Chuck Hagel is, by his own admission, haunted by Vietnam. When asked to explain his early opposition to George W. Bush's 2003 Iraq invasion in an interview in 2011, the former Nebraska senator harked back to his experience as an Army private fighting the Tet offensive in 1968. That maverick stance cost Hagel his reputation as a leading Republican, and it may be one reason why President Obama is now considering him as his next Defense secretary, with Leon Panetta set to retire. "We sent home almost 16,000 body bags that year," Hagel told me. "And I always thought to myself, 'If I get through this, if I have the opportunity to influence anyone, I owe it to those guys to never let this happen again to the country.' "
When Obama mounted a Bush-like "surge" in Afghanistan in 2009, Hagel wasn't happy either. "I'm not sure we know what the hell we are doing in Afghanistan," Hagel told me in 2010. "It's not sustainable at all. I think we're marking time as we slaughter more young people." Hagel had also opposed the surge in Iraq. In a dramatic moment on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2007, Hagel implored his fellow Republicans to stop avoiding the truth about what he called the futile "grinder" of Iraq, and asked them not to send in more troops. "Don't hide anymore; none of us!" Hagel declared, raising his voice. Although several Republicans expressed misgivings, in the end only Hagel voted in favor of the nonbinding resolution.