"The people in Washington make the policy, but it's the little guys who come back in the body bags."
So said former Army Sgt. Charles T. Hagel in an oral history of the Vietnam War in 2002. By then Chuck Hagel, who'd been a little guy carrying a rifle in the Mekong Delta in 1968, had become a United States senator, more than a little concerned about the Bush administration's eagerness to go to war in Iraq.
On Monday, President Barack Obama nominated Mr. Hagel, 66, a Republican who served two terms in the Senate from Nebraska before stepping down in 2008, to succeed Leon Panetta as secretary of defense. He would become the first Vietnam veteran, and the first former enlisted man, to head the Pentagon.
You'd think Republicans as well as Democrats would be delighted with this appointment. The wiser ones are. Here's a man who grew up in poverty, got drafted, earned two Purple Hearts, worked his way through college, made a fortune in the cellphone business and then entered public service. He's subsequently in the private equity business and now teaches at Georgetown University. If Horatio Alger were a Republican, he'd look a lot like Chuck Hagel.
Democrats should find his iconoclastic views on the Pentagon reassuring. He's skeptical of unlimited weapons spending. He became an opponent of the war in Iraq. He wants to draw down the U.S. presence in Afghanistan faster and deeper than Obama does. He's an internationalist who believes military intervention should be the last resort, not the first one. He's still got shrapnel in his body and believes that if you ask a young soldier to go in harm's way, you'd better be able to explain why it's necessary.
Unfortunately, all of that doesn't seem to be enough for some people. These days, George C. Marshall wouldn't be enough for some people.
Some GOP senators, including Hagel's longtime friend, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., find him insufficiently enthusiastic about potential military intervention on behalf of Israel and too supportive of diplomacy with Iran. Some pro-Israel groups have begun to mount a television advertising campaign calling Hagel's views into doubt.
Some Democratic groups find Hagel insufficiently enthusiastic about gay rights. They say that putting him in charge of the Pentagon, at a time when the military is trying to change its culture in the post-"don't ask, don't tell" world, would be a step backward.
In an interview with a home-state newspaper, The Lincoln Journal Star, Hagel emphasized his "unequivocal, total support for Israel." He has apologized for some of his past remarks on the gay rights issue. No doubt these issues will get full airing when the Senate Armed Services Committee holds hearings on his nomination.
Barring any new disclosures, there is nothing in Hagel's past or present that should keep any senator from voting for confirmation. And there is a great deal to suggest that he is precisely the leader the Pentagon will need as the nation transitions out of an era of too many wars and unlimited military spending.
The immediate problem is $487 billion in spending cuts that the Pentagon faces over the next 10 years. That number could double if Congress and the president fail to reach a budget compromise to prevent a 10-year, trillion-dollar cut in spending created by the 2011 "sequestration" agreement. Half the cuts would come from military spending, half from domestic programs.
Congressional Republicans have vowed to prevent any defense cuts. Panetta, the current defense secretary, has said that losing $487 billion over 10 years would "hollow out" the military. That is absurd. The cuts would return defense spending to 2007 levels, about $430 billion, exclusive of war spending.
Hagel, rifle squad leader-turned-internationalist, would bring the right perspective to Pentagon priorities. Troops first. Contractors last. Look before you leap.
In a complicated, dangerous world in an era of limited resources, tough, smart decisions must be made. The nation should be grateful that someone like Chuck Hagel is willing to serve.
REPRINTED FROM THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH