Paths differ for Vietnam vets

first_img“The dishonesty of it was astounding – criminal, really,” Hagel said. “I came to the conclusion that they used those people, used our young people. So I am very careful, especially now. This administration dismissed every tough question we asked. We were assured, `We know what we’re doing.’ That’s what they said in Vietnam.” Hagel was 21 when he arrived in Vietnam in December 1967 in the weeks leading up to the Tet offensive, which is considered the turning point in the war because of the effect it had on Americans back home. Infantrymen patrolling populated areas came in regular contact with civilians, sometimes indistinguishable from enemy combatants. Hagel and his brother, Tom, who served with him, saw children with explosives taped inside their shirts, a woman in a rice field with a tripwire tied to her toe. Under the rules of engagement, U.S. soldiers fired on from a village could open fire or even call in an air strike to obliterate it. Hagel has described seeing a sniper take off the top of the head of a young captain crouching near him in a cemetery. A mine sheared off a fellow soldier at the hips. The execution of the Vietnam war was baffling, he said. “We would take a village, inflict casualties, hold it for a day or two. Then orders come down to get out. You wondered: What was the point?” McCain’s experience in Vietnam was different, though no less grueling. A graduate of the Naval Academy, he reported for duty on the aircraft carrier Oriskany on Sept. 30, 1967, and joined an attack squadron. On his 23rd bombing run, a missile hit his plane. He ejected, breaking a knee and both arms and landing in a lake in Hanoi, where he was taken captive. In the next 51/2 years, he spent two years in solitary confinement, was bound, kicked and stomped, had his left arm broken again, suffered from dysentery and tried to commit suicide. He was released in March 1973 after the Paris peace accords and returned with other POWs to the United States, crowds of well-wishers and a White House dinner. McCain says he rarely thinks about his time in Vietnam. Support a strategy But Mark Salter, McCain’s aide and co-author, said the senator’s year studying the war, his growing up in a military family and his 20 years on the Senate Armed Services Committee shaped his view that “when you go to war, you have to be fully committed to doing everything necessary to win it.” “He very much believes you make decisions about force levels to support a strategy – and not the other way around,” Salter said of McCain, who voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq but criticized the war’s strategy and execution. McCain’s beliefs about the responsibilities of those in command come in part from his sense that civilian and military leaders “failed to speak up when they knew their tactics and strategy were wrong” in Vietnam, Salter said. Christopher Gelpi, a professor at Duke University who has studied the attitudes of military and civilian leaders toward how and when wars should be fought, said McCain’s and Hagel’s divergent positions on the Iraq war struck him as “typical of the two different kinds of reactions that veterans tend to have to the use of force.” On one hand, military leaders and veterans in public office are more likely than nonveterans to oppose military intervention in the politics of smaller states, Gelpi said. They are more sensitive than nonveteran leaders to casualties. On the other hand, they feel a duty to obey civilian control and successfully complete their missions. “The key distinction between being pulled in Hagel’s direction or being pulled in McCain’s is their judgment about whether or not the mission can succeed,” Gelpi said. If they believed success to be possible, they would want to continue fighting and win, but if they believed winning was not possible they would be “especially sensitive to the notion that lives will be wasted. “And they don’t want that.”160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! At a time when more than half of Americans say the war was a mistake, McCain’s support for continuing it has become one of the biggest challenges his candidacy faces. And Hagel’s status as the war’s most outspoken Republican critic in Congress has become a powerful argument in favor of his running, although he shied away from entering the campaign last week. What role does the Vietnam experience of the two senators, longtime allies and friends, play in their divergent thinking about Iraq? McCain says his years as a pilot and a prisoner of war play no part – although one aide said that the year he spent studying the war at the National War College probably did. Faith worn down Hagel, however, says his Vietnam experiences unquestionably inform his thinking. “Surely it has affected how I have seen this war and why I have spoken out as I have,” Hagel said in an interview last week. “I was part of, I think, the forgotten group of people in all wars – that is, the person at the bottom who is expected to fight and die and has very little to say in policy, even tactics.” His faith in the rightness of the Vietnam War was worn down by reading history and traveling abroad, but what changed his mind most, he said, was listening to tape recordings released in the late 1990s of telephone conversations in which President Lyndon B. Johnson confided that he saw the war as pointless. That was in 1964, and Johnson said he feared impeachment if he tried to withdraw. Chuck Hagel spent 13 months as a grunt in the Mekong Delta in the deadliest period of the Vietnam War. He saw the horror of war from the bottom up – men sheared in half by explosives, half-decapitated by sniper fire, bleeding to death in the gloomy swelter of the jungle. Thirty years later, he came to believe he had been used. John McCain was shot down 3,500 feet above Hanoi on a bombing run one month into his tour. He spent 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war; he was held in solitary confinement, tortured, beaten until he could not stand. An admiral’s son and a Navy pilot, he came to believe, like many pilots, that the war could have been won if only it had been fought right. Memories of Vietnam haunt the public debate on the war in Iraq. They also lurk in the private thoughts of a generation in Congress – men like Sens. Hagel and McCain, who lived through the earlier war, vote on the current one and, despite their shared past, now disagree profoundly on what the United States should do next. McCain, an Arizona Republican who is running for president, is a vocal supporter of the plan President Bush announced in January to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq. It represents, he says, the best hope for success, “our last shot.” Hagel, a Nebraska Republican who has accused the administration of “arrogant self-delusion reminiscent of Vietnam,” opposes the troop increase and is pressing for a phased withdrawal. last_img

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