Stephen Kent

The nation will benefit from having a Secretary of Defense who, for the first time, is an infantry combat veteran and one who advocates a sharp reduction in the number of U.S. nuclear weapons. Each is a perspective that has been sorely lacking for years among those responsible for committing America’s soldiers to combat.

Chuck Hagel, a former senator from Nebraska, is President Barack Obama’s choice to head the Department of Defense.

His position on use of military force is shaped by his experience in Vietnam more than 40 years ago. Some disdain this as ancient history. However, for those who walked at the head of an infantry squad in Vietnam, the experience seems like yesterday.

Hagel volunteered for the Army in 1967. A few months later, he was in Vietnam. His brother Tom was assigned to the same unit. The two brothers saw some of the most intense fighting of 1967 and 1968. Their squad once hit a series of booby traps. Some men were killed, others wounded. Hagel was hit by shrapnel. On another mission, he was in an armored vehicle that hit a landmine. The vehicle blew up. Though wounded, Hagel pulled his brother to safety before the vehicle exploded.

Hagel returned from the war with two Purple Hearts, the Combat Infantryman Badge and a chest full of shrapnel.

Combat experience overlaid with a strong support for an international movement that favors eliminating all nuclear weapons are strong credentials for the person who heads the nation’s military.

Discussions of war, use of force and nuclear weapons often can be abstract.

“It’s not an abstract issue for someone who has been in combat. It may be abstract to civilians and to officers back in the rear echelon area. But to someone who has had to carry your dead friends and look at dead enemy soldiers, it’s not an abstract issue,” said Tim O’Brien, author of “The Things They Carried,” a Vietnam-era book. “It’s an issue that goes into your bones, and I hope it has gone into the bones of Mr. Hagel.”

Hagel’s position of nuclear disarmament parallels what the church has taught for years.

During the 2010 debate on a treaty to reduce the numbers of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons, Chicago Cardinal Francis W. George, then president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote: “The horribly destructive capacity of nuclear arms makes them disproportionate and indiscriminate weapons that endanger human life and dignity like no other armaments. Their use as a weapon of war is rejected in church teaching based on just war norms. Although we cannot anticipate every step on the path humanity must walk, we can point with moral clarity to a destination that moves beyond deterrence to a world free of the nuclear threat.”

While possession of a minimal nuclear capability may deter the use of nuclear weapons by others, the church urges that nuclear deterrence be replaced with concrete measures of disarmament based on dialogue and multilateral negotiation.

There have been conflicts between the present administration and church teaching. It is refreshing to find a highly placed nominee holding views consistent with our faith.

During his confirmation hearing, Hagel said: “I saw it from the bottom. I saw what happens. I saw the consequences and the suffering and horror of war.”

The view from the top has led the country into too many military misadventures. The view from the bottom is more welcome.


Kent is the retired editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle. Contact him at: