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Rubin & Cohen: No Soldiers Need Apply
Neocons denigrate Chuck Hagel's military service, when it's exactly what the Pentagon needs.
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The effort to derail the nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense has marshaled every possible argument against him, including claims that his “temperament” is wrong and that he cannot possibly manage such a large bureaucracy because he has no experience doing so. As almost no one has Pentagon-management experience until he actually starts doing it, that is an argument that does not admit any rejoinder.

More recently, however, critics have taken to characterizing Hagel’s strengths as weaknesses. One of the most unusual pieces to take that line was an op-ed in The Washington Post by leading neoconservative Eliot A. Cohen, “Hagel’s military service is a scant qualification for defense secretary,” which was then essentially replayed by Jennifer Rubin on her Post blog as “Old soldiers don’t make for good Pentagon chiefs,” lest anyone miss the point.

The Washington Post blasted the nomination of Hagel even before he was named in a lead editorial on Dec. 18, “Chuck Hagel is not the right choice for defense secretary,” that curiously argued that the former Republican senator was too out of the “mainstream” for confirmation because of his belief that the Pentagon is “bloated” and his unwillingness to use force as a first resort rather diplomacy. Cohen and Rubin continue the character assassination. For Cohen, Hagel’s problem is a case of flawed lessons learned in a bygone age of warfare with an army composed of feckless conscripts. For Rubin, it’s a plan to shrink the military and leave America defenseless, and what she imagines to be Hagel’s politically incorrect thoughtcrimes. She explores Hagel’s views about gays in the service and asks, “What does he think of women in combat?” She then provides her own authoritative answer–untroubled by her apparent ignorance of the fact that most combat Military Occupational Specialties are still barred to women–“It is likely colored by an obsolete vision of combat.”

Cohen argues that Hagel’s wartime service as an enlisted infantryman in Vietnam, where he was wounded twice, should be considered irrelevant or even a defect: “What is it, precisely, that one would bring by service as a sergeant in a war more than 40 years past? … It was an important, even searing, life experience, no doubt. But the technology, strategy, tactics and organization now are all utterly different.”

And what does Cohen know about combat? Well, he was an ardent supporter of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and is a hawk regarding Iran, calling for regime change and a preemptive strike by Washington and Israel to destroy that nation’s nuclear facilities. A protégé of fellow academic and Pentagon number two Paul Wolfowitz, he was appointed a senior adviser to Condoleezza Rice when she was at the State Department during the second term of George W. Bush. Like most other neoconservatives, Eliot Cohen has never actually served in the United States armed forces.

Rubin, the Post’s resident “conservative” blogger, also lacks any direct connection with the military and was one of the first to denounce Hagel for “his rank prejudice against American Jews” even before he had been nominated. Echoing Cohen, she maintains that Hagel and President Barack Obama together are “using Hagel’s service as cover for doing real damage to our national security.”

Neoconservatives characteristically idolize the military, but they have little real grasp of how it works, and they seem to have little insight into how human beings suffer and die in war, something Hagel intimately understands. Cohen intones, absurdly, “Does combat service uniquely produce empathy with the troops, an awareness of the horrors of wounds and violent death? Visits to a military hospital will bring one to that.” If Cohen truly believes that losing a leg and visiting someone who has lost a leg are analogous, he has been spending far too much time in academia and hanging around the seventh floor of the State Department sipping lattes.

Nor do Cohen and Rubin appreciate that in the military, as in any large bureaucracy, there is a management point of view and an employee point of view. The officer corps is the management level and the enlisted men correspond to the employees. Or, to put it another way, the officers make the sausage and the enlisted men are what goes into the casing. The higher an officer rises in the military the more detached he is from war-fighting and the more he is engaged in selling a product and managing an organization. Most officers aspire to get promoted as fast as they can after having their ticket punched with a combat command, and many are happy to get away from the drudgery of leading a platoon or company. Some avoid combat assignments altogether. Neither the recently retired Gen. David Petraeus nor the current army chief of staff, Ray Odierno, ever led troops in battle.

This means that officers and enlisted men frequently see war and the policies that produce war in completely different ways. As a former enlisted man myself who has experienced what Cohen dismisses as the Big Green Machine of the Vietnam War, I would far more readily trust the assessment of a war situation from the point of view of a sergeant on the ground in II-Corps than that of a serial liar like General William Westmoreland back in Saigon. The sergeants knew the war was unwinnable long before the generals did. In fact, the generals never admitted it, insisting to this day that their valiant effort was stabbed in the back by the media. Rubin derides what she perceives as the administration’s class warfare in defending “the little guy in the military” by appointing Hagel and asks, “Don’t colonels and generals deserve someone to look after their interests as well?” Believe me, Jennifer, the senior officers are doing just fine.

Cohen and Rubin argue that Hagel’s upfront and personal experience of war is a liability because it will make him less willing to send soldiers and sailors into harm’s way, a claim that might be made against any combat veteran, and which is utterly implausible in the event of the U.S. truly being threatened. But a little more skepticism about the use of force at other times would be a blessing. Ask the families of the 6,000-plus young Americans who have died over the past 11 years in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. The lessons of Vietnam apply today, Cohen and Rubin’s encouragement of more wars of choice notwithstanding. The denigration of a man like Hagel, who has actually been there and done it, by chair-bound Washington pundits recalls Shakespeare’s admonition that such folks should “hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Chuck Hagel, Neocons 
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  1. Clint says:

    Cohen’s a founding member of the Project for the New American Century, which became known as a center for prominent neoconservatives.

    Cohen’s one more coat holding neoconservative,who never served.

  2. A M U S T A N G at the top?! As the son of a mustang officer, I think that is great.

  3. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    According to The Jewish Soldier Foundation, a group which provides advocacy and support for Jewish military personnel, there are only about 1,500 self identified Jews in the U.S. Army (the largest branch of the U.S. military), out of a total of about 500,000 active Army person2nel.

  4. Neoconservatives[sic] regard the military the same way they regard the gardener, the baby-sitter and the cook, soulless menials of little worth and intelligence, hired and fired to do tasks too far beneath their exalted selves.

  5. The Israel lobby at work…

  6. Anonymous • Disclaimer says: • Website

    While I find Cohen’s diatribe against Hagel every bit as ridiculous as you do, in point of fact he served in uniform, albeit in a limited fashion. Back in the 1980s he was a USAR officer assigned to ONA at OSD … Just about the cushiest Reserve job imaginable and a far cry from infantry combat, yet service of a sort.

  7. Jim Bovard says: • Website

    Excellent piece, Phil. It is bizarre how deluded the arguments against Hagel have become.

  8. Cliff says:

    Right effin’ on. Chuck Hagel will, I trust and hope, treat enlisted people with respect, and that will be a major change in the way we run the military. I was in boot camp during the Mayaguez incident, when the lives of Marines were thrown away like cannon fodder, and we didn’t even bring out our dead. That has colored my view of the Pentagon ever since. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are just the Mayaguez writ large. Enough of that! Give ’em hell, Chuck!

  9. Phil — excellent analysis. The fact the Cohen was partially responsible for the protracted crack-up in Iraq is enough to make one gag when he speaks so condescendingly of Hagel’s Vietnam service. Yet when it was convenient, Cohen didn’t mind using his son’s Iraq service to bolster his own credibility in arguing for FOR more war. Let’s see what Cohen has to say when his son runs for office, or is up for a big government job someday.

  10. I dont think an anti-military approach is going to win over that many conservatives. All it will do is allow the Democrats to own the mantle of Military Security.

  11. Ted says:

    This is a terrific post, full of good information and spot-on judgments. But, please, don’t try to discourage the neocons from bloviating in this particular line. The administration has handed them a gilt-edged invitation to make barking fools of themselves over Hagel, and they have accepted with relish. What a bunch.

  12. Going to war makes one appreciate just how nasty and awful war is.

    Can’t have that in the Pentagon.

  13. Adam says:

    We need more veterans serving in public office, not less. The neocon parasites listed in this piece are exactly the reason why. They like to wrap themselves in the flag but have not one shred of understanding in regards to honor and service.

  14. Majumder says:

    It appears that these are the Christian Senators such as McCain and Graham who are opposing Sen. Hagel’s nomination.

    Because, Senators such as Boxer, Schumer and Feinstein who are not only Jewish by religion, but are also supporting Sen. Hagel’s nomination.

  15. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    These jack-in-the-box reappearances by Cohen and Rubin are not just tiresome, they’re inexplicable. Utterly discredited, both of them, and a lot of people are tired of maintaining the pretense that they are citizens in the same sense as the rest of us.

  16. Jack says:

    Excellent article. It’s time that we call out these inexperienced pundits. That’s all Rubin and Cohen seem to be — pundits.

  17. collin says:

    This ‘Swift Boating’ is really lame and maybe they can use argument against Kerry. Having actual experience as foot troop obviously does not make him qualified but it does seem like ‘Recommend qualification’ to Secretary Of Defense.

  18. Bugg says:

    Ironic that these two never made such a charge when a naval aviator, Donald Rumsfeld, so served. Nothing is so fungible for neocons as their standards.

  19. While, I am not excited about Nominee Hagel’s nomination for reason’s totally unrelated to his service.

    It is more than disappointing that his fellow conservatives would challenge his integrity and public service with nary a complaint until now.

  20. CK says:

    “What is it, precisely, that one would bring by service as a sergeant in a war more than 40 years past? … It was an important, even searing, life experience, no doubt. But the technology, strategy, tactics and organization now are all utterly different.”

    1. Since Sun Tzu, not much has really changed.

    2. He knows how the idiotic bureaucracy impacts the people down the chain of command. He understands what it means to the men on the ground when some defense contract procures garbage for the field. And most importantly, he’s not from the rear-area, nor from the Navy nor Air Force. In other words, as a grunt, he probably has little to no respect for the pork barrel projects that are bankrupting the nation, which is a major reason why his nomination is hysterically opposed.

  21. Nick K. says:

    Great piece. The excerpts from Cohen and Rubin are so outlandish that one wonders if they were written in jest. Of course, one knows better.

    Is being a chickenhawk so deeply ingrained in neocon culture that they have such a strong knee-jerk reaction to the idea of a real veteran running the Department of Defense? It is a glaring inconsistency in their already hobbled thought that neocons idolize the military- more accurately, fetishize it- but hold a combat vet in such disdain. Of course this is circling the wagons for them: they fetishize the military, over-stating its capabilities when it is convenient to them, reenforcing their worldview and machtpolitik, but disdaining someone with real war experience because that experience would be inconvenient to that same worldview. That is, the veteran will most likely not share the fantasist conception of war that neocons do.

    On a separate note: does anyone know of any neocon pundits or public “intellectuals” who have any real service record, or one with experience in a war, let alone one who has actually been in combat? It seems that there is a positive correlation between lack of military experience and the fantasy-prone neocon.

    Anyway, as an army veteran of a neocon war (Iraq, two tours) I really appreciate the takedowns of neoconservatism that I find on this site, primarily the excellent ones by Kelley Vlahos and the ones from you, Mr. Giraldi. You people give voice to the anger that so many of us vets feel toward these chickenhawks, but that we cannot voice in any important way. Keep up the good work, keep providing an antidote to the neocon fantasy.

  22. Phil, your Roman ancestors were wise in this regard. Under the Republic, it was impossible to raise in elected service without having served in the legions. The entire Cursis Honoram made sure that you could never become a Consul unless you had served in the legions, overseen some infrastructure and been a magistrate.

    If I could enact any constitutional amendment, the adoption of such a mandatory career path would be it. Neither our President or the Neocons would flourish in such a practical, healthy system of advancement in which successful service rather than facile BS is rewarded.

  23. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Even though I vehemently opposed the President’s re-election, I thought two good things may come of it. His nomination of Hagel for SecDef is one of the good things to clean house at the Puzzle Palace.

    My only compliant with the majority of TAC online commenters is, what conservatives do you folks actually like?

    For the last month, all we’ve heard is how stupid the economic conservatives are for fighting against higher taxes for anyone.

    This month, all we’ve heard is how stupid the national security conservatives are for fighting against the nomination of Hagel to preside over the shrinking of the MIC.

    So that’s two out of the three legs of the old conservative coalition, when are you going to abandon the social conservatives and become The American Liberal instead of The Disaffected Republican?

  24. J Harlan says:

    Whether Hagel served or not is largely irrelevant. What is far more important is the whether he will cut waste and unnecessary activities and capabilities in DOD. The US needs a strong administrator to preside over deep cuts in defence over the next four years. What’s needed is a man who can call the militaries bluff. A skilled manager may be able to avoid some of the traps the military will prepare for him. Being an enlisted man 40 years ago is not preparation for standing up to the Pentagon.

  25. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Hagel’s service is quite relevant. As a former combat decorated NCO, the guy has the stones to know what works and what doesn’t.

    The *chicken-hawks* never had their own asses on the line – it’s much easier when it is someone else.

  26. Max says:

    Thank the Lord – Someone has called the NeoConservatives on their outrageous bullsh*t!!

    How you can denigrate a decorated combat veteran by questioning their ability to streamline and lead the Defense department is totally idiotic and shameful.

    Someone else here has also pointed this out: Have any of these NeoCon War Lovers ever actually served in the military and seen combat? Have they ever experienced first hand what it’s like to see your buddies die or to actually kill someone yourself?

    I mean if they are going to be Israel-first, can’t they get any spokesmen who actually served in the IDF and seen combat there? There are US citizens who have served in the IDF – but I bet that having seen war up-close, they are not inclined to see it as a valiant, glorious affair rather than a grim, bloody, terrifying experience.

  27. Anonymous • Disclaimer says: • Website

    Hagel warned Bush that the U.S. can not win a war of attrition in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Nobody else has offered such wise advise while neocons have sought to use American blood and treasure to reshape the entire planet for Israel and oil.

  28. With reservations I’ll endorse Hagel. But those reservations – he’s a politician – certainly aren’t that he’s a grunt. IS. Like it just goes away.

    However Sir: “The officer corps is the management level and the enlisted men correspond to the employees. Or, to put it another way, the officers make the sausage and the enlisted men are what goes into the casing.” Now. I’ve been both and actually ended enlisted [Iraq 06/07] and you are being rather too harsh on the Officers. Plenty of them are sausage. Plenty. You’re drawing a bit of a false dichotomy.

    And as for becoming General without leading troops in combat – there should be no promotion Officer or Enlisted without Blood. No Rank without Blood. Which means nothing more than it has to be REAL to them to make rank. Otherwise as some of us know it’s a game for many.

  29. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Thank you Mr. Giraldi.

    There’s nothing quite like direct experience with the true costs of war to make one pause before making the most important of all governmental decisions.

  30. In truth, we need more people making policy who served in ground combat, or at least close to it. Truman and Eisenhower were our last two Presidents whose service wasn’t in the Navy (JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Bush I) or air force (Reagan, Bush II). That’s one reason I favored Bob Dole when he ran against Bush I for the GOP nomination in 1988.

  31. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    @max – “…when are you going to abandon the social conservatives and become The American Liberal instead of The Disaffected Republican?”

    That won’t happen. We’re American conservatives. That means paying just debts (which in the very short run could mean more tax), cutting government budgets, steering clear of foreign entanglements, and taking care of business and borders here at home, as the Founders and Constitution prescribe.

    As to abandoning the social conservatives, I can’t really do that because I am one.

  32. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    I knew Eliot Cohen as a fellow grad student at Harvard’s Government Dept. The late Samuel Huntington was his patron until he couldn’t stand the duplicity of Cohen anymore …. ’82?

    Harvey Mansfield once called a “Mossadist” at a luncheon …and Cohen didn’t seem to mind at all!!!

  33. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Phil, please find answer to this question.
    In 1973 during israel war with Arabia was Nixon told by beautiful Golda Meir that if USA did not re-supply israel, israel was gong to nuke the world with nuclear winter. I know the silos for Jerrico missles were open, Pat Buchanan has said that. When the Sampson Option is spoken of EVERY BODY DUMMIES UP; WHY?

  34. Anoldmarine, Just to be clear, Mansfield called Cohen a Mossadist? Where can I find this? Not doubting you but would love to see this in print or on video.

  35. aegis says:

    “Even though I vehemently opposed the President’s re-election, I thought two good things may come of it. His nomination of Hagel for SecDef is one of the good things to clean house at the Puzzle Palace.

    My only compliant with the majority of TAC online commenters is, what conservatives do you folks actually like?

    For the last month, all we’ve heard is how stupid the economic conservatives are for fighting against higher taxes for anyone.

    This month, all we’ve heard is how stupid the national security conservatives are for fighting against the nomination of Hagel to preside over the shrinking of the MIC.

    So that’s two out of the three legs of the old conservative coalition, when are you going to abandon the social conservatives and become The American Liberal instead of The Disaffected Republican?”

    I think that the whole point of this publication is that it is a mistake to conflate “conservatism” with whatever ideological factions make up the Republican party at any moment in time.

    The writers on this site criticize what you call ” national security conservatives” precisely because they aren’t conservative–or at a minimum, they don’t have an exclusive claim on the title. Likewise–though I imagine others might differ with me on this–with so-called “economic conservatives” that would deign threaten the creditworthiness of the United States.

  36. Reggie says:

    Keep targeting the enemy. We need to reach the amount of people that the washington post and new york times does.

  37. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Personally, I think that Hagel would make a great Sec/Def–his firm belief that war should only be undertaken as a last resort fits perfectly with the Catholic theory of the Just War. But you guys are being a bit unfair about my friend Eliot Cohen: He was in the Army Reserve, and his son served honorably in Iraq–so he has far more personal contact with the military than almost any of the other neo-cons. Yes, he is mistaken about Hagel being Sec/Def–but he has a much more serious grasp of the realities of military service than almost any of the other neo-cons. Take care!! Sincerely, Respectfully and In Christ, Ernest Evans

  38. aegis says:

    Just as an adendum to my previous post, there is a dynamic at play in our politics that arises from the nature of our system of two semi-institutional political parties.

    The two major parties are electoral coalitions first and foremost, and only secondarily about any sort of ideological coherence. The Republicans are, and have been for at least the last 40 years, the “conservative” party, so factions within the Republican party all call themselves conservatives. But it has never been clear to me whether their claim to be conservatives arises from anything deeper than their belonging to the electoral coalition that, at that moment in time, makes up the Republican party. Likewise, their exclusion of others from the “conservative” title often goes no deeper than the fact that those excluded are currently not in the Republican electoral coalition.

    The bit about being electoral coalitions first-and-foremost can also be said of the Democratic party, but the Democrats don’t embrace any one ideological label (liberal, progressive, what-have-you) the way the Republicans have claimed the term “conservative.”

  39. These “neoconservatives” never served in the military, period; and, as such, have no right whatsoever to deny any war veteran – in this case, Chuck Hagel – to serve as Defense Secretary.

    Mr. Hagel served in Vietnam and was awarded TWO purple hearts for having been injured in two separate battles. Now, has any so-called “neoconservative” ever served even one day; been awarded even one medal for meritorious service? Of course not, since they are COWARDS.

  40. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Too many people have had their lives wasted by illegitimate character assassination for just voicing a truthful observation. When will this form of mind-control also become a hate crime? Hagel for Defense.

  41. Strider55 says:

    @ SC Birdflyte: Uh, Reagan couldn’t have been in the Air Force, since it didn’t become a separate branch until 1947 (hence the “MCMXLVII” on its seal). Before that, the “air force” was part of the Army. So Reagan was Army.

  42. The confirmation of Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary is inevitable. Obama only needs 60 yes votes in the Senate. Jennifer Rubin and Eliot Cohen used nonsensical arguments to attempt to advance their case against Chuck Hagel. Jennifer Rubin propounds the idea that Chuck Hagel would look after enlisted men but not colonels and generals. That is too funny!! I like the part in this essay where Philip Giraldi quotes Eliot Cohen as writing “Does combat service uniquely provide empathy with the troops,an awareness of the horrors of wounds and violent death?” The answer to that question Eliot Cohen is a resounding yes. Another astute piece of writing from Mr. Giraldi

  43. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    CURSUS HONORUM, indeed.

  44. Strider, you are technically correct, also because Bush II was in the Texas Air National Guard, not the U.S. Air Force (except when he was in pilot training). However, my father and uncle were both AAF veterans in World War II and their loyalties were with the air force, not the army.

  45. Mr. Giraldi,
    I like your defense of Chuck Hagel but not your acceptance of the left’s claim that Vietnam was unwinnable. Media panic and misinterpretation of Tet transformed that crushing defeat of the North into a loss for us; the war was certainly winnable then; and I’m sure you know Pat Buchanan himself said the war was winnable .

    And yes, by all means, trust those sergeants over the generals – but Marine Corps general Lew Walt early on advocated small unit tactics and staying close to the people – emulating the communists’ “grab their belts to fight them” rule rather than big sweeps and living on firebases. Either this type of warfare, or the conventional interdiction of the lines of supply from Laos and North Viet Nam would have won, but were never tried, to say nothing of the failure to press our advantage after the Tet rout.

  46. I agree that it is simply baffling that the same people who were so eager to go into Iraq, and have continued to press for more war, more war, more war, are now somehow against having a combat veteran as Secretary of Defense. Clearly, merely having served in ground combat as a non-com is not enough to qualify you as SecDef. But it sure adds some clout to your resume, having been at the pointy end of the bureaucratic colossus. Because combat is the point of the whole thing, after all. And as for his reticence to committing more troops to more wars – Hagel is not unwilling to do so. He simply is not eager. Which is refreshing.

    But right or wrong, as ERnest says, Eliot Cohen at least had a lot more skin in the game than most. I served with his son for a time in Iraq. Blonde, blue eyed Jewish kid with a Harvard degree, he sort of stood out from the crowd. The senior Cohen also did his own short peace-time stint in the Reserves.

  47. And the military hasn’t changed that much in 4 decades. The bureaucracy certainly hasn’t. And some of the planes ferrying troops around combat zones today are the self same ones that saw service in Vietnam.

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