Between them, Senator John Kerry and Chuck Hagel have five Purple Hearts for wounds suffered in Vietnam, shared a harrowing combat experience in the Mekong Delta and responded in different ways to the conflict that tore their generation apart. But in nominating one as secretary of state and the other as defense secretary, President Obama hopes to bring to his administration two veterans with the same sensibility about the futilities of war.
Mr. Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who is the president's choice for the State Department, came home from commanding a Swift boat in Vietnam to throw away his military decorations in a protest at the Capitol, accuse American troops of systematic atrocities and tell the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
Mr. Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska who is the nominee for the Pentagon, returned home thinking of the war as justified and did his best to put it behind him. "I wanted a life," he later said. Mr. Hagel eventually turned against the leadership of the war -- "I can't fathom that this country would allow something like that to happen, 16,000 young men killed in one year," he told Vietnam magazine, a history publication, in October -- but not its warriors. Today he is the chairman of the Pentagon's advisory group for commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.
Supporters of Mr. Kerry and Mr. Hagel say that despite their different responses, their combat experience has had the same effect, making them question the price of American involvement overseas.
"I have some pretty strong feelings that those who have been to war are the best to keep us out of it," said Max Cleland, a former Democratic senator from Georgia who lost three of his limbs fighting in Vietnam. "They have felt the wounds of war, physically, mentally and emotionally. They bring to the table all that they need to bring, and that is that wars are disastrous."
To Mr. Obama, the lessons both took from combat were crucial in his decision to name them. "Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction," the president said on Monday as he announced his selection of Mr. Hagel. "He understands that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud, that's something we only do when it's absolutely necessary." In announcing his nomination of Mr. Kerry last month, Mr. Obama said that "having served with valor in Vietnam, he understands that we have a responsibility to use American power wisely, especially our military power."
If confirmed, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Hagel would be among the very few Vietnam veterans to reach the top of the national security hierarchy. (Colin L. Powell, a former secretary of state and national security adviser, served two tours in Vietnam.) Mr. Hagel would be the first person of enlisted rank to run the Pentagon, which Mr. Obama called "historic."
If confirmed, both Mr. Hagel and Mr. Kerry will be in close sync with a White House that is almost certain to push for a more rapid withdrawal of the remaining 66,000 American troops in Afghanistan than the military command would like. "The reason we are losing Afghanistan is that it wasn't ours to win or lose," Mr. Hagel told Vietnam magazine. He added: "After 10 years in Afghanistan, what are we going to have when we get out? What have we done here?"
Like Mr. Kerry, Mr. Hagel voted for the resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq but became an early opponent of the Bush administration's execution of the war.
Friends say it is fitting that Mr. Hagel, who was awarded two Purple Hearts, is in line to run the Pentagon, while Mr. Kerry, who was awarded a Silver Star and a Bronze Star, as well as three Purple Hearts, is headed for the State Department. "They sort of ended up where you'd think they'd end up," said Jan C. Scruggs, the founder and president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, who knows both men.
In 1971 testimony at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on Vietnam, Mr. Kerry heatedly told of American servicemen who "raped, cut off ears, cut off heads" and committed many other atrocities. He later said he regretted some of his language that day, and it came to haunt him as the Democratic nominee for president in 2004 when a group of Swift Boat veterans, still outraged by his remarks, tried to undercut his military record.
"Kerry turned against the military as an institution in a way that Hagel never did," said Christopher Gelpi, a professor at Duke University who has studied the attitudes of military leaders on how and when wars should be fought. "My view is that the whole Swift Boating thing was unfair, but it reflected a level of animosity between him and the military that was left over."
Mr. Hagel, Dr. Gelpi said, has been more typical of veterans who became disillusioned with the war because of the decisions made by political leaders.
Mr. Hagel, 66, arrived in Vietnam as an Army infantryman in December 1967 and soon was serving near the Cambodian border in the same infantry squad as his younger brother Tom. In March 1968, the squad hit a tripwire in the jungle that set off a huge mine, sending body parts flying and shrapnel into Chuck Hagel's chest. Tom Hagel stanched the bleeding and bandaged his brother, a favor Chuck returned in April, when the brothers' troop carrier, with Tom in the turret, hit another mine.
Mr. Hagel worked frantically to pull his unconscious brother from the wreckage, knowing that the carrier might soon explode. Both brothers' eardrums were blown out, Mr. Hagel's face was badly burned, and the two were taken by medevac to a field hospital.
Over the decades, Mr. Hagel's support for the war began to fade, but what changed him most, he has said, was hearing taped telephone calls, made public in the 1990s, of President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 confiding that he saw the war as pointless. "The dishonesty of it was astounding -- criminal, really," Mr. Hagel said in 2007. Ultimately, Vietnam powerfully influenced his opinions about war.
"I'm not a pacifist, I believe in using force, but only after following a very careful decision-making process," Mr. Hagel told Vietnam magazine. "The night Tom and I were medevaced out of that village in April 1968, I told myself: If I ever get out of this and I'm ever in a position to influence policy, I will do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war."
Mr. Kerry, 69, arrived in Vietnam as a Navy lieutenant in November 1968 and soon was commanding a Swift boat, a 50-foot aluminum patrol craft. The boats chugged up the rivers of the Mekong Delta in aggressive nighttime incursions to destroy Vietcong outposts and disrupt supply lines.
A few months later, in an engagement for which he won the Silver Star, Mr. Kerry beached his boat in a firefight, chased a teenage Vietcong fighter who had aimed a rocket launcher at the crew and "shot him while he fled," according to the official after-action report. In a 2004 interview about his conduct in combat, Mr. Kerry said, "Anybody who tells you they're not scared in combat is not telling you the truth." Two weeks after the firefight, Mr. Kerry rescued an Army Special Forces lieutenant who had been thrown out of a nearby boat. For that he was awarded the Bronze Star.
"You don't want a bunch of people whose only understanding of war is from some issue paper," Mr. Cleland said. "John and Chuck have the same jaundiced view of jumping into war when we don't need to be there."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.