The one unforgivable is the lying and deceit. That is never, ever defensible.
Chuck Hagel was the only secretary of defense who saw combat as an enlisted man and the only Vietnam veteran to serve in that post, which he held from February 2013 to February 2015 after two terms as U.S. senator from Nebraska.
Hagel, at age 20, volunteered to join the Army after being told in early 1967 that he was likely to be drafted. Draft board officials said they would allow him six months to enroll incollege and escape the draft. But Hagel replied, “What’s the first opportunity to leave?” In December, he was on a plane to Vietnam.
Hagel’s brother Tom graduated from high school in 1967 and learned that he probably would be drafted. He too volunteered and asked to be sent to Vietnam. The two brothers arranged to serve together. Each saved the other’s life in combat.
Back home, Tom felt the war was a needless loss of lives, while his older brother thought the war was justified. Years later Chuck would come to agree with Tom.
Hagel talked with Editor Chuck Springston about that change in his views and the lessons he drew from Vietnam.
Why did you and Tom want to serve together? If we were going to be over there in that war, we preferred to be together. We did not tell our mother about it [their father died in 1962], and she later recounted that she had mixed feelings because if something happened maybe it would happen to both of us. At the same time she understood why we wanted to do it together.
Tom went north with the 11th Armored Cavalry to the Demilitarized Zone. I was down in the Mekong Delta with the 9th Division. We put transfers in to be with each other, thinking that was unlikely, but maybe one of them would work. Five or six weeks later, I was on an ambush patrol for three or four days, and radio operators said they wanted me to come back to base camp. They didn’t say why. First thing on my mind was that something happened to my brother. The helicopter picked me up, and I reported in. They told me to go to my tent. That evening I’m in my bunk and my brother walked in.
Describe the incident when Tom saved your life. In March 1968, we were out on an ambush patrol in the delta. We were crossing a large stream in the jungle. The guys in front hit trip wires in the water that denoted large mines positioned over the trees. Shrapnel sprayed down, and I think our first three guys were killed. We had a lot of guys hit and in bad shape.
I was ahead of Tom and took a blast in my chest. I’ve still got shrapnel in my chest. The blast really stunned me. The concussion was astounding. It blew everybody down. I was just pumping blood out. Tom got hit in his arms and shoulder, but he crawled to me. I was disoriented to the point where I couldn’t really help myself to put a compact or anything on my chest. Tom was able to get—I don’t know where he got it—a cloth or something and compress it, and he stopped the bleeding in my chest.
And the incident when you saved his? About a month later, our company was sent to a small village where intelligence showed the Viet Cong were hiding and storing ammunition at night. My brother and I were on the same armored personnel carrier. It was about midnight. We didn’t find any VC, but we did find ammunition and armaments. We were there about an hour and a half, two hours, and then we circled around and out.
I was on the last track going out. It hit a large mine. People on the track were wounded, and my brother was knocked unconscious. Blood was coming out of his ears and his nose. The blast burned my face very bad and the left side of my body. The track was going to blow up because it was full of ammunition. So I was throwing everybody off. As we got off, VC in the wood lines opened up with machine guns. I got my brother to a little indentation in the land and was able to keep him from being hit. The VC started moving around to take prisoners. By this time, the lead tracks had heard the explosion. They were circling back and opened up with their .50-caliber machine guns.
How do two brothers who served together leave Vietnam with diametrically opposed views? Well, I don’t think it’s unusual at all. That was the story of Vietnam. I don’t think the differences my brother and I had for many years were any different from most Vietnam veterans. It might be unusual in the sense that we were two brothers who went through the exact same experience, the exact same time, two years apart [in age], raised the same way and yet saw it so differently. But that’s just families. Brothers and sisters don’t always see the world the same way, even though they love each other, will defend each other and were brought up the same way.
But over the years my opinion melted away far more than his did. What really turned me around was listening to the LBJ tapes [of phone conversations and meetings recorded by President Lyndon B. Johnson and made public beginning in the 1990s] and hearing how senior military and civilians leaders lied to our soldiers and lied to America. Once you hear that from the president of the United States and secretary of defense and others, I don’t know how you can come out with any other opinion.
It was my view that the United States, initially, was trying to assist a government trying to stay independent from communism. In the ’50s and ’60s, communism was a real threat and a real menace. I think we have to be careful when we judge past decisions by our leaders, based on current situations. The one unforgivable is the lying and the deceit. That is never, ever defensible.
From the perspective of a former defense secretary, what are your thoughts on Robert McNamara, defense secretary for much of the war and a key participants in the deceits? I got to know McNamara in his last years as he gave seminars and speeches. He tried to atone for a lot of those mistakes, acknowledge them, but that doesn’t change what happened. When you have the power to direct men and women into combat, knowing some will not come back, some will be maimed for life, that’s a heavy burden and responsibility of leadership.
You cannot allow it to paralyze you with indecision, but it has to be tempered with a sense of right and wrong and what’s doable. That’s always difficult, especially at a time like Vietnam. We’d never been in a war like that. Before it was a win or lose, or in Korea it was an armistice, a draw, and you just divided the country up. That’s what the Vietnam peace accord [after the end of French colonial rule in 1954] was modeled on. Well, it didn’t work because no country, no culture is the same. There are similarities, but you cannot project similar situations on any other country or any other time.
What do you see, 50 years later, as the legacy of the Vietnam War? The Vietnam War’s consequences were immense for this country. There was not an institution or an aspect of our society that was not touched by Vietnam: culture, art, education, organized religion, every component of our military, journalism, politics, respect for discipline. It still has a lingering effect.
Like any defining event in a nation’s history, you learn lessons from it, and there is a significant geopolitical lesson here. Never get a nation committed to a war in a part of the world that you don’t understand, that you do not have a historic relationship with, that is foreign culturally in every way and that militarily you cannot win.
Why do you think we could not have won the war? First, I don’t think there was any war to be won. That’s an issue we’re still confused about. I hear people say today, as I heard in the Senate, “We have to win in Iraq.” Well explain that to me. Are we going to have a surrender on the USS Missouri [which Japan did in World War II]?
The best we can hope for is a responsible, functioning government that we can help, maybe. But there’s a lesson in Vietnam. You cannot dictate to other countries. You cannot impose American standards, values, democracy and our form of government on other countries. We cannot decide who the leader’s going to be.
That doesn’t mean countries can’t gravitate toward democracy. But that’s got to be on their terms, on their time and in their own way. Unless anti-communist, pro-West, pro-capitalism, pro-freedom groups are willing to do the things only they can do, the United States can’t do it.
The South Vietnamese government was philosophically very much tuned in to what we wanted, but not enough people supported it because of the corruption of the armed forces, the corruption of the government. We did everything we could. It wasn’t a matter of America abandoning them. We turned the war over to them. That was the point. But unless you get the body politic supporting the effort, then it isn’t going to work. And we can’t do anything about that.
U.S. involvement in Vietnam started with advisers sent there by Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy. In retrospect, should we have stayed out of Vietnam all together? I think it started with Kennedy’s inaugural speech: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” And “we shall pay any price, bear any burden” [in support of liberty]. That’s pretty sweeping. He really meant that. And Vietnam was a good example. He sent advisers who became more than advisers. I think Kennedy did it because he felt it was an obligation this great country had.
But it also teaches a very clear lesson on questions you should ask before you commit a nation to war. What is the clear objective? Is it an achievable objective? And what’s an exit strategy? We didn’t answer those three questions before we went into Iraq in 2003, which is astounding to me, considering the lessons right there in front of us from Vietnam. I used to ask those questions in committee hearings when I was in the Senate, and I’d get these glib answers. “We’ll have our troops out of there in a year.” Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, one of the major architects of the war, said in an open hearing the war in Iraq will not cost America one dollar.
As someone who served in the military, in Congress and in the executive branch, what do you see as the relationship between military and civilian leaders in management of a war? In Vietnam aspects of the war were notoriously micromanaged from the White House, which even picked bombing targets. I think the Persian Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm  was a textbook case of how you do something the right way. You had a president [George H.W. Bush] with a lot of experience, especially in foreign policy and understanding the military. He coordinated and brought together all of his arms of the government. He got Congress onboard and then—very, very smart—got the entire UN with him on a clear objective, achievable objective and exit strategy. Masterfully planned, masterfully executed, masterfully accomplished.
The management of government assets and institutions in a war has to be directed out of the White House. The day-to-day operations reside in the Pentagon, obviously, but policy gets set at the White House by the president and the National Security Council. Unless you have that clear direction from the president and national security adviser, it won’t work.
In Iraq in 2003, there was way too much power with [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz in the Pentagon. From everything I could see, and I was over there a lot, the president was really disconnected from it.
When should the United States get involved today to support a popular uprising against corrupt governments or dictatorships? First of all you can’t get involved in all of them. That’s insane. Where you have an interest, where there are possibilities, where things might be ripe, where there are allies, where there are dynamics to lend some support. You also have to think, with the overthrow of a government, would it make not only the country but the region more unstable, more dangerous, more volatile.
In Iraq, it wasn’t good enough to take Saddam Hussein out of there. With America’s military power, you can do that with anybody. I used to ask: What happens after he’s gone? Who governs? How is that individual selected? What’s America’s role in that? Do we get out?
Afghanistan was the same thing. We didn’t think through it. We stayed way too long. Again, it’s a good example of not understanding the culture. Afghanistan’s history is a history of a country that’s really not a country. It has never been ruled by a central government, ever. And it’s as tribal today as it’s ever been. So we didn’t understand what we were doing there either.
It isn’t a matter of whether you support freedom or not. Of course we do, but you can’t take on every problem. Great powers have limitations, and we have to appreciate that. That doesn’t mean that you’re not a great power anymore.
What music from the Vietnam era did you like? In Vietnam, radios were on all the time. Not out in the field, but if you were in base camp, especially battalion base camps. Whether you were an officer or enlisted, those radios were on.
There’s so many songs that come to mind, but two artists that jump out at me are Otis Redding, “The Dock of the Bay,” and Aretha Franklin, “chain, chain, chain” [lyrics from “Chain of Fools.”] I also recall the song that came out in 1968 after the assassinations of [Robert F.] Kennedy and [Martin Luther] King, “Abraham, Martin and John.” Dion sang it.
The other guy I remember is O.C. Smith, “Little Green Apples.” I took an R&R in Australia on my 22nd birthday, in 1968. Charlie Ostrov and I went. He’s retired now in Dallas, worked for GE for 34 years. Charlie and I were staying in the Chevron Hilton on the bay across from the new Opera House in Sydney that was about a year away from being completed. Those hotels in Australia would give the troops certain rooms for big discounts. O.C. Smith was playing there. He found out that Charlie and I were two soldiers on R&R from Vietnam, and one night he set us up at a table down in front at his show. You had dinner at the show, and we had a couple of dates. It was unbelievable.
Is there any political or military leader that you admire? Eisenhower. He’s one of the greatest presidents we’ve ever had. He’s one of the greatest generals. He was as decent of a leader as we’ve ever seen in this country.
There is one man I admire as much as anyone: the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that I served with, Marty Dempsey. Wise, steady, great range, sense of humor. All the chiefs that I had during my time were terrific. I got criticized at the White House for being too much in admiration of the generals. You better listen carefully to what our military has to say. You don’t need to agree with them, but they and their families make sacrifices their entire lives for this country. Politicians don’t.
Education: Brown Institute for Radio and Television, Minneapolis, 1966; University of Nebraska at Omaha, bachelor of general studies degree, 1971 In Vietnam: December 1967-December 1968, squad leader, B Company, 2nd Battalion (Mechanized), 47th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division; highest rank: sergeant Business/civic activities: Include government affairs manager, Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., 1977-80; co-founder, president of telecommunications company Collins, Hagel and Clark Inc., 1982-1985; co-founder, executive vice president and board member, Vanguard Cellular Systems Inc., 1984-87; CEO of the USO, 1987-90; CEO of Private Sector Council of Washington, D.C., 1990-92; president of investment banking firm McCarthy & Co., 1992-96. Government: Administrative assistant, U.S. Rep. John McCollister, R-Neb., 1971-77; deputy administrator, Veterans Administration, 1981-82; CEO, Economic Summit of Industrialized Nations in Houston, 1990; Republican U.S. senator from Nebraska, 1997-2009; co-chairman, President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, 2009-12; secretary of defense, 2013-15 Today: Distinguished Executive in Residence, Georgetown University; member of boards, including Rand Corp.; special adviser, Gallup Inc.
Education: Brown Institute for Radio and Television, Minneapolis, 1966; University of Nebraska at Omaha, bachelor of general studies degree, 1971
In Vietnam: December 1967-December 1968, squad leader, B Company, 2nd Battalion (Mechanized), 47th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division; highest rank: sergeant
Business/civic activities: Include government affairs manager, Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., 1977-80; co-founder, president of telecommunications company Collins, Hagel and Clark Inc., 1982-1985; co-founder, executive vice president and board member, Vanguard Cellular Systems Inc., 1984-87; CEO of the USO, 1987-90; CEO of Private Sector Council of Washington, D.C., 1990-92; president of investment banking firm McCarthy & Co., 1992-96.
Government: Administrative assistant, U.S. Rep. John McCollister, R-Neb., 1971-77; deputy administrator, Veterans Administration, 1981-82; CEO, Economic Summit of Industrialized Nations in Houston, 1990; Republican U.S. senator from Nebraska, 1997-2009; co-chairman, President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, 2009-12; secretary of defense, 2013-15
Today: Distinguished Executive in Residence, Georgetown University; member of boards, including Rand Corp.; special adviser, Gallup Inc.