They are known as the Vulcans, the foreign policy team of the last Bush Administration. The nickname reportedly comes from the Roman god of fire. Or perhaps it refers to the extraterrestrial humanoids on Star Trek who lived "by reason and logic with no interference from emotion."
They are a group generally classified as neoconservatives who guided the foreign policy of the last Bush Administration. As the New York Times reports, they are staging a "dramatic return to the public stage," most recently by opposing President Obama's nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. Hagel's offense: He broke with his fellow Republicans 10 years ago to oppose the Iraq war. In the judgment of The Vulcans, he is an "appeaser" whose views on the use of military power would make America look weak in the eyes of the rest of the world.
The Vulcans, on the other hand, advocate a foreign policy in which the United States is looking for a fight. They are the architects of the "Bush Doctrine," which contends that the United States has the right to attack any country that might be a threat in the future. In effect, the Vulcans believe the United States should make war to prevent war, in much the same way we destroyed villages in Vietnam to save them.
The irony is that none of the Vulcan's leaders has ever served in combat. They are Nintendo Warriors or, as some critics call them, "chicken hawks." Hagel put it bluntly during the Iraq debate in Congress, pointing out that most of his Republican colleagues voting for war never "sat in jungles or foxholes and watched their friends get their heads blown off." Those who've been in the trenches acquire a different perspective than those who have not.
I can't speak to Hagel's views on other issues that are surfacing because of his nomination -- for example, his views on gays and Israel. I can speak, however, to his views on war. And as the Vulcans pass judgment on Hagel's record, it's useful to review theirs.
They used false pretenses to push America into the war in Iraq. When they found that Iraq presented no threat to the United States, they contrived one. They began a war in Afghanistan with a more legitimate mission -- to battle terrorists on Bin Laden's home turf -- but then allowed victory to slip away by diverting their attention to Saddam Hussein and his mythical weapons of mass destruction. As a result, American men and women are still dying in Afghanistan today.
They ignored the counsel of Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was wounded and decorated for heroism during two tours in Vietnam and who condensed the hard lessons of that war into the "Powell Doctrine" -- a set of criteria to keep the United States from blundering into another bloody quagmire. To add insult to injury, the Vulcans sent Powell to the United Nations to sacrifice his credibility by justifying the invasion of Iraq with erroneous information.
As events progressed, the Vulcans showed incompetence at war and cowardice at home. They lacked the courage to propose a draft that would have ensured we had adequate numbers of troops to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, they instituted a "stop loss" program that forced soldiers into involuntary extensions of active duty. They cycled the same troops through unprecedented numbers of combat tours. As a result, seven of every 10 soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have experienced combat.
Many of the troops who've been fortunate enough to avoid serious physical injury suffer serious psychological injury. A record number of soldiers committed suicide last year; by last December, more troops were dying by suicide than in combat. On average, there was one military suicide every day last year across the four branches of the armed forces.
The Vulcans also lacked the courage to levy a tax to pay for the two wars. Iraq became the first war in American history fought entirely on credit. Instead, the Bush Administration cut taxes. Those two decisions -- unfunded wars and tax cuts -- accounted for more than half the federal budget deficit President Bush handed to the Obama Administration in 2009.
The Vulcans committed America to war without apparent thought about what our troops needed to fight or to recover after they came home. When Iraq-bound soldiers discovered that their Humvees were not adequately protected against improvised explosive devices, they patched together "hillbilly armor" with scrap metal they scrounged at landfills. The lack of adequate equipment led to a rare public confrontation between Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and a soldier about to be deployed to the war zone.
Veterans returned to a country unprepared to give them the care they needed for lost limbs, damaged brains, broken families and profound psychological wounds. In 2007, a scandal broke out about substandard care and poor conditions -- rats, mold, roaches, etc. -- at Walter Reed. Veterans testified that similar conditions existed elsewhere in the VA's health care system.
By 2006, a group of generals openly criticized how the Vulcans -- and particularly Rumsfeld -- were running the Iraq war. Some called for Rumsfeld's resignation in an public protest among top military leaders that was "nearly unprecedented in the United States."
In 2004, the Vulcans' conservative supporters launched an attack on presidential candidate John Kerry, another highly decorated Vietnam veteran wounded in combat. They joined forces with a group of other veterans who, funded by Bush supporters, maligned Kerry's service. Some were motivated by the fact that Kerry protested the war when he got home. He spoke before Congress and the world about things he saw that many veterans would rather remain unsaid. He enlisted with protestors whose opposition to the war seemed to devalue veterans' sacrifices in Vietnam. But for the Vulcans, the defamation of Kerry's combat experience was a cruel ruse to turn public attention from Bush's mysterious stateside service record.
Unfortunately, the Vulcans did not fade away when the Bush Administration passed into history. They remain active in politics today, continuing to advocate that Uncle Sam be more like Rambo, poised to wage war against all threats, perceived or real. Seventy percent of the foreign policy advisors connected to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign served in the Bush Administration.
By ignoring the lessons of Vietnam and trashing the political leaders who served there, the Vulcans squander the one thing that can redeem the sacrifices in that war: more than 58,000 Americans killed, at the average age of 23; more than 300,000 wounded; 75,000 disabled; more than 2,000 missing in action; 766 prisoners of war including 114 who died in captivity; and by one estimate, the deaths of some 2 million Vietnamese. That one thing is greater wisdom about the use of force and sobriety about its human costs.
To quote former Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, who lost three of his limbs while fighting in Vietnam:
I have some pretty strong feelings that those who have been to war are the best to keep us out of it. They have felt the wounds of war, physically, mentally and emotionally. They bring to the table all that they need to bring, and that is that wars are disastrous.
So, it is very good news for American foreign policy that President Barack Obama has nominated Hagel for Defense and Kerry for State.
Make no mistake: There is evil in the world. As a species, we have not evolved beyond the capacity for incredible cruelty and injustice, and the struggle between good and evil must continue. There are "just wars." There is moral use of force.
The lesson of Vietnam is not that the United States should never go to war. It's that war is a last resort to be used only when there's a damn good reason and peaceful options have been exhausted; that we must take care of the men and women we send to combat; that we must have the guts to make hard political decisions that support our troops and allow them to succeed; and that our objectives and exit strategy must be clear.
We should also pay attention to an insight that seems to be emerging in the more thoughtful elements of the defense establishment: that the highest and best use of America's talent and wealth is to create the conditions for peace by building a more sustainable society at home and helping other nations do the same.
As for the Vulcans, there's still time for them to sign up for a few tours in Afghanistan. It would be an education. Until then, they'd do the nation a service by deferring to those with personal knowledge of the real costs of war.
William Becker served as an Army war correspondent Vietnam in 1966-67. He earned a Bronze Star Medal for his reporting there.