Iraq: Friends at War

War itself is a foreign concept to many solons of Capitol Hill; a small number--perhaps as few as 25 out of 535--have come under fire in combat. John McCain and Chuck Hagel are obvious and visible exceptions. McCain, a Republican from Arizona, was a Navy bomber pilot, shot down and imprisoned by the North Vietnamese for five and a half years. He has, he sometimes says, "more scars than Frankenstein." Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, was an Army grunt in Vietnam who won two Purple Hearts and still has shrapnel in his chest. Both men have seen the face of war up close. But on the question of the Iraq war, they are almost mirror opposites.

Hagel is "obsessed" with the war in Iraq, says his brother Tom, who served with him in Vietnam. "You can't have a conversation with him without this coming up." During Christmas, Hagel looked "markedly older and grayer than when I saw him this summer down at the beach," says Tom. In an interview with NEWSWEEK last week, Hagel teared up when he began talking about a Purple Heart ceremony he had attended in August in Lincoln, Neb. "You're sitting there thinking, Was this a waste?" said Hagel, who voted for the original congressional resolution backing the war despite raising serious doubts about whether the invasion made sense. He added, somewhat uncomfortably, that at times he wonders whether he has done enough to try to stop the war.

Hagel is not pushing for "Out Now." But he is almost angrily dismissive of the idea of sending an additional 10,000 to 20,000 troops to Iraq. "Are we going to pacify Baghdad?" he asks. "Are we going to break the militia's stronghold? Are we going to use these troops to propel or force a settlement between the Shias and the Sunnis? What's the objective of it? I will guarantee that there's going to be a lot more American casualties. And there's going to be a lot more animosity by the Iraqis." The idea that the Iraqis will respond only to more troops, he says, is "complete folly, unless you're going to kill all the Iraqis."

McCain, by contrast, was almost dispassionate when he told a NEWSWEEK reporter that he wishes to expand the war in Iraq. His attitude was coolly self-assured. "All of us establish records," he says about his repeated calls for more troops in Iraq. "If I was wrong in the beginning, my credibility might be somewhat less now." McCain suggests that the Bush administration, now scrambling to find enough fresh troops to "surge" in Iraq, should have listened to him all along. "I hate to sound so 'I told you so,' but I've been saying we've got to have a larger Army and Marine Corps for a long, long time." McCain can sound a little matter-of-fact about sending young people off to combat, but he marches to a different drummer than most Americans. His 18-year-old son Jimmy, a newly enlisted Marine, may soon be deployed to Iraq, the fourth-generation McCain to go to war.

Hagel and McCain are likely to be increasingly prominent spokesmen for their opposing views on Iraq. McCain is almost surely running for the Republican nomination for president, and Hagel has often been mentioned as a candidate, though he says he has yet to decide if he is running. Both men will be heard from early and often as the debate on Iraq moves to Capitol Hill this winter. As an institution, Congress has by and large taken a pass on the war, voting on a resolution in favor at the outset, but ever since shying away from using the legislative power of the purse or oversight authority. The November elections, by bestowing power on the Democrats, may embolden Congress. This week Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Joseph Biden of Delaware, an outspoken critic of the war, will hold the first of many confrontational hearings that will keep Bush's war cabinet trooping up the Hill to defend the president and his policies for weeks, and probably months, to come.

The president seems determined to defy his detractors, not to mention popular opinion. This week Bush is expect-ed to announce a "New Way Forward" on Iraq that will call for more troops to try to bring order and political stability to Baghdad. (There has been some uprooting in his own administration, with White House counsel Harriet Miers eased out, presumably for a tougher fighter in the congressional wars ahead; National Intelligence Director John Negroponte resigned to become the deputy secretary of State, for his Iraq experience and to keep an eye on North Korea and Iran, and Gen. David Petraeus, a much-admired Airborne vet with a Princeton Ph.D., was named to run the Iraq war on the ground.) To Bush's many critics, like Hagel, the new Iraq strategy adds up to a waste of more American lives. To Bush's smaller and dwindling band of supporters, like McCain, failure in Iraq is unthinkable. And if duty requires more sacrifice, then so be it.

A senior Bush aide, who declined to be named discussing internal White House strategy, tells NEWSWEEK that the president's way-forward plan will be a middle-road approach that falls somewhere between McCain's and Hagel's positions. He will call for a staggered troop increase based on benchmarks for the Iraqis' performance. Bush hopes to avoid the failures of previous security plans designed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. This time, unlike in past sweeps of Baghdad, Iraqi troops need to fulfill the basic obligation of reporting for duty. There can be no "no go" areas based on sectarian lines and no political interference in security operations. "You literally had a situation where Iraqi security forces would get a call on their cell phone from a politician saying, 'Don't do that, don't go after so-and-so'," the aide says.

Who's right--McCain or Hagel? One way to understand the debate is to examine how two outspoken war veterans have called upon their experiences in Vietnam to wind up in completely different places on Iraq. McCain and Hagel are friends, members of a small, tight fraternity of lawmakers who have been bloodied by war. McCain teas-ingly calls Hagel "Sarge," and Hagel once gave McCain the seat of an A-4 bomber--the same type of seat McCain was flying in when he broke his arms ejecting from a burning plane over North Vietnam. But when Hagel is asked about their split on Iraq now, his face tightens. McCain, like Hagel, glosses over any discussion of the private debate that has raged between the two men, though he admits it "divides friends."

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is close to both men (but sides with McCain on the war), lays out the basic differences between them. "Chuck believes the war in Iraq has deflected from the war on terror, that it was a war of choice," says Graham. "John sees Iraq more like Bush, in that he sees it as the central front on the war on terror, and it was unavoidable."

When McCain and Hagel argue about the Iraq war, says a mutual friend who did not wish to be identified discussing their private conversations, both men often invoke Vietnam. After their own wartime service, each man read deeply about the history of the Vietnam War but reached different conclusions about its meaning. While Hagel hammers away at the similarities between Iraq and Vietnam, McCain often begins sentences by saying, "Unlike Vietnam ... " In one recent chat, says the source, McCain challenged Hagel by arguing that the North Vietnamese were no threat "to our shores," whereas "the people we are finding in Iraq are."

The two men saw the war from sharply different angles. Chuck Hagel "walked point" with an infantry company near the Cambodian border in some of the worst fighting in 1967 and '68. His brother Tom often went on patrol with him (the brothers circumvented an Army rule that bars family members from serving in combat together). "I don't know how many times we would be assigned to go out for a search-and-destroy mission," Tom recalls, "and we'd pass South Vietnamese villages with South Vietnamese soldiers lying around sleeping in hammocks. They're doing easy duty while we were out doing the hard part." The lesson to the Hagel brothers was obvious: "You cannot win somebody else's independence," says Tom. "They have to do it for themselves."

Ground-pounder Tom says that while he respects McCain's service, the bomber pilot could not have known what reality was like down in the jungle: "He was up in the air at 10,000 feet. He never saw the consequences of those bombs." (Tom is a Democrat who's tussled with his brother on partisan politics.) McCain acknowledges that different perspectives can produce different outlooks on the war. He brings up one of Hagel and McCain's mutual friends, Gen. Colin Powell, whose Vietnam service bred a strong reluctance to intervene in a foreign conflict without overwhelming force and a clear exit strategy--the so-called Powell Doctrine. "One of the most impactful experiences of Colin's life was holding a dying soldier in his arms in the battlefield in Vietnam," says McCain. "I can see how that would have a very significant impression on him."

McCain does acknowledge one key difference between him and Hagel. "I know Chuck Hagel came home from the war to a very hostile environment in America," says McCain. (Returning GIs were sometimes jeered and even spat upon in airports; they learned to change quickly into civilian clothes.) By the time McCain was released from captivity in 1973, however, "the POWs came home to a welcoming America," says McCain. "We were the only heroes of the Vietnam War." McCain has played the hero ever since, usually with self-deprecating charm. He's unafraid to call for the sacrifices he was willing to make himself; Hagel just wanted the Vietnam War to end, and now he wants to limit what he sees as needless sacrifice in Iraq.

The differences between Hagel and McCain transcend their war experiences. Hagel is the classic citizen-soldier, in a tradition that goes back to George Washington and to ancient times. The ideal is the Roman general Cincinnatus, who left his prosperous farm to rescue the Roman republic--but then returned to domestic life when the fighting was done. Hagel was a draftee who was sent to Germany by the Army but volunteered for duty in Vietnam. When he came home, he made money as an investment banker (and learned something about dealmaking and compromise) before running for Congress in 1996.

McCain, by contrast, is an American samurai, a member of a profes-sional warrior caste. It is revealing that when the young McCain contemplated dropping out of the U.S. Naval Academy in the late 1950s, it wasn't to become Joe College and drink beer. He thought of enlisting in the French Foreign Legion. (McCain's eldest son, 20-year-old Jack--John S. McCain IV--is in his second year at Annapolis.) McCain's book, "Faith of My Fathers," begins with the scene of his grandfather, Adm. John (Slew) McCain, torn by existential angst as he sat in his cabin on an aircraft carrier awaiting Japan's final capitulation in World War II. "Well, this surrender has come as a kind of a shock to all of us," McCain tells a fellow officer. "I feel lost. I don't know what to do. I know how to fight, but now I don't know whether I know how to relax or not. I'm in an awful letdown." Admiral McCain died of a heart attack less than a week later.

McCain himself turned down early release from the Hanoi Hilton because he did not want to get special treatment: his father, John S. McCain Jr., a sub captain in World War II, was by this time commander of the Pacific Fleet. Though McCain contemplated suicide, he decided torture was better than letting down his forebears. For McCain, nothing is worse than defeat in battle. He concedes that a surge in Iraq will impose "a terrific strain" on the military but warns that the alternative is a disaster. "There's only one thing worse," he says, "and that's a defeated Army. I saw a defeated Army and Marine Corps in 1973 and it took us a long, long time to rebuild. Because when armies are defeated, it's not just a matériel problem, it's a morale problem."

Hagel has a long, sad face, one side of which was seared by the flash of an exploding enemy mine almost four decades ago. But he is almost gleeful when he talks about the coming debate on Iraq. He thinks Congress will awaken from its passivity and begin questioning how Bush is spending blood and treasure on Iraq. "The administration is going to be forced to come up and explain, 'Where is the money going?' " says Hagel. He rejects the notion that the newly Democratic-controlled Congress will shy away from cutting off at least some of the funding for the war. (The somewhat cynical view on Capitol Hill is that the Democrats will let Bush have the money--and also the responsibility for a failed policy.) He foresees Congress's agreeing to pay for existing force levels--but not to send more troops. The White House, he says, can no longer bully Republican members into submission. "The Republican Party has to go through an election next year, the president doesn't," says Hagel. "There are a lot of Republicans in this conference that are very scared."

McCain, needless to say, is not one of them. He plans to push back. The president is often asked, he notes, what will happen if the surge fails. "I think it's fair to ask my friends who want withdrawal, what's their Plan B?" says McCain, who does not include Hagel in the cut-and-run crowd. "What is their scenario as to how we handle the ensuing chaos that will be almost impossible to avoid?" McCain was at once smiling and seething. (When McCain says "my friend" to a "single, luckless individual ... through clenched teeth and frozen smile," notes Todd Purdum in the new Vanity Fair, it "means McCain is ready to blow.") Both McCain and Hagel are clearly girding for battle. For these two men, the fighting is never really over.

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