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It's About Time That an Enlisted Man Ran the Military

As a writer of fiction, and a fellow veteran of the Vietnam War, I can't help but appreciate the deep symbolic meaning of President Obama's nomination of Chuck Hagel for defense secretary. Hagel will undoubtedly have an impact on the policies of the Pentagon if his nomination is confirmed by the Senate. But as the first former enlisted soldier to be nominated to run the military, Hagel could also signal less tangible, though equally profound, potential changes to the way the United States understands the requirements of national security.

The first change would be to the long-growing divide between the military and civilian leadership. Up until the 1990s, many political appointees and around half of Congress had served in the military and many of those had seen combat. Today, those with military service are a small minority and those with combat experience a handful. This leads to an increasing lack of understanding, and in some cases downright distrust, between our political and our military leaders. Those in the military are often frustrated by civilian lack of understanding of what they do and what is required to accomplish their goals. People without military experience are more prone to either opposing what they don’t understand or accepting blindly what a military leader proposes because they are overawed by rank and experience.

As a former enlisted soldier who earned two Purple Hearts leading an infantry squad in Vietnam as a sergeant (E-5), Hagel could upend this dynamic. Someone with combat experience can call bullshit on ill-conceived military action without fear of being called unpatriotic. (It would be really stupid to call a man with two purple hearts unpatriotic.) Combat veterans can also call bullshit on self-serving generals and admirals without being vulnerable to “trust us, we’re the experts” or intimidated by rank and experience. In return, professional military people are probably far more inclined to talk turkey with someone who has experienced what they have.

Such trust is absolutely critical when the policy in question involves killing or maiming our nation’s youth as well as innocent civilians caught up in the ensuing war. Being a veteran does not necessarily make one pro-war, or anti-war. In most cases, it makes one anti-stupid war. The only member of Parliament who wept when Britain declared war on Germany in 1914 was Winston Churchill, one of the most combative political leaders of the last century, a man who had fought against the Pathans in the then British Crown Colony of India, who witnessed and participated in the horrific slaughter at the Battle of Omdurman, and the anguish of the Boer War. It was a career soldier, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who warned us against the now seemingly intractable conflict of interest faced by politicians who vote on our military budget, yet represent constituents and whole communities who earn their livings by manufacturing military equipment or serving local military bases. Chuck Hagel was part of a tiny minority of political leaders who spoke out against the war in Iraq, not because he’s a pacifist, but because he thought it was an ill-conceived use of force.

If Hagel, a Republican, is nominated by a Democratic president, this would also be a clear signal to the nation that decisions about military spending need to be bi-partisan. Certainly there is a guns-or-butter choice to be made, but debating expenditures on non-military programs primarily involves economic consequences for those who are affected. Debating expenditures on military programs involves the lives of those who are affected. It also involves the protection of all of us and our commonly held ideals. The two debates need to be approached with different attitudes. Congress should agree on the military budget separately and before debate on the rest of the budget can begin.

Finally, if nominated and confirmed, Chuck Hagel will be the first former enlisted soldier, as opposed to a former military officer, to become Secretary of Defense. Hopefully, this would spur the military to reconsider—and, ideally, eliminate—many of the arbitrary status distinctions that exist between commissioned officers and enlisted personnel. These are the remnants of a time when class structure was rigid and those in the upper classes assumed their right to command, qualified by birth. Current arbitrary social distinctions—such as enlisted personnel not being able to go to the same clubs or live in the same neighborhoods as officers—hampers informal communication and the effective employment of the more flattened management structures needed to respond to rapid change. They also contribute to resentment and misunderstanding.

I’m not suggesting that Hagel consider the elimination of all hierarchies in the military. But I do think that as a former enlisted soldier he is uniquely qualified to understand how the current system negatively impacts those of lower rank and overall unit cohesiveness. Where other Pentagon leaders have seen a military tradition, Hagel may feel compelled to consider solutions. One easy way to improve unit cohesiveness, for example, would be if all military personnel entered the military through the same boot camp of their individual branch of service. Only after a couple of years of experiencing military life in the lower ranks, would individuals be selected to attend our military academies and other current paths to a commission (such as ROTC or Officer Candidate School). Those seeking commissions will be more connected to those who they will later command–and vice versa. They would have a better understanding of military life and their choice of military occupational specialty before committing themselves to a military career. This would reduce the significant costs of people leaving after years of expensive training. Two years of additional maturity wouldn’t hurt, either.

These problems have been with us a long time. With Hagel's nomination, the public can be hopeful that we will finally solve them.

Karl Marlantes is the author of Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War and What It Is Like to Go to War. He served as a Marine infantry platoon commander in Vietnam where he was awarded the Navy Cross, Bronze Star, and two Purple Hearts.