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Vietnam Legacies

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After the Republican filibuster ended last week, Chuck Hagel was finally confirmed as the next U.S. secretary of defense, taking his place alongside another of my Vietnam veteran peers, John Kerry, who was recently named secretary of state. Now, almost exactly 40 years after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords (January 27, 1973) and the end of U. S. military actions in Vietnam, two highly decorated Vietnam veterans will be in charge of the nation's defense, offense, and foreign policy for the foreseeable future.

So, how come this Vietnam veteran isn't more buoyed by the news? Why don't I have complete faith that my fellow vets will think twice before embarking on another unnecessary war or questionable intelligence gathering or more drone strikes?

Part of my hesitation may have to do with the Hagel confirmation process itself since another Vietnam veteran, John McCain, led some of the attack. I mean if Vietnam vets can't come together, who can?

Don't we Vietnam vets share the same views about the men and women who do the fighting and dying in America's wars and the politicians who make those decisions? Don't we all have some unspoken agreement that we'll never let the people in Washington make policy that results in, as Hagel once put it, "the little guys coming back in the body bags."

But regrettably this is not the case. Look at what happened to John Kerry in the 2004 presidential race. Here's a thrice wounded Vietnam soldier who, like Hagel and me and countless others, realized the folly and recklessness of our role in Vietnam and had the courage to speak out against the war -- at a Congressional hearing no less -- and is made out to be the bad guy? Hasn't America done that with almost all of us Vietnam vets -- made us the bad guy?

But the fact is that Kerry and Hagel did initially support the war in Iraq. And they don't seem all that eager to do away with our hegemony worldwide. Which is why I'm not turning cartwheels over their confirmations.

Still, I keep turning the questions over in my head, and my heart. Maybe their Vietnam War experience has inalterably shaped Hagel and Kerry's worldview so that they won't put our sons and daughters in harm's way? Maybe they know too well the sad and painful lessons of unnecessary wars and strategic miscalculations and political lies?

And maybe, just maybe, they'll embrace the legacy of two other Vietnam soldiers, the Trung sisters, who gathered an army of 80,000 people to take back Vietnam from the Chinese 2,000 years ago. In doing so, they became a source of pride for all Vietnamese, men and women alike, and even today are the subject of stories, poems, plays, postage stamps, posters, and monuments. They are true Vietnam heroes, putting the possibility of their country ahead of everything else, including their lives.

I hope someday to tell my grandchildren similar stories of two Vietnam brothers-in-arms, Hagel and Kerry, who remembered the lessons of Vietnam and put an end to war in our lifetime. Right now, minus the Trung sisters, they're the only hope we have.