The death of Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, following the voluntary return to private life of Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., along with the expected confirmation as secretary of state of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., means that three of the four men whose combat wounds in war won each of them a Purple Heart will have left the Senate. The lone Purple Heart recipient remaining will be Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
With fewer and fewer members of Congress having had any personal exposure to military service, it is difficult to imagine when any state will ever again be served simultaneously by two U.S. senators who, between them, had earned one Medal of Honor and three Purple Hearts. That was Nebraska’s distinction between 1997 and 2001, when two Vietnam War veterans, Democrat Bob Kerrey (Medal of Honor and one Purple Heart) and Republican Chuck Hagel (two Purple Hearts) represented the Cornhusker State in the Senate.
Now, 12 years later, Washington’s high offices and its press rooms are full of swaggering men for whom war is not fear and pain and suffering, but rather one policy option, even an abstraction.
Too few now in positions of influence have heard or understood the earlier words of McCain: “War is awful. Nothing, not the valor with which it is fought nor the nobility of the cause it serves, can glorify war. War is wretched beyond description, and only a fool or a fraud could sentimentalize its cruel reality. Whatever is won in war, it is the loss the veteran remembers.”
Of the 58,213 Americans who died In Vietnam, three out of four of them were under the age of 23, and three out of four of those Americans were enlisted personnel — privates and sergeants — and not officers. Hagel, 21, two years older than his brother Tom, who served next to him in the same Army infantry unit in the Mekong Delta, nearly died when shrapnel from a landmine that had killed the soldier in front of him ripped into Chuck’s chest. Only Tom’s heroic intervention stopped the near-fatal gushing of blood. Just weeks later, Chuck was able to pull his severely wounded brother Tom (three Purple Hearts earned) from a burning personnel carrier.
What makes this especially relevant today is that pro-business Republicans, in whose ranks Hagel’s Senate voting record and success in the private sector would place him, are forever criticizing some Democratic adversary for lacking real-life experience, for “never having met a payroll.”
Well, when it comes to the reality of war, Hagel, nominated by President Barack Obama to be defense secretary, has more than “met a payroll.” He has had both real-life and real-death experience.
Hagel has seen fellow Americans ripped in half by landmines. He has spilled his own blood and that of his adversaries. Through it all, he came to a painfully personal and personally painful conclusion: “There is no glory in war, only suffering.”
Hagel has spoken of “the powerful responsibility of our nation’s stewards to make policy worthy of those who serve and die. War is not an abstraction. It is brutal and is always accompanied by the portends of dangerous, unintended consequences, uncontrollables and unpredictables.”
Like fellow Vietnam combat veterans Colin Powell and former Marine Corps Commandant Jim Jones — both of whom back his nomination to be defense secretary — and unlike the think-tank commandos who have carefully avoided any personal risk of real-life service, Hagel reluctantly sees war only as a last resort and for the cruel reality it is. Which indeed is a strong recommendation for a U.S. secretary of defense in 2013.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.