Chuck And Tom Hagel Saved Each Other's Lives In Vietnam. But They Came Home Divided

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"Our Year of War," by Daniel P. Bolger. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Our Year of War," by Daniel P. Bolger. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Brothers Chuck and Tom Hagel served together in an Army rifle platoon in Vietnam in 1968. They were each wounded several times and saved each other's lives on numerous occasions. But the two men came home divided over the war just as the country was. Chuck, who would go on to become a U.S. senator and later secretary of defense, believed in the war. Tom thought it was immoral.

The new book "Our Year Of War" by retired Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger tells their story. They join Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson to discuss the book.

Interview Highlights

On choosing to join the Army

Tom Hagel: "Our father, for example, was in World War II, and our uncles and extended family members, and in my mind it was a matter of, basically every generation has their war and it was our time. So you go in, you do what you need to do.

"I knew so little about it that I'm sure I didn't even have an opinion. It was war, the United States says that we have to go there and help out this one country. And I was so young, so unsophisticated, so uninformed that I really had no thought about the right or wrong, or the wisdom of the whole thing."

Chuck Hagel: "I think it was the same for me. I was two years older than Tom, I certainly was not any smarter. But you just did what you had to do. If the country said this was the right thing to do, you believed your country, you believed that you could make a difference. And you were expected to make a difference. So I think Tom said it exactly right."

On serving in the same rifle platoon, and looking out for one another

TH: "For me, it was ... I guess you'd call it split attention. Obviously, you're in the middle of something, you're worried about survival. But in the situation we were in, I was always keeping an eye out for Chuck. He was doing the same for me. In fact there's a number of times where we're literally side by side in firefights and whatever, hoping that first of all, nothing happens, and secondly, if something happens, it happens to you instead of him."

CH: "And I think also, at least for me — and I think Tom felt this way — that if something did happen to your brother, you were there and maybe you could give a little extra attention or a little extra help, or somehow maybe shield your brother from anything worse happening. And I think we both felt that way."

"The two of us that went in, two different people came out."

Tom Hagel

On the Hagels' story

Daniel P. Bolger: "I think the thing that it showed is something we all know, is the importance of family, and family is tied to the concept of service for both of these brothers — not only at the time of the Vietnam War, where they followed the example of their father and their other relatives that they mentioned, but also through the rest of their lives. I mean both these men have dedicated themselves to lives of public service. They carried that with them. And that's a great example, I know it's a great example to me, but I think it's also a reason why their story needs to be known."

On how their experience in Vietnam changed their view of the war

TH: "After a while, I started questioning what we were doing there and how we were doing it. I would for example see all of us in our unit head out to situations where we knew we were going to have contact with the enemy, and would be going over a bridge where the South Vietnamese soldiers would be sitting there or laying there in hammocks with their families just taking in the sun. And after a while it made me ask the question, 'Why are we taking the brunt of the responsibility of this war, when we have so many of these Vietnamese soldiers who seem to be holding back?'

"Then of course the rampant corruption over there — you could buy yourself out of the war if you were in the South Vietnamese army. It's legendary the corruption in the government, and all of that became known over time, and I think a lot of people had the same questions. I got to the point where I felt, 'Well, I'm torn here. I have my duties. These are my buddies, my brother, or my troops. I'm gonna do what I can to survive, No. 1 one for myself, but also for them. I owe them a duty, even though I hate what I'm doing and I don't believe anymore what I'm doing, but I gotta do it for them just so that hopefully all of us can get outta here,' because it just seemed like a hopeless task. We would go in for example and clear a village out of the Viet Cong, and then leave, and then two weeks later we'd go back in and do the same thing, over and over and over again. It was pointless."

CH: "I saw exactly what Tom saw, and I had strong feelings as well. He and I used to talk about it. But when you're in war, trying to save yourself and save each other, you don't let that other dimension that Tom has just noted overtake the obligation and responsibility you have at the time — essentially looking out for each other and your buddies.

"Where it hit me later on more and more vividly than at any time was when I listened to the tapes — that in fact, I think I first heard them on NPR back in the '90s — between [President Lyndon] Johnson and his generals and Secretary of Defense [Robert] McNamara and members of Congress, when it was clear that our leaders of our country were lying, and were deceiving the American people, and were costing thousands and thousands of lives in this senseless endeavor. And that's where I certainly turned in a new direction, and saw it then as vividly and clearly as Tom had seen it earlier."

On getting in a fight in the apartment they shared after returning home

TH: "I think that just shows you the depth of impact [the war] had on both of us. We believed so strongly, because quite frankly it was for both of us a life-changing experience. The two of us that went in, two different people came out. We felt so strongly, so deeply about this thing, and we had, for me, speaking for myself, I had so much anger and depression over the whole thing. It just was dealt with in the wrong way. Chuck had just as strong of feelings where he was coming from."

Book Excerpt: 'Our Year Of War'

By Daniel P. Bolger

Tom Hagel hated walking point. He disliked going first, breaking bush, knocking aside wet branches, stepping over fallen logs, slipping around leaning, mossy tree trunks, and all the while watching, listening, feeling, smelling, even tasting, seeking an enemy who knew exactly how to blend into the rotting woodwork. The Vietnamese jungle was greener than green, a riotous, enveloping ocean of foliage, the ground layer thick and tangled from the brown loam floor to a swaying mat of vegetation twice as high as Tom’s angular, spare six-foot frame. It made for tough slogging. And that was before somebody took a shot at you.

Tom’s head turned like a gun turret, slow and steady, listening and looking. He reached out, the long fingers on his left hand weaving through leaves and stems, just enough to push aside the abundant greenery. His right hand gripped the trigger region of his black M16 rifle. Eyes, ears, nose, and fingertips sought anything that did not belong there. An oddly broken branch. A Kalashnikov automatic rifle clicking from safe to fire. The sharp tang of human urine. A gleaming trip wire stretched like a garrote. Hagel had to stay alert for all of those telltale signs and dozens more. He had to do it despite the oppressive heat, the cloying humidity, and the pervading gloom. Not much sunshine filtered down through the soaring, thick tree canopy high above. In the fetid, tangled morass that choked the bottom of this rain forest, it was always dusk. Out there in the dim unending sea of vegetation, beyond sensing, lurked dangers past counting. Tom Hagel knew it only too well. There be monsters.

Yes, Tom Hagel hated walking point. But he was good at it. No—he was great at it. He kept his rifle company alive. He made sure they won their fights, because those sharp clashes usually started with him. Woe to the thing that did not belong. With one squeeze of his M16’s trigger, Hagel would level it: rock and roll, full auto, punching out an entire magazine of twenty hot bullets as fast you could snap your fingers. And that would usually do it. The old sergeants, the ones who carried out this brutal business and lived to tell of it, said that he who shot first and in force gained the edge in a murderous jungle ambush. Tom Hagel was all about that edge.

Yet Tom Hagel hated doing it. He detested the war with all his heart. It wasn’t just the dull ache of all combat soldiers in all wars, heartily sick of losing their friends, shaken by taking lives of strangers better left alone, and bone-tired from endless draining hours of hunting and being hunted. Tom Hagel’s disgust went beyond that. He considered the Vietnam War an abomination, an awful deviant strain far removed from America’s best instincts, a pointless bloody scrum on behalf of an utterly corrupt local ally. “It was wrong,” he said later, with characteristic bluntness. Still Tom Hagel walked point, and did it well. He did it not for the flag, nor for the cause, such as it was, but for the other American soldiers who counted on him. It fell to this nineteen-year-old to balance the urgent pressure from his captain to move steadily onward and his own hard-earned wisdom to take care with each step. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. That paradoxical phrase made no sense except to a battle-wary rifleman. Tom Hagel was one. The lives he saved would include his own, as well as those of his mates.

Those favored others started with the man right behind him. The green-clad, helmeted form stepped slowly, head down, checking his compass azimuth and consulting a folded, sweat-stained map sheet. That navigator wasn’t just keeping the long file of riflemen on track. He was also guiding Tom Hagel. Well he should. It was his older brother, Chuck. Sometimes Chuck went first and Tom plotted the course. They formed a really effective point team. Two brothers in the same rifle platoon, trading off at the most exposed post of peril—if Hollywood showed it in a movie, cynical audiences would snort and object, certain that such a thing didn’t happen anymore in modern warfare. The U.S. Army wouldn’t allow it. America’s mothers wouldn’t accept it. There were policies and procedures and safeguards to prevent some poor family from losing two sons in a single flashing grenade blast. It could never occur. Except it did for almost a year, the bloodiest stretch of the war, the awful year 1968. Out front, brothers Tom and Chuck Hagel just kept trudging along.

Chuck didn’t hate the war. He volunteered for it. He asked for the infantry, the most difficult, most dangerous, and most thankless of duties. Like Tom, Chuck grieved for lost comrades and found no pleasure in pulling the trigger. But he did it. “We had a job to do in Vietnam,” he said later. Chuck understood only too clearly that his brother had turned on the war effort. For his part, Tom knew Chuck still believed. Walking point together was their truce, their armistice, their way to set it aside day after day and night after night. Trying to stay alive rightly consumed their full attention.

Behind the intent brothers shuffled an extended conga line of sweating, stinking American soldiers. These dull-eyed, exhausted men had long ago learned to trust Tom and Chuck Hagel. They didn’t care which one supported the war or which one did not. They just hoped that those two guys out front kept the rifle company on the right route, avoided the booby traps, and got the drop on the bad guys. It would have been nice to see the sun now and then. But as the American infantrymen picked their way through the dim bottom reaches of the Vietnam jungle, the veterans had long since given up on that. In the depths of this endless tunnel of smothering vines, twisted tendrils, and rain-slick fronds, only a few rookies still expected to see the light.

Excerpted from Our Year of War: Two Brothers, Vietnam, and a Nation Divided by Daniel P. Bolger. Copyright ©2017. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

This article was originally published on November 10, 2017.

This segment aired on November 10, 2017.



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