President Obama’s choice of Vietnam veterans for the two top Cabinet posts in his second term has revived the “Vietnam syndrome” debates that have roiled national security policy and politics since the last helicopter left Saigon in the mid-1970s.
Retired Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the Vietnam experience of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., Obama’s choice for Secretary of State, and former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., the pick for Defense Secretary, would make the nominees wary of recommending America’s use of force in future crises.
Both Kerry and Hagel have been scarred, literally, by Vietnam. Between them, they have five Purple Hearts -- three for Kerry, a former Navy lieutenant, and two for Hagel, an Army sergeant.
Myers, who flew 240 combat missions in F-4 Phantoms in two tours in Vietnam, said of Hagel and Kerry, “they’ve both been shot at; they know combat. They’ve been there, done it. They’re not going to cavalierly send troops into combat. I would hope from that [Vietnam] they would be more thoughtful.”
Myers said he was speaking to the lasting influence of combat experience, and was not recommending or opposing the nominations, but opponents have singled out Hagel to question the worth of serving in Vietnam when considering a senior policy and management position.
Kerry saw his service in Vietnam attacked when he ran unsuccessfully against President George W. Bush in 2004. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth questioned whether Kerry’s actions in Vietnam rated the award of a Silver Star, but much of the criticism focused on the anti-war protests Kerry led when he returned from Vietnam.
Hagel's criticsl have taken a different strategy, questioning his support for Israel while also seeking to counter Obama’s main argument for nominating Hagel to lead the Pentagon -- his combat service in Vietnam.
“Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction,” Obama said of Hagel in announcing the nomination at the White House. Hagel, who served as a squad leader in 1967-68 with the Army’s 9th Infantry Division, did not have to be told that “sending Americans to fight and bleed in the mud, in the dirt, is something we do only when absolutely necessary,” Obama said.
Hagel defended Kerry in 2004 against the doubts about his Vietnam service, and Kerry returned the favor in 2008 when Hagel, who had announced that he would not run again for the Senate, came under fire for opposing the troop surge in Iraq and favoring engagement with Iran.
In Hagel’s last hearing with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry paid tribute to him.
“I want to express my deep personal admiration for Senator Hagel, who has suffered the obvious and expected brickbats from members of his own party on occasion for speaking the truth as he saw it.”
Hagel had been “unrelenting in his willingness to stand up and put the interests of our country and common sense and sense of duty and responsibility to the Constitution way ahead of any kind of politics whatsoever.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who spent five years in North Vietnamese prison camps, also defended Kerry’s Vietnam service in 2004 while backing Bush. McCain was once close to Hagel, but has now expressed “serious doubts” about his nomination for the Pentagon post. Hagel did not back McCain’s 2008 presidential run against Obama and appeared with Obama at rallies, although he did not officially endorse him.
Many of those leading the current opposition to Hagel, including Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol and others from “neoconservative” think tanks, have never served in the military and stress that combat experience should not be a main factor in deciding on a defense secretary nominee.
In an op-ed in The Washington Post last week, Eliot Cohen, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, wrote that in considering Hagel’s nomination, “you should disregard what appears to be President Obama’s chief case for nominating him: that he served honorably in Vietnam, where he was twice wounded in combat.”
“That is not, in any way whatsoever, to minimize Hagel’s service to this country, or that of any other veteran in that long-ago war,” Cohen said. “Rather, it is to say that military service has very little bearing on the effectiveness of the second most important civilian leader of the armed forces.”
The counter-argument could be that the Vietnam War has shaped the tactics, strategy and motivations of the modern U.S. military, and that one who experienced that war in the enlisted ranks might be well suited to lead the armed services against new threats.
In his new book, My Share of the Task, retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former commander in Afghanistan and leader of Special Operations forces in Iraq, harped on the lessons of Vietnam and the impact of that war on himself and other future leaders from his West Point class.
“When I entered West Point (in 1972), some Americans still believed the Vietnam War might end honorably,” McChrystal wrote. “By the time I graduated, South Vietnam did not exist. As cadets, we watched the war teeter and implode, and the historical sweep was not lost on us.”
“As a student of history, I was sensitive to the Vietnam analogy. Civilians looking back on Vietnam had cause for wariness when reading of the military’s propensity for unrealistic assessments of the probability of success, exemplified by Westmoreland’s ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ phrase,” McChrystal wrote.
This was a reference to the optimistic reports on the progress of the war from Army Gen. William Westmoreland, the overall commander in Vietnam.
In his own mission in Afghanistan, McChrystal faulted himself for not fully appreciating the lessons of Vietnam on outside factors that would influence the conduct of the war.
In Afghanistan, “I recognized, perhaps too slowly, the extent to which politics, personalities, and other factors would complicate a course that under the best of circumstances would be remarkably difficult to navigate,” McChrystal wrote.
Gen. Myers said the lesson learned from Vietnam on caution in the use of force was a plus, but he also warned against relying too heavily on the Vietnam experience. The tendency was to say “we don’t want to go through this again,” Myers said, but “you can never anticipate what’s around the corner” in the way of new threats.
Myers cited his own Vietnam experience. As an Air Force pilot, he had trained for high-altitude combat against the Soviets in a war that could go nuclear, Myers said, but in Vietnam he had to go low in close air support missions for ground troops.
“We didn’t have the training, didn’t have the people ready,” Myers said.
Hagel spoke to the main lesson he learned from Vietnam in his oral history segment for the Library of Congress.
"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.”