The Common Good

Angry Senators Afraid of Debate

It was the biggest story inside the Beltway. Since last Thursday’s hearing, the whole Washington media machine has been discussing and dissecting the extraordinary confrontation in the Senate Armed Service Committee regarding the potential confirmation of former Sen. Chuck Hagel as the new Secretary of Defense. Several Republican senators were extremely combative with the combat veteran who earned two Purple Hearts for his wounds in Vietnam. Hagel deserves another Purple Heart for the wounds his former “friends” and party members tried to inflict upon him. Hagel didn’t really defend his views — which were both caricatured and attacked by his adversaries — perhaps on White House advice not risk further debates before being confirmed.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Senate Armed Services Committee during former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel's confirmation hearing. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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But I think Hagel’s views and the important questions he has raised about current U.S. wars and military policy deserve defending and, indeed, should become the subjects of a national debate. So I wrote a piece about one of Hagel’s most hostile questioners who insisted the possible new Secretary answer the simple question of whether the surge in Iraq was “right” or “wrong.” I said it was wrong, as was the war in Iraq, as was the war in Vietnam, as are the views of John McCain on war throughout his entire political career; and how the nation has been wounded by McCain’s and others’ “theology of war.

Chuck Hagel’s views could lead us to a necessary national debate if he becomes the new leader of the Pentagon. And it is that potential debate that Hagel’s critics are so afraid to have.

Chuck Hagel is the first soldier of enlisted rank to ever be nominated as Secretary of Defense. Think about that. As an Army Sergeant, Hegal says he saw war from “the bottom up.” That is very different from the “top down” view of war that has always characterized the Pentagon and the military leaders who have sent so many young men and women to the bottom of so many horrible conflicts. Hagel says he wants to make absolutely sure that a projected war is worthy of the lives of American young men and women.

Those wars of occupation have clearly failed — as more and more Americans believe — and they have caused such terrible destruction and suffering for so many American families, and the countless innocents from other countries who have perished in our wars. Isn’t it time to seriously debate wars like these?

Just today, my wife and I talked about the pain of a fourth-grade teacher in our son’s school who lost her son in Afghanistan last summer. We all know or have heard the stories of children who have lost one of their parents or at least precious time with them, or the wives and husbands who have lost their beloved inunnecessary wars. This is a national tragedy it is time to morally debate. When we see all the ads and stories about our “wounded warriors” and all the suffering they now need to overcome, can we start to ask about the decisions and decision-makers who sent them? War looks far different from the bottom up than it does from the top down; and that is exactly the change we need.

This possible future Secretary of Defense also thinks there is Pentagon spending that should and could be cut; and he wants to distinguish between genuine national defense and the business of war — including the political pork of massive military expenditures. In raising those critical questions, Hagel sounds like another Republican and war veteran who warned America about the growing “military industrial complex” when he left the office of the U.S. presidency —General Dwight Eisenhower. But the military contractors who control much of our foreign policy are trying to prevent that debate. They don’t want Hagel either.

Then there were all the attacks on Hagel about U.S. policy toward Israel, even with charges of “anti-Semitism.” But why can’t we debate the policies of the State of Israel, their expanding settlements, their treatment of Palestinians, and how the door is closing on the possibility of a genuine two-state solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians? Are we only critical of Hamas rocket attacks? A new generation of Jewish leaders in the U. S. and in Israel is entering that debate — along with people of every faith who are unequivocally opposed to terrorism in all its forms but believe that many of our current military and foreign policy assumptions are actually making those threats worse.

Then there was the problem of Iran. Why is the idea of engaging our enemies dismissed as naïve and indefensible, and why again are military solutions believed to be the most effective in the end? If “containment” was our policy with the Soviet Union over several decades, why should it be completely rejected now?  Should we have gone to nuclear war with the Russians during the Cuban Missile Crisis? We better have a national debate before starting or supporting another war in Iran.

The questions that a decorated foot soldier and former senator has asked raise the possibility of a new national debate about United States foreign and military policy. The president’s appointment of Hagel suggests he thinks such debate is healthy. I believe a majority of Americans, who are very weary of our failed war policies, are also ready for that debate. And that is what the Senators and supporters of our old policies are so angry with Hagel about. They are afraid of the debate that our nation needs to have.

It’s time to confirm Chuck Hagel. It’s time to have the debate.

Jim Wallis is the author of the forthcoming book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good and CEO of SojournersFollow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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