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Last week Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) spoke with strength, clarity and emotion about the need for every senator to take a stand on the Iraq War. There are moments in the Iraq War dialogue that create a paradigm shift in the Congress and the nation, e,g, when Rep. Murtha called for withdrawal. The statement by Sen. Hagel, whose comments are rooted in the experience of Vietnam, should be one of those moments. And, if he runs for president he may turn the election upside down with a Republican anti-war candidate running against a Democrat who is fuzzy on the war.
Hagel’s Military Experience
Hagel has one of the most pro-military voting records in Congress. He scores a mere 5% on the authoritative Peace Majority Report scorecard on peace and security issues. To get a sense of where he stands in relation to other senators, McCain scored 4%, Lieberman 26%, Clinton 56%, and Feingold 74%. So, Hagel is not someone who votes against the military, in fact he is a loyal supporter of the Department of Defense.
He is also someone with military experience that grounds him in the realities of war. His official biographies describe Hagel as a Vietnam War veteran who served in the U.S. Army infantry, attaining the rank of Sergeant (E-5) from 1967-68. He received the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal and the Combat Infantryman Badge. But that perfunctory report does not tell the whole story and the impact it has had on Senator Hagel.
By coincidence Hagel served in Vietnam, in the bloody year of the Tet Offensive in 1968, with his younger brother Tom. Chuck Hagel was 21 and Tom was 19 and the two nearly died together twice. They fought in the 9th Infantry Division south of Saigon. The first time they almost died was when the soldier in the lead position on patrol triggered a bobby trap. The Hagel brothers had just been rotated off the lead position a few minutes earlier and when the blast occurred not only did it kill the soldier in the lead, but it left Chuck with a major wound to his chest, that bled until his brother stopped it with bandages. Tom then found out that he had shrapnel in his left arm.
The second near death experience involved a mine blowing up under the Armed Personnel Carrier in which they were being transported. The explosion set Chuck on fire, burning his face so it was covered in bubbles and bursting his eardrums. His brother was knocked unconscious and Chuck managed to drag him out of the APC. They found themselves under attack from machine gun fire, but fellow soldiers had heard the blast and returned to save them.
Vietnam shaped both Chuck and Tom. Tom reacted strongly and bitterly feeling guilt about participating in what he saw as war crimes, suffering from depression and alcohol abuse. He became a criminal defense lawyer and a law professor. He also became a liberal Democrat who supported Sen. John Kerry in the 2004 election.
Sen. Hagel had a different reaction. For years he continued to believe that the Vietnam War was a noble cause. This created such a division between the two brothers that the topic was off-limits at family dinners. Chuck suppressed his feelings and took the approach of getting on with his life, claiming he was just fine. He continued to have an ideological view of the world including the belief that U.S. involvement in Vietnam was for the right reasons. Suppression of the war’s effects did not work well. He lived in a small house on the edge of Omaha, Nebraska while he went to school, had no social life and didn’t talk to anybody. During that year somehow he dealt with the war and began a more normal life. He started to read about the history of Indochina, the French, the Vietnamese, and U.S. policy. He began to realize there was a lot of dishonesty in the Vietnam War and connecting the deaths with the dishonesty.
The final straw was listening to White House tapes of President Johnson. They made him cringe. He realized that the U.S. strayed from its "noble" origins into a war that was false and fought to save face. The Washington Post reports that Hagel remembers especially a conversation between LBJ and Sen. Richard Russell (D-GA), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who thought Johnson should get out of Vietnam: "It isn’t important a bit," Russell said. Johnson said he didn’t want a war, but he worried: "They’d impeach a president . . . that would run out, wouldn’t they?" He wrote in the Omaha World-Herald that "the tough questions were not asked when we sent young men and women into Vietnam. Where were our elected officials then? Eleven years and 58,000 deaths later, we lost. I don’t want that to happen in Iraq."
Hagel tells fellow Senators: Facing up to Iraq is "the essence of our responsibility"
When Senator Hagel speaks about Iraq he is speaking with strong sincerity based on the real life experience of war, and understanding that sometimes the United States has been dishonest when it has fought wars. He also speaks as someone who understands the challenge of veterans who have served in war. His first federal political appointment was as Deputy Administrator of Veterans Affairs under President Ronald Reagan. He continues to be active in veteran’s organizations, e.g. Disabled American Veterans, Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Veterans of Foreign War and Vietnam Veterans of America.
His criticism of the Iraq War before the Foreign Relations Committee was personal "This is a ping-pong game with American lives. These young men and women that we put in Anbar province, in Iraq, in Baghdad are not beans. They’re real lives. And we better be damn sure we know what we’re doing – all of us – before we put 22,000 more Americans into that grinder. We better be as sure as you can be," he said on January 25th. He co-sponsored the Hagel-Biden Resolution opposing the increase in troops in Iraq saying the planned troop surge is "not in the national interest."
Hagel, however, is not going as far as many peace advocates are urging, saying "We are not talking about cutting off funds, not supporting the troops. This is a very real, responsible addressing of the most divisive issue in this country since Vietnam. Yes, sure, it’s tough….If you wanted a safe job, go sell shoes. This is a tough business. But is it any tougher, us having to take a tough vote, express ourselves, and have the courage to step up on what we are asking our young men and women to do? I don’t think so…. Can’t we debate the most critical issue of our time, out front, in front of the American people?"
And Hagel specifically addressed fellow Senators "I think all 100 senators ought to be on the line on this. What do you believe? What are you willing to support? What do you think? Why were you elected?" He concluded his comments saying:
"And I want every one of you, every one of us, 100 senators to look in that camera, and you tell your people back home what you think. Don’t hide anymore; none of us.
"That is the essence of our responsibility. And if we’re not willing to do it, we’re not worthy to be seated right here. We fail our country. If we don’t debate this, if we don’t debate this, we are not worthy of our country. We fail our country."
His fellow Republicans on the committee would not go as far as him. Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), the ranking member of the committee while critical of the president and recognizing "the tremendous investment that sending more American soldiers to Iraq represents" worried that the U.S. was depending "on theories or hopes that something good may happen" still opposed the nonbinding resolution saying "it’s the wrong tool for this stage in the Iraq debate" and would lead to an isolated president who "is deeply invested in this plan" and who "may have less incentive to consult with Congress on future Iraq decisions." He urged his colleagues not to give in to frustration with a White House that has not listened to the Congress in the past.
Senator John McCain (R-AZ) who supports the troop surge said "The goal is to try to salvage this thing and not send additional troops over with a message of disapproval from the Congress." His fellow supporter of the escalation, Lindsay Graham (R-SC) said "We can’t have 535 commanders in chief, and if you think the U.S. is doomed to fail, please remember that the enemy is listening."
Hagel was the lone Republican in the 12-9 vote in the Foreign Relations Committee in favor of the resolution.
A Republican Peace Candidate for President?
Senator Hagel is considering a run for the White House. He won his re-election in 2002 with 83% of the vote, the largest margin ever in a Nebraska Senate race. He worked in the Reagan administration and was a darling of the party when he was first elected to Congress in 1996 when he won a traditionally Democratic seat from an incumbent Democrat. His military record and mid-America personality had people talking about him as a presidential candidate in 2000 and 2004. Like the leading Republican candidate, John McCain, he was viewed as a straight talking maverick. Now, the two are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the Iraq War and more and more of his fellow Republicans in the Senate are uncomfortable with Hagel’s criticism of President Bush.
The Washington Post reports that Hagel will decide in the next six weeks whether he is going to run for re-election or run for president. And he told the Post that he was considering a number of possibilities seeking the Republican nomination or taking a more creative path, teaming up with moderate Republican Michael Bloomberg the Mayor of New York and even the possibility of a unity ticket with a Democrat.
His big hurdle may be getting sufficient support in the Republican primaries. Currently McCain and Guiliani lead in polls with 20% to 30% support with Hagel attracting only1% of registered Republicans. Of course, these polls are very early and may not mean all that much. Even among Republicans opposition to the war is growing so McCain may find his support for sending more troops to hurt him politically. Hagel has a more conservative rating than McCain according to the American Conservative Union with Hagel at 96 and McCain at 80. But, winning support from the conservative base of Republican primary voters will be a challenge for Hagel because of his criticism of the president in a time of war.
The argument that may convince Republican voters is that Hagel may be the only Republican who can save their party from the errors of George W. Bush. And, when they see his conservative voting record they may get more comfortable. Further, Republicans have long supported following the advice of President George Washington to avoid "foreign entanglements" and President Eisenhower resisted a major escalation in Vietnam. Hagel may find a niche in the Republican Party that is enough to overcome the shrinking base of supporters of the Iraq War.
Despite his conservative credentials, Hagel is garnering support from liberal anti-war advocates. Robert Scheer, who writes for TruthDig.com, wrote recently "Chuck Hagel for president! If it ever narrows down to a choice between him and some Democratic hack who hasn’t the guts to fundamentally challenge the president on Iraq, then the conservative Republican from Nebraska will have my vote. Yes, the war is that important, and the fact that Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, the leading Democratic candidate, still can’t or won’t take a clear stand on the occupation is insulting to the vast majority of voters who have."
And, McCain has also but noted for sparring against conservative independent-Democrat Joseph Lieberman, who supports the escalation in Iraq, on Meet the Press. The segment has been making the rounds on YouTube under the title "Hagel Spanks Lieberman." Lieberman is more and more at odds with Democratic voters. He is even talking about possibly supporting a Republican in the presidential election.
And, Hagel has not been positioning himself on the war in order to run for president. His criticism of the war has been ongoing. Last August he called for the troops being home in six months and described the Iraq War as the worst foreign policy error since Vietnam. He is not shying away from the politically uncomfortable truth saying "We’re losing in Iraq." Two months before that he urged the president to start bringing the troops home before the end of 2006. A year earlier Hagel described Iraq as "looking more and more like Vietnam" and August 2005 said: "We should start figuring out how we get out of there . . . I think our involvement there has destabilized the Middle East. And the longer we stay there, I think the further destabilization will occur." At the outset of the war he urged the president to send two to three times as many troops.
Hagel may present an upside-down world for anti-war voters. His vocal opposition to the war is a stark contrast to leading Democrats who are, at best, fuzzy on the war and trying to put aside their pro-war voting records and rhetoric as they have seen the mood of the electorate change. If the Republicans are smart they will nominate an anti-Iraq War candidate and pull independents and some anti-war Democrats to their party in 2008.
KEVIN ZEESE is executive director of Democracy Rising and a co-founder of VotersForPeace.