The sickening effort to defame Chuck Hagel as anti-Semitic and anti-Israel has been comprehensively debunked, in detail, while its neoconservative authors – notably the convicted liar Eliot Abrams – have once more disgraced themselves in an attempt to deceive the public (much like their false, ruinous campaign promoting the invasion of Iraq). While these characters always seem beyond embarrassment, it may be hoped that they at last inflicted permanent damage on their own credibility.
Yet by highlighting baseless accusations against the president’s nominee for Defense Secretary, they drew attention away from what ought to be considered Hagel’s most important qualification for that job: his combat service in Vietnam. It isn’t the heroism he displayed or the decorations he won there, although those entitle him to great respect; it is his understanding of the true costs of war, and his commitment to protecting the men and women who serve from warped policy and corrupt leadership.
A former infantryman who still carries shrapnel in his chest, had his eardrums blown out, and was nearly killed rescuing his own brother in a firefight — earning two Purple Hearts — Hagel would be the first enlisted soldier to serve as Secretary of Defense.
Over the past decade, observers both within and outside the armed services have lamented the increasing gulf between those who wear the American uniform and the rest of American society, including the leaders who send them abroad to fight and die. The prejudice against hiring veterans among employers, the high rates of divorce, mental illness, homelessness, unemployment, debt, and suicide among veterans, and the alienation that so many veterans feel as a result, all seem to result from a system that exempts everyone except those “volunteers” from service. Even as they hear plenty of easy praise for their courage and sacrifice, they cannot help feeling that those words are often hollow.
The invasion of Iraq under false pretenses and the mismanagement of the war in Afghanistan — along with the grotesque levels of corruption in both — constituted a severe breach of trust that fell very heavily upon those in uniform. Withdrawal alone will not repair the damage done to the American military by its cynical misuse under the previous administration, where the prevalence of “chicken-hawks” like Dick Cheney and John Bolton only exacerbated the damage.
To fully restore morale after all this abuse will take years. What might hasten the healing process, however, is the confirmation of a principled veteran such as Hagel, whose priorities and values are clearly oriented toward the men and women who serve.
That is why a broad coalition of his fellow soldiers has enthusiastically endorsed his nomination, from retired General Colin Powell and the Veterans of Foreign Wars to organizations that represent more recent veterans, such as Vote Vets and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Vote Vets founder Jon Soltz, a progressive leader who served two tours in Iraq and one in Kosovo, praised Hagel unreservedly as “the best nomination” Obama has made since assuming the presidency. “This is a guy who cares about what happens to the soldier or Marine on the ground,” Soltz says. “This is someone who’s going to ask, is this worth the sacrifice?”
Hagel possesses substantive knowledge and personal qualities – as many of his Senate colleagues, including conservative Republicans, have noted in years past – that fit him well for this crucial position. None is more important at the moment, however, than the respect, support, and trust of the troops who will look to him for leadership.
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