Defense Nominee Hagel, How Will Witnessing Machine-Gunning of an Orphanage Affect Your Work at the Pentagon?
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It’s worth noting that the Hagel brothers left Vietnam just as their commanding general, Julian Ewell, launched a six-month operation in the Mekong Delta code-named Speedy Express. One whistleblowing veteran who served in that operation told the Army’s top generals that Ewell’s use of heavy firepower on the countryside resulted in a “ My Lai each month” (a reference, of course, to the one massacre most Americans know about, in which U.S. troops slaughtered more than 500 civilians, most of them women, children, and elderly men). That veteran’s shocking allegations were kept secret and a nascent inquiry into them was suppressed by the Pentagon.
A later Newsweek investigation would conclude that as many as 5,000 civilians were killed during Speedy Express. A secret internal military report, commissioned after Newsweek published its account, suggested that the magazine had offered a low-end estimate. The document, kept secret and then buried for decades, concluded:
“While there appears to be no means of determining the precise number of civilian casualties incurred by US forces during Operation Speedy Express, it would appear that the extent of these casualties was in fact substantial, and that a fairly solid case can be constructed to show that civilian casualties may have amounted to several thousand (between 5,000 and 7,000).”
During the war, efforts by U.S. senators to look into Speedy Express were thwarted by Pentagon officials. More than four decades later, no senator is ever going to launch an investigation into what actually happened or the Pentagon cover-up that kept the American people in the dark for decades. Theoretically, the Hagel hearings do offer the Senate a belated chance to ask a few pertinent questions about the Vietnam War and the real lessons it holds for today’s era of continuous conflict and for the civilians in distant lands who suffer from it. But any such hope is, we know, sure to die a quick death in that Senate hearing room.
Chuck Hagel’s views on the Vietnam War underwent a fundamental shift following the release of audio tapes of President Lyndon Johnson admitting, in 1964, that the war was unwinnable. That "cold political calculation" caused Hagel to vow that he would "never, ever remain silent when that kind of thinking put more American lives at risk in any conflict."
But what about lives other than those of Americans? What about children in shot-up orphanages or women who survive a murderous crossfire only to be gunned down in cold blood? Chuck Hagel may well be, as Mr. Obama contends, “the leader that our troops deserve.” But don’t the American people deserve a little honesty from that leader about the war that shaped him? In these few days, the senators considering his nomination have an opportunity, perhaps the last one available, to get some answers about a war whose realities, never quite faced here, continue to dog us so many decades later. It’s a shame that they are sure to pass it up in favor of the usual political theater.