01/15/2013 11:26 am ET Updated Mar 17, 2013

The Disingenuous Dismissal of Chuck Hagel's Military Service

Conservatives, Republicans, neoconservatives have consistently glorified military service and those who serve, as they should.

Back in October of 2010 Debra J. Saunders at lamented:

Even though America is fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, members of President Obama's Cabinet are three times more likely to have attended law school than boot camp.

Only two -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki -- among the 16 Cabinet and six Cabinet-rank officials are military veterans.

But now, as President Obama nominates to be the next secretary of defense a man who has attended "boot camp," a man who has served honorably and heroically in combat in Vietnam, a man who was awarded two Purple Hearts, a man who rescued his unconscious brother from a troop carrier that had hit a mine, a man for whom war was up close and personal, the "Hagel Haters," -- many "chicken hawks" themselves -- are conveniently and disingenuously changing their tune.

They now downplay -- even dismiss -- prior military service as a pertinent qualification for holding a high office in our nation's government.

They now say that "Hagel"s military service is a scant qualification for defense secretary," even when such is considered along with all his other impressive qualifications and experience.

The Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens does exactly so in his "Chuck Hagel's Courage."

After perfunctorily praising Chuck Hagel's Vietnam service, Stephens claims that such tributes to Hagel's personal courage "will now be trotted out repeatedly as proof of his fitness to serve in high office."

Nothing is said about how frequently, how loudly and how proudly Republicans "trotted out" George W. Bush's stateside, non-combat service in the Texas Air National Guard as preeminent proof of his qualifications to be Commander in Chief and to take our nation into an unnecessary war.

Nary a word about the hundreds of Representatives, Senators, Cabinet Members, or the more than 30 U.S. presidents with prior military service or how -- during recent campaigns -- such service has been considered, especially by Republicans, as one of the highlights in their candidates' biographies.

Forgotten are the vicious attacks on President Obama's (lack of) qualifications to be Commander in Chief, or president, because he lacks military service.

But what I find even more disturbing, more underhanded, are the attacks that use the fact that Chuck Hagel "only" saw enlisted military service -- that he was "just" a grunt, "just" a sergeant -- as additional, shameful ammunition to try to derail his nomination.

For example, the Washington Post's Eliot Cohen, after ridiculing what he alleges to be "President Obama's chief case for nominating [Hagel]: that he served honorably as a sergeant in Vietnam, where he was twice wounded in combat," has this to say about Chuck Hagel's enlisted wartime service:

What is it, precisely, that one would bring by service as a sergeant in a war more than 40 years past -- almost as distant from today as the charge up San Juan Hill was from D-Day, or the Battle of New Orleans was from Gettysburg? It was an important, even searing, life experience, no doubt.

Apparently Cohen believes that Hagel has been in some state of suspended animation in the past 40 years, a period during which Cohen assumes that Hagel has not kept up with the "utterly different" technology, strategy, tactics and organization we have today, which have transformed "a band of reluctant conscripts caught up in the Big Green Machine" into "a hardened professional army."

Setting aside the insult to our present and former enlisted men and women, to the tens of thousands of enlisted personnel -- including this writer -- who have gone on to receive their commissions in our armed forces, to the thousands who have gone on to become successful generals, entrepreneurs, CEOs, diplomats, congressmen and senators, even after 40 years, I must ask:

What is it, precisely, that Vice President Dick Cheney who "had other priorities" and received five draft deferments, brought to the nation's table, other than embroiling our nation in a tragic war?

What is it precisely that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who did serve our country as a Navy commissioned officer, contributed to the "successful" conduct of the Iraq War?

Chuck Hagel's prior military service as "just" an enlisted man, as "just" a combat grunt, in combination with all his other vast business, financial, executive, political and senatorial and Veterans Administration experiences, will bring to the national table -- when confirmed as our next secretary of defense -- many of the very qualities and experience Cohen pooh-poohs:

The "empathy with the troops, an awareness of the horrors of wounds and violent death" that only combat experience uniquely produces.

The fact that Chuck Hagel although "quite capable of sending young men and women into harm's way," will not do such lightly.*

The fact that if and when Sec. of Defense Hagel is faced with "sending young men and women into harm's way," he probably will not "sleep well at night," in contrast to Cohen's gung-ho, imaginary Secretary of Defense about whom he says, "If he or she cannot do that and still sleep well at night, he or she has no business being in that job."

The fact that, yes, sergeants "are the backbone of the armed forces," and that, while "their experiences and responsibilities are not those of the secretary of defense," many of them, with their added professional and life experiences can indeed, "wrestle with one of the world's largest bureaucracies; make difficult choices among extraordinarily expensive technologies; show discrimination and judgment in picking and, if necessary, firing generals; balance domestic and foreign politics; knit his or her department into the intricate web of interagency relationships; and advise wisely on strategy and campaign plans."

Chuck Hagel is just one of those sergeants.

Let us not underestimate the capabilities, the mettle and the potential of our military -- enlisted or otherwise -- especially not in the process of attacking Chuck Hagel.


* On Hagel harboring "a healthy skepticism about deploying American troops," New York Times Nicholas Kristof says, "That's because he also harbors shrapnel in his chest from Vietnam and appreciates the human costs when Pentagon officials move pins on maps," and adds:

"I'm not a pacifist. I believe in using force, but only after a very careful decision-making process," Hagel later told Vietnam magazine. "The night Tom and I were medevaced out of that village in April 1968, I told myself: If I ever get out of this and I'm ever in a position to influence policy, I will do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war."