WASHINGTON — For the first time in U.S. history, two Vietnam veterans might be running key government departments. Congress has just confirmed Senator John Kerry as secretary of state, and on Thursday, confirmation hearings start for former Senator Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama's choice for secretary of defense.
Larry Varr stands at the Vietnam War Memorial and reflects on the comrades he left behind. “See, there’s two of my friends on that wall right there,” he said.
Those names are just a few among the thousands of the fallen at the Vietnam War Memorial. Varr spent a year in Vietnam as an Air Force sergeant and then as a prisoner of war. That same year, Hagel was an infantry squad leader. Kerry was a Navy lieutenant who later became an outspoken opponent of the war.
Some vets now view Vietnam as an unnecessary war. Varr said the Vietnam experience may affect Kerry and Hagel.
“It was the biggest life-learning lesson there was, as things can go... if you do things right or how things can go if you don’t do them right,” he said.
“I was in school in North Carolina when dad was over there,” said David Kroepsch, who along with his family are visiting the war memorial before burying his father at Arlington National Cemetery.
His father served a year in Vietnam. David, also a veteran, spoke about Kerry and Hagel.
“Both of them are likely to be more careful about committing the nation to a path of warfare, based on their experiences," he said. "I think they’ll be more conservative, as opposed to hawkish, but in a good way.”
Kerry and Hagel’s military views are said to mirror the president's. Some analysts say that leaves little room for constructive debate.
"I do worry about group think," said James Carafano, a retired Army officer, who now works with the Heritage Foundation.
“I do worry about people who see the world too similarly marching off into the future just because they’ve got these kinds of blinders on as to things that don’t fit with their world view,” he said.
Anthony Cordesman - now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies - has worked for past secretaries of defense, and said Kerry and Hagel's views are shaped by more recent conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans.
“It’s not going to be philosophy here, it’s going to be a very cold, hard, military analysis of relative risk. This is something the president is capable of and certainly both senators are capable of,” said Cordesman.
Kerry breezed through his confirmation for secretary of state. Hagel is expected to have a tougher path to confirmation.