The Best Defense

What Hagel took away from the Army: His NCOs were better than his officers, and it's the 'little guys' who suffer

As defense secretary, Charles Hagel is likely to be particularly attuned to the needs of enlisted soldiers and skeptical of the demands of senior officers. That's my takeaway from reading the transcript of an oral history interview he gave to the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress. Sure, he was in Vietnam 45 years ago -- but he made these statements in 2002.

"The people in Washington make the policy, but it's the little guys who come back in the body bags," he said near the end of the interview.

He also came away from Vietnam underwhelmed by his senior leaders. Here's an extended comment about that:

I was not much impressed with our -- our battalion leaders, our XOs. I don't -- I didn't ever get a sense that they came down in, enough into the platoon company level to really do what I thought officers should do. And the lieutenants and the captains carried the bulk, as they do in any war, essentially. But it was the sergeants. It was the senior enlisted that carried the weight. I mean really carried the weight. And it was obvious to everybody. And they -- the senior sergeants were the reassuring, calming guys. And in many cases, many cases, these were the guys that didn't fall apart. And some of the officers did. And some of the officers couldn't read maps very well. And I just -- I never had much confidence in -- in a lot of the officer corps. Now, there were exceptions to that. Some exceptional officers that I saw and I served with.

It is also striking how the Army he served in differs from today's. In 1968, Hagel had been in the Army less than two years, yet for a short time after the Tet Offensive, he served as "acting company sergeant." That's a green force.

Other stuff that struck me:

  • He saw the system of individual rotation of soldiers causing a lot of problems.
  • He spent a lot of time walking point.
  • He saw PTSD in his own family. "I remember my father, when I was young -- he was in World War II overseas for almost three years. I remember him waking up in the middle of the night screaming....And it happens not just because of necessarily the blood and gore that you see in combat. It's the -- it's the pressure of the mental process that -- that makes you that way."
  • General Westmoreland's brother-in-law, Lt. Col. Frederick Van Deusen, briefly was his battalion commander before being killed. (In one three month period, he comments, "we had three battalion commanders killed").
  • He still has some shrapnel in his chest.

Charles T. Hagel (AFC/2001/001/2230), Photographs (PH02), photographer unknown, Veterans History Project Collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

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