Wary of War

Chuck Hagel’s Experience as a Soldier Uniquely Qualifies Him to Head Defense

One of the few people in Congress to serve as an enlisted man, Hagel has the ideal background to run Defense. By Matt Pottinger.

Gerald Herbert/AP

If nominated and confirmed, Chuck Hagel would become the first secretary of defense in decades—perhaps in U.S. history—to have served in combat as an enlisted soldier.

U.S. senators considering whether to support Hagel would do well to reflect on this qualification, whose benefits—both practical and symbolic—easily outweigh the arguments now being marshaled against his nomination. At a time when fewer politicians in Washington have served in the armed forces than at any point since the 40s—a disturbing trend, given the gravity of sending people and taxpayer’s dollars to war--Hagel’s realistic and seasoned perspective on the utility and limitations of military force would be an asset to policymakers hunting for a sustainable defense strategy.

Some readers might appreciate a refresher on the definition of an “enlisted” soldier. Uniformed servicemen and women fall into one of two categories: officers or enlisted. Officers, from second lieutenants up to four-star generals, constitute the top of the chain of command. They receive their commissions from the president of the United States, and they usually must have a college degree or higher to qualify. Enlisted personnel are the privates, corporals and sergeants—the high school graduates who sign up for four-year terms of service and swear to obey the orders of the officers appointed over them. In other words, they’re the ones who have the least say about where, when, and why we go to war, but bear the harshest consequences when we do.

Despite having had some college under his belt in 1967, Hagel chose to enlist. He not only didn’t dodge the draft, he actually volunteered to go fight in Vietnam, and was twice wounded in combat. Those experiences became a valuable lens through which he has examined decisions about war ever since. They gave him the confidence, while serving as a senator from Nebraska, to defy his fellow Republicans (and many Democrats) by doggedly questioning the plan to invade Iraq. Among other things, he warned that the course of the war would be uncontrollable—a piece of foresight that many U.S. leaders now wish they’d had.

As a general rule, war vets who go into government tend to exercise greater restraint than non-veterans when it comes to committing troops to war. “Having seen war's horrors firsthand, leaders who were veterans helped steady the country's course and calm the passions of the moment before sending our youth into the fire of battle,” is the explanation Hagel gives in his memoir.

Unfortunately, veterans are in historically short supply in the corridors of power these days. At the end of 2012, for example, just over 20 percent of Congress had any military experience at all—a figure that has been in decline for decades. In 1970, by contrast, 75 percent of Congress had served in the military.

Little wonder, then, that the inclination to undertake new military adventures continues to ooze from both the ideological left and right wings of Washington politics—neither of which has many vets in its ranks. Barely a year since the withdrawal from Iraq, and with American troops still fighting in Afghanistan, some policymakers talk easily of U.S. military action in Syria, Iran, and elsewhere. While the need to commit major U.S. forces may arise again, the best strategy for the foreseeable future will be one that avoids having our military bogged down in one corner of the globe with marginal strategic impact, rendering us less able to credibly influence events elsewhere.

Two previous U.S. secretaries of defense—both of whom also had the rare distinction of serving as enlisted soldiers—set good examples for some of the elements of strategy we should strive for, and which Hagel seems well suited to deliver: Caspar Weinberger, who served under President Reagan, and William Perry, under President Clinton. (“Cap” Weinberger enlisted in the army in 1941 after graduating from Harvard Law School, though he didn’t get shipped to war until later, after he was commissioned as an officer. Bill Perry enlisted in the Army Corps of Engineers in 1946 and was stationed in post-war Japan before also becoming an officer.)

Weinberger helped stare down the Soviet Union without the need to commit major forces to battle. In fact, his views constitute what we now call the Powell Doctrine, the essence of which is never to commit forces to combat overseas unless the occasion is deemed vital to our national interest—and, in that event, to use overwhelming force.

In 1982, Weinberger wisely counseled against sending U.S. troops to go babysit Lebanon’s civil war. Reagan disregarded this advice only to pull out of Lebanon the following year after 241 Marines were killed by a truck bomb—an incident that inspired the future leaders of al Qaeda to believe that America could be defeated through terror.

Bill Perry presided over the Pentagon after the fall of the Soviet Union, during a period of tumult in Eastern Europe that bears a vague similarity to that gripping the post-Arab Spring Middle East today.

Perry managed America’s defense strategy deftly with a mix of peacekeeping, focused strikes, and diplomacy (and at a time when defense budgets were being slashed). Throughout his tenure, he counseled effective restraint, leaving President Clinton with enough resources to respond flexibly to several crises, including in Bosnia, Iraq, North Korea, Haiti, and the Taiwan Strait.

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The world inherited by the next secretary of defense will require at least as broad a range of responses, and at a time when U.S. power is no longer at its pinnacle, demanding an even defter hand and more strategic thought. That means being resolute but judicious about the use of force.

Hagel wrote that after being wounded, "I made myself a promise that if I ever got out of that place and was ever in a position to do something about war—so horrible, so filled with suffering—I would do whatever I could to stop it. I have never forgotten that promise.”

Neither should the rest of us.

Matt Pottinger is veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He runs China Six LLC, a consulting firm focused on Asia.