For a secretary who has seen war up close

Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s candidate for Secretary of Defense, received two Purple Hearts fighting as an enlisted soldier in one of our country’s most ill-advised wars.

His experience in Vietnam, where he saw the human and financial costs of war up close and very personal, led him to criticize the invasion of Iraq, our other ill-advised war.

Said Hagel on his hurdle rate for going to war:

“I am not a pacifist. I believe in using force but only after a careful decision-making process … I will do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war.”

I am not a pacifist, either, and I didn’t see combat during my time in the Marine Corps. But I like to think I’ve learned from military history and people who did go to war about the tests for declaring war.

As laid out in previous columns, the tests should include these:

• From George H. W. Bush, a heroic veteran, have a clear set of objectives and an exit strategy, as he demonstrated in the first war in Iraq. Get in and get out. Nation building is not our objective, as George W. Bush articulated, but then violated as a policy.

• Don’t fight two wars at one time, a debilitating commitment that often proves fatal, as Napoleon and Hitler leaned in Russia.

• Don’t go to war unless attacked, as articulated by the late Lee Dreyfus, a Wisconsin governor and WWII veteran. Preemptive warfare should be engaged only in the face of a fully established and existential threat.

• Develop the full support of the majority of American citizens. That means Congressional approval.

• Develop an international alliance before engagement, as George H. W. did in Iraq I and George W. did only thinly in Iraq II.

• Enter a war only with overwhelming force – the Colin Powell doctrine. It’s about winning, not about a fair fight. That axiom includes enough troops to man the post-war occupation and orderly exit.

Finally, I would add: Beware of intellectuals and politicians who have never tasted the blood and steel of war. Rely instead on tested citizen leaders like Hagel, who will make pragmatic, not ideological, decisions about when to go to war.

I just finished reading Alan Axelrod’s “The Battle of Belleau Wood” in WW I when the American Army and a contingent of Marines stopped the German advance on Paris in 1918.
My father-in-law, Karl Icks, fought in that defining battle in another senseless, utterly unnecessary war. He was a 17-year old Marine and one of the few survivors in his company. He and his buddies won the highest French medal, the Croix de Guerre.

The young Marines and soldiers were cut down by German machine guns, artillery shells and poison gas like stalks of wheat before a reaper.

In all, 65 million men fought in that stupid war that solved nothing, and 8 million died. Egotistical politicians in Europe, blind to the horrors they were creating, got that war started.

Hagel is no perfect specimen, as his opponents during the confirmation process will assert, but his hard-nosed assessment of the trade-offs of potential wars would be a major asset for the country’s conduct of foreign policy.

He will also be a voice of reason as deficit cutting gets under way in full force in the next two months, and the Pentagon incurs fiscally necessary reductions. We aren’t paying for two wars anymore. Hagel needs to produce a peace dividend.

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