Nick Turse: Chuck Hagel and murder in Vietnam

Think of it as the Great Obama Shuffle.  When U.N. ambassador Susan Rice went down in flames as the president’s nominee for secretary of state, he turned to ally, former presidential candidate, and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry (who had essentially been traveling the world as a second secretary of state during Obama’s first term). Next, he nominated his counterterrorism “tsar” and right-hand man in the White House-directed drone wars to be the next head of the CIA, which dominates those drone wars.  Then he picked White House chief of staff (and former Citigroup exec) Jack Lew to head the Treasury Department.  Meanwhile, he tapped his key foreign policy advisor and West Wing aide Denis McDonough to replace Lew as chief of staff.

He also renominated Richard Cordray, whose recess appointment as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was recently endangered by a federal appeals court, to the same position, and picked B. Todd Jones, the acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, as the man to reinvigorate that agency.  Otherwise, Tom Donilon will remain his national security advisor and James Clapper, his director of national intelligence.  And so it goes in Obama’s Washington where new faces and fresh air are evidently not an operative concept.

In such an atmosphere, the nomination of retired Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, the co-chairman of the president’s Intelligence Advisory Board, as secretary of defense was the equivalent of a thunderbolt from the blue.  Republicans, in particular, reacted as if the president had just picked Noam Chomsky to run the Pentagon, as if, that is, Hagel were the outsider’s outsider.  When it comes to military and foreign policy, the former Nebraska senator remains the sole breath of fresh air in today’s Washington.  That’s because he has expressed the most modest of doubts about the U.S.-Israeli relationship, as well as the efficacy of the U.S. sanctions program against Iran and a possible attack on that country’s nuclear facilities, and because he has spoken, again in mild terms, of “paring” a Pentagon budget that has experienced year after year of what he’s called “bloat.”

Of course, what little fresh space might exist between the Obama I and Obama II years (not to speak of the George W. Bush II years) has been rapidly closed.  Hagel was soon forced to mouth the pieties of present-day Washington, offering an ever friendlier take on Israel and an ever-tougher set of positions on Iran, while assuring everyone in sight that his previous positions had been sorely misunderstood.  This should be a healthy reminder that, at least when it comes to war and national security policy, debate in Washington can be fierce and bitter (as over the Benghazi affair), even as what Andrew Bacevich calls “the Washington Rules” ensure that not a genuine new thought, nor a genuinely different position, can be tolerated, no less seriously discussed in that town.

Barack Obama arrived in Washington in 2009 buoyed by the slogan “change we can believe in.”  The bitter Hagel hearings will be a fierce reminder that, when it comes to foreign policy, old is new, and the words “change” and “Washington” don’t belong in the same sentence.  It remains something of an irony that, whether it’s John Kerry or Chuck Hagel, what little breathing room exists in the corridors of power can be credited to a now-ancient war whose realities, as Nick Turse reminds us in his remarkable new book, Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, most Americans — Chuck Hagel evidently among them — could never truly face or take in. Tom Engelhardt

The Hagel hearings
The last best chance for the truth about a lost war and America’s war-making future
By Nick Turse

He’s been battered by big-money conservative groups looking to derail his bid for secretary of defense.  Critics say he wants to end America’s nuclear program.  They claim he’s anti-Israel and soft on Iran.  So you can expect intense questioning — if only for theatrical effect — about all of the above (and undoubtedly then some) as Chuck Hagel faces his Senate confirmation hearings today.    

You can be sure of one other thing: Hagel’s military service in Vietnam will be mentioned — and praised. It’s likely, however, to be in a separate and distinct category, unrelated to the pointed questions about current issues like defense priorities, his beliefs on the use of force abroad, or the Defense Department’s role in counterterrorism operations.  You can also be sure of this: no senator will ask Chuck Hagel about his presence during the machine-gunning of an orphanage in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta or the lessons he might have drawn from that incident.

Nor is any senator apt to ask what Hagel might do if allegations about similar acts by American troops emerge in Afghanistan or elsewhere.  Nor will some senator question him on the possible parallels between the CIA-run Phoenix Program, a joint U.S.-Vietnamese venture focused on identifying and killing civilians associated with South Vietnam’s revolutionary shadow government, and the CIA’s current targeted-killing-by-drone campaign in Pakistan’s tribal borderlands.  Nor, for that matter, is he likely to be asked about the lessons he learned fighting a war in a foreign land among a civilian population where innocents and enemies were often hard to tell apart.  If, however, Hagel’s military experience is to be touted as a key qualification for his becoming secretary of defense, shouldn’t the American people have some idea of just what that experience was really like and how it shaped his thinking in regard to today’s wars?

Chuck Hagel on Murder in Vietnam

“In Chuck Hagel our troops see a decorated combat veteran of character and strength — they see him as one of their own,” President Obama said as he nominated the former Republican senator from Nebraska to become the first former enlisted service member and first Vietnam veteran to serve as secretary of defense.  He went on to call him “the leader that our troops deserve.” 

Chuck Hagel and his younger brother, Tom, fought together in Vietnam in 1968. The two are believed to be the only brothers to have served in the same infantry squad in that war and even more remarkably, each ended up saving the other’s life.  “With Chuck, our troops will always know, just as Sergeant Hagel was there for his own brother, Secretary Hagel will be there for you,” the president said. 

Largely unnoted was the falling out the brothers had over the conflict.  After returning home, Tom began protesting the war, while Chuck defended it.  Eventually, the Hagel brothers reconciled and even returned to Vietnam together in 1999.  Years before, however, the two sat down with journalist and historian Myra MacPherson and talked about the war.  Although their interpretations of what they had been through differed, it’s hard not to come away with the sense that both witnessed U.S. atrocities, and that Chuck Hagel’s vision of the war is far more brutal than most Americans imagine.  That his experience of Vietnam would include such incidents should hardly be surprising, especially given the fact that Hagel served in the 9th Infantry Division under one of the most notorious U.S. commanders, Julian Ewell, known more colorfully as “the Butcher of the Delta.”

The Hagel brothers, MacPherson recounts in her moving and important history Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation, argued over whether American troops were “murdering” people.  Chuck disagreed at first, pointing instead to the depredations of Vietnamese revolutionary forces.  Tom reminded his brother of the CIA’s Phoenix Program which, with an estimated body count of more than 20,000 Vietnamese, too often turned murderous and was no less regularly used by corrupt Vietnamese government officials to settle personal grudges.  “There was some of that,” Chuck finally granted.

Tom then raised an example that hit closer to home — the time, after an enemy attack, when a sergeant from their unit took out his frustrations on a nearby orphanage.  “Remember the orphanage, Chuck… That sergeant was so drunk and so pissed off that he crawled up on that track [armored personnel carrier] and opened up on that orphanage with a fifty-caliber machine gun,” Tom said.

When Chuck started to object, MacPherson writes, his brother was insistent.  “Chuck, you were there!  Down at the bottom of the sandhill.”  Skeptically, Chuck asked his brother if he was saying the sergeant had “slaughtered children in the orphanage.”  Tom granted that he didn’t know for sure, “because none of us went in to check.”  Chuck responded, “In any war you can take any isolated incident…”

But the war Tom Hagel detailed to MacPherson wasn’t one punctuated by a few isolated “incidents.”  He would talk about officers ordering the mutilation of enemy dead and soldiers shooting up and burning down a village, about how helicopter gunships and napalm decimated large areas of the countryside, about the lethality of indiscriminate weapons fire and about coming upon the bodies of women and children when firefights were over.  He also recounted, in detail, a July 1968 assault on a “hardcore” enemy village in which their unit took part.  After the battle had ended, he said, a lieutenant shot and killed a civilian in cold blood.  “We’re collecting all the NVA [North Vietnamese Army] bodies and this woman walks out of a hootch.  He just shot her dead,” Tom recalled.

The Hagel Hearings: America’s Last Best Chance for the Truth

Recently, MacPherson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in support of Chuck Hagel’s bid to serve as Secretary of Defense: “His experience has taught him the physical and mental toll of combat.  He would surely think twice before sending young men and women into unnecessary, stupid, or unwinnable conflicts… One thing I know: Chuck Hagel will stand up to whatever is thrown at him.” 

Tom Hagel has recently talked about his brother in similarly glowing terms.  “He’s going to do a great job, he’ll be totally committed to it,” he told Politico. “I think he will bring special sensitivity for enlisted personnel to the job, because, of course, of his experiences as an enlisted person in Nam.”    

While he ultimately voted to authorize the war in Iraq — despite grave misgivings — there is a perception that, in the future, Hagel would be reticent to plunge the United States into yet more reckless wars and a strong belief exists among his supporters that he will stand up for America’s sons and daughters in uniform.  On one subject, however, Hagel’s Vietnam experience shows him in a lesser light: sensitivity to the plight of the men and women who live in America’s war zones.  In this area, his seeming unwillingness to face up to, no less tell the whole truth about, the Vietnam War he saw should raise serious questions.  Unfortunately, it’s a blind spot not just for him, but for official Washington generally, and probably much of the country as well. 

It’s worth noting that the Hagel brothers left Vietnam just as their commanding general, Julian Ewell, launched a six-month operation in the Mekong Delta code-named Speedy Express.  One whistleblowing veteran who served in that operation told the Army’s top generals that Ewell’s use of heavy firepower on the countryside resulted in a “My Lai each month” (a reference, of course, to the one massacre most Americans know about, in which U.S. troops slaughtered more than 500 civilians, most of them women, children, and elderly men).  That veteran’s shocking allegations were kept secret and a nascent inquiry into them was suppressed by the Pentagon.

A later Newsweek investigation would conclude that as many as 5,000 civilians were killed during Speedy Express.  A secret internal military report, commissioned after Newsweek published its account, suggested that the magazine had offered a low-end estimate.  The document, kept secret and then buried for decades, concluded:

“While there appears to be no means of determining the precise number of civilian casualties incurred by US forces during Operation Speedy Express, it would appear that the extent of these casualties was in fact substantial, and that a fairly solid case can be constructed to show that civilian casualties may have amounted to several thousand (between 5,000 and 7,000).”

During the war, efforts by U.S. senators to look into Speedy Express were thwarted by Pentagon officials.  More than four decades later, no senator is ever going to launch an investigation into what actually happened or the Pentagon cover-up that kept the American people in the dark for decades.  Theoretically, the Hagel hearings do offer the Senate a belated chance to ask a few pertinent questions about the Vietnam War and the real lessons it holds for today’s era of continuous conflict and for the civilians in distant lands who suffer from it.  But any such hope is, we know, sure to die a quick death in that Senate hearing room.

Chuck Hagel’s views on the Vietnam War underwent a fundamental shift following the release of audio tapes of President Lyndon Johnson admitting, in 1964, that the war was unwinnable.  That “cold political calculation” caused Hagel to vow that he would “never, ever remain silent when that kind of thinking put more American lives at risk in any conflict.” 

But what about lives other than those of Americans?  What about children in shot-up orphanages or women who survive a murderous crossfire only to be gunned down in cold blood?  Chuck Hagel may well be, as Mr. Obama contends, “the leader that our troops deserve.”  But don’t the American people deserve a little honesty from that leader about the war that shaped him?  In these few days, the senators considering his nomination have an opportunity, perhaps the last one available, to get some answers about a war whose realities, never quite faced here, continue to dog us so many decades later.  It’s a shame that they are sure to pass it up in favor of the usual political theater. 

Nick Turse is the managing editor of and a fellow at the Nation Institute.  An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author most recently of Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books).  Published on January 15th, it offers a new look at the American war machine in Vietnam and the suffering it caused. His website is  You can follow him on Tumblr and on Facebook. 

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.  Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 Nick Turse

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  1. Alex Bell says:

    Thank you for the article. I’ve just bought ‘Kill Anything That Moves’, and expect to be horrified and enraged by the information you give.

    I wonder how long it will take for a similar accounting of American policy and behaviour in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Regards, Alex

  2. Thanks to Tom for his Great Obama Scuffle clarification; it is informative to see it presented so emphatically. Scuffle by design is meant to be obscuring. I would enjoy reading a similar presentation on his domestic cabinet including the Department of Justice.

  3. BillVZ would like to read something about the justice department, you might try “Naked Capitalism”, as there has been quite a few eye opening stories there.

  4. DE Teodoru says:

    I will always live with moral quandary over what I saw in Vietnam. Scared boys on both sides were being slaughtered by very ingenious murder techniques (VC/NVA) and machinery (US/ARVN), with innocent and helpless civilians as the mass of “anything that moves” slaughter. Neither sides’s soldiers knew on whose side was any one Vietnamese, so they slaughtered civilians like flies in desperate attempts to feel “safe.” Both had the same theories about the covert infrastructure of the other and both believed in preventive terrorization of the people to prevent submission to the other side. And so, the population was, in fact, the target of not just propaganda but paranoia from both sides. How much sophistication could one expect from kids at an age where emotions scramble both perception and cognition and where revenge frothed the mouth of survivors?

    Yet, somehow, the lessons of Vietnam were NEVER learned. I am reminded of the joke about the uncle of a Brooklyn who decided that they would make money going to Florida to buy watermelons to sell in the hot summer streets of Brooklyn. They’d buy the melons at $5 each and sell them at $3 each. Of course, sales were going through the roof that hot summer, but they were making no money. A family council was called and the patriarch announced a solution after the family’s long debates and his contemplation: “WE’VE GOT TO GET A BIGGER TRUCK.” This was how LBJ and his generals thought as they escalated their self-made mathematical defeat. How does that differ from Presidents Bush-it in Iraq and Obama in Afghanistan, as they accepted the “surge” SURGEry idiocy of that imbecile SURGEon Petraeus?

    Unlike the generals, Sargent Hagel had got it and finally, when a senator, as President Bush-it enacted the “surge,” he spoke out on behalf of the troops. For that he became a national hero: FINALLY A VETERAN OF OUR FIRST STUPID WAR WHO CRIES OUT “STOP” DURING OUR SECOND AND THIRD STUPID WARS!!!

    For that, the Republicans wanted to tear him to pieces in his SecDef Confirmation Hearings. And so, to kill two birds with one stone, they thought, why not prostitute themselves for the Chinese gambling money of billionaire Adelson, the hyper-Zionist, by grilling Hagel as if he were contending for the post of Israeli defense Minister and they the Likud Knesset parliamentarians. Did it matter to them that this would promote anti-Semitism? Yes, look at them, all pro-Zionists but hidden anti-Semites, just like Herr Hitler when he supported the Zionists in the 1930s. How else to explain the dangerous fires they are stoking? Somehow, they must have thought, they’ll punish Hagel, promote anti-Semitsm and tap into Adelson’s Chinese cash bag (he makes his money in China, NOT in Israel!). And so they pilloried the decorated former combat Sargent that proved wiser than the generals after fighting the Vietnam War on the ground, not in an air conditioned Quonset Hut in Saigon or at the Pentagon, sitting in executive chairs with all the hot coffee and cookies they could consume.

    Worthy of note are the kind of female senators the Republican Party is fielding, as shown from their inquisition of Hagel: real “dumb babes”…..intelligent women they really are afraid of! But the two Cuban-American types they made into Senators shows that the maximum intellect level allowin the GOP for female an minority candidates is really low so that the “challenged” GOP leadership would face no trouble managing them. During the Cold War, CIA directives instructed agents NOT to use lie-detectors on Cubans– the standard technique for deciding the bona fides of recruited agents– because it was claimed that lying is uniquely so natural to Cubans that they could always beat the lie detector!

    Well, looking at the two Cuban American Senators the Republicans are fielding– Rubio and Cruz– it is clear that, whatever comfort they may feel lying, the lies they tell are easy to see as they are so dumb at it as to be utterly transparent. Yet, through all this, Sargent Hagel held up under the abusive interrogation of the Right Wing Republican Party stalwarts of a GOP heading towards a replay of post-WWI German Nazi Party history. Those who watched the Hagel interrogation on TV saw how the Republican Party treats one of its own, the first decorated combat veteran for whom the soldier– not the corporate military-industrial complex execs that Republican President Eisenhower warned us about– is his priority as he will be the FIRST decorated and injured combat veteran ever to be appointed to the office of SecDef.

    Both the Ziofascists and the Repubfascists want a wave of anti-Semitism in America. They want it for the same reason the post-WWI German capitalists wanted it: it disenfranchises the Middle Class and the workers, both meat on the table of these corporate predatory cannibals. The last Wall Street fraud with mortgages made of “capitalism” exactly how Marx described it. No longer is this nation endowed capitalists who put their money back into their industrial ventures– thus proving Marx dead wrong– but into Caiman Islands bank accounts, like Romney, instead– proving Marx dead right. So, they want a fascist regime in America in order to take the government out of the people’s hands and consolidate all economic wealth into theirs. As much as they decry “socialism,” theirs is the only socialism around: NATIONAL SOCIALISM a la Herr Hitler. Israel is just a game of mirrors for the Republicans so that, once again, Jews become the scapegoats down the road. Adelson seems to be just a Manchurian Candidate hiding his dependence on and obedience of China for his wealth behind his public hyperZionism. Our only historic hope is for Obama to get his team of brave heroes in place to bring America back to true freedom FOR ALL, real* capitalists, middle class and workers…..the very freedom whose abrogation past Republican and Democrat presidents sought to prevent. In painting Hagel as anti-Israel, the Republicans exposed their anti-Semitism, deliberately arousing the anger of Americans at the sight of the first combat vet SecDef being pounded by Republican proto-fascists for Adelson’s campaign contributions as if Israeli interests were the only issue. It’s time for all Jews to stand up and decry the foul odor they all smelled as their patriotism is besmirched by proto-fascists display, trying to kill two birds with one stone: democracy and Judaism.