Donald Kaul: We don’t need a secretary of militarism
The chicken hawks are out in force these days, attacking Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama’s choice for Secretary of Defense.
He’s too reluctant to use force, they say. He favors negotiation over sanctions and sanctions over bombs, they say. He doesn’t like Israel enough; he’s an anti-Semite.
Who’s saying these terrible things about a man who, when he served in the Senate, was considered a fairly reliable conservative vote albeit one with a mind of his own?
It’s the usual suspects (plus John McCain, that rare breed: a man who has seen war but is still spoiling for a fight). William Kristol, editor of the right wing clarion The Weekly Standard, is leading the charge. This is the same Kristol, you’ll remember, who discovered Sarah Palin when she was a virtually unknown governor, sitting on her front porch in Alaska, where, as Tina Fey told us, she could see Russia from her house.
He thought she’d make a wonderful president-in-waiting of the United States some day, so he introduced her to his Republican friends, who agreed. Are we supposed to take a guy with judgment like that seriously? Do we care whom he wants for Secretary of Defense?
Or perhaps you’d prefer Elliott Abrams, an architect of the Iran-Contra scandal, who would have spent time in jail without a presidential pardon from George H.W. Bush. He’s the one pressing the anti-Semitism angle and making up stuff to do it. His good buddy in the smear campaign is Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul who bankrolled Newt Gingrich’s quixotic presidential run.
Come on. Let me tell you about Chuck Hagel. He wasn’t my favorite senator — too conservative — but he represented Nebraska, a very conservative state.
He was, however, an intelligent, reasonable man with a reputation for honesty. In the Senate these days, that qualifies for sainthood.
He and his brother served a bloody tour in Vietnam, where they took turns saving each other’s lives. He returned home and eventually realized that war is a terrible answer to any question and should be undertaken reluctantly, as a last resort. That’s the way he thought as a senator (he was an early critic of the Iraq invasion, for example) and that’s the way he promises to think as Pentagon chief.
This drives the right wing crazy. (I sometimes think right-wingers view thoughtfulness as a character flaw.) Conservatives favor Dick Cheney’s rhinoceros-in-a-china-shop approach to foreign affairs.
Not that progressives are happy with the nomination either. Hagel is just way too right-wing for them on a variety of issues. (Progressives tend to think no one who can actually get confirmed by the Senate is worthy of public office.)
Nevertheless, Hagel, whose chief task will be to cut the military down to a more manageable, less expensive size, is an ideal man for the job.
He’s in the grand tradition of American men of war who became champions of peace later in life. It’s a line that stretches back to George Washington and claims politicians as diverse as Dwight Eisenhower, George McGovern, John Kerry, and Colin Powell.
It includes too my favorite Civil War General, William Tecumseh Sherman. While absolutely ruthless in war, he had no love for it. At the end of the war he said:
“I confess, without shame, that I am sick and tired of fighting — its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies…tis only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated…that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.”
In other words, the Cheneys, Kristols, and Abrams of the world.
I like the idea of having a Secretary of Defense who knows war intimately. I like the idea that there is a voice in our councils saying: “Wait a minute. Let’s think this through. Maybe there’s another way.”
Hagel could be that voice.
Donald Kaul is an OtherWords columnist who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich.