bridges at the end.”
That may help explain why some Bush supporters, neoconservative commentators and pro-Israel groups have fueled a vigorous public lobbying effort to deter the Obama administration from nominating him.