If former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., is nominated and approved as the next defense secretary he’ll have one thing going into that job that few of his predecessors of the last 60 years have had: combat experience.
Caspar Weinberger, the defense secretary under Ronald Reagan, and Elliot Richardson, appointed by Richard Nixon, were the last two Pentagon bosses who experienced combat wearing a U.S. military uniform.
Weinberger served with the 41st Infantry Division during World War II. He began as an Army enlisted man, reportedly fighting in the jungles of New Guinea, but ended the war as an officer on the staff of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Richardson, a Boston-born and Harvard educated son of a surgeon and Harvard professor, served as an officer with the 4th ID’, landing on Normandy on D-Day and fighting his way off Utah Beach. He served until the war’s end.
Most of those who served as Secretary of Defense since the job was created in 1949 had little or no military experience. Most of those who did served in peacetime or held administrative jobs.
Hagel was an enlisted man in Vietnam, a non-commissioned officer with the 9th Infantry Division. In a 2007 interview with the New York Times he described experiences Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans would recognize: people with explosives tied to their bodies; a sniper killing an officer near him with a single head-shot; and a solder sheared in half by a mine.
As a senator he raised the ire of those eager to invade Iraq. In that same interview with the Times, he explained that his Vietnam experience affected his view of the Iraq War and how it was sold.
As a Vietnam vet, he said he “was part of, I think, the forgotten group of people in all wars — that is, the person at the bottom who is expected to fight and die and has very little to say in policy, even tactics.” Hagel closely studied the Vietnam War to include listening to tapes declassified in the 1990s of President Johnson.
“The dishonesty of it was astounding — criminal, really,” Hagel told the Times. “I came to the conclusion that they used those people, used our young people. So I am very careful, especially now. We’d better ask all the tough questions. This [Bush] administration dismissed every tough question we asked. We were assured, ‘We know what we’re doing.’ That’s what they said in Vietnam.”
Frank Carlucci, who succeeded Weinberger in 1987, was in the Navy from 1952 to 1954, but spent the bulk of his career with the State Department and the CIA. Richard Cheney, who led the DoD from 1989 to 1992 under the first President Bush before becoming the vice president to the second Bush and leading the charge for the Iraq War, had no military experience.
In fact, Cheney secured a series of draft deferments during the Vietnam War and later famously justified his avoidance of military service because he “had other priorities.”
Les Aspin, appointed DoD boss by President Bill Clinton, served in the Army from 1966 to 1968 but was assigned to the Pentagon.
William Perry, who Clinton put in to replace Aspin after only a year, served in Japan with the occupation force. He eventually earned a commission through ROTC and served as an Army officer from 1950 to 1955. Nothing in his biographies indicates he served in the Korean War.
For his next defense secretary, Clinton – like Obama now – needed someone with conservative credentials to satisfy GOP senators who would be confirming or rejecting his choice. He reached out to former Maine Sen. William Cohen, a Republican who had served on the Senate Armed Services Committee but never in the military.
Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush’s pick for Defense Secretary, had held the same job under President Gerald Ford. Rumsfeld was a Navy pilot from 1954 to 1957, and then continued in the Naval Reservist until retiring as a captain in 1989, according to the Defense Department.
Robert Gates, whose time at the Pentagon began under Bush and continued for more than two years under Obama, was an Air Force officer. He got his ROTC commission in 1967 under sponsorship of the CIA, where he would eventually spend a career after completing his military service as an intelligence officer with Strategic Air Command.
The man who now heads the Pentagon, Leon Panetta, also worked in military intelligence, serving as an Army officer from 1964 to 1966, said military experience such as Hegel has will give him a great amount of credibility, especially with the military.
Servicemembers like knowing that the person in charge has some military experience, says Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense for Manpower, Reserve Affairs and Installations during Reagan’s first term. He said he learned that first hand when negotiating retirement changes and more with senior leaders in the 1980s.
Once he learned Korb served in the Navy and continued in the Naval Reserve, his tone changed and he asked: “Why didn’t you say you were in the Navy?”
Discussions immediately became more fruitful, Korb said.
“You know the strengths, the weaknesses and the cultural norms of the military,” he said. “The military has written rules and unwritten rules, and it helps when you have to make decisions if you know what these are.”
“I think it makes a big difference [that Hagel is a combat veteran] because there is going to be discussion, maybe even disagreement, on the pace of withdrawal from Afghanistan, or if the war is even winnable,” Korb said. “He will be able to relate to that because of his experience.”
In Hagel’s case, whether the discussion is military pay and benefits or what it’s like to be wounded, Korb said Hagel can honestly say: “I know what you mean.”