IT was a Frank Capra story with a Vietnam War twist. In 1968, a 21-year-old squad leader was riding shotgun on an armored personnel carrier when the Vietcong detonated a land mine. The soldier was on fire, his face a bubbling mass, his eardrums shattered and bleeding. Yet he instinctively reached for the unconscious 19-year-old turret gunner caught in the burning steel cage.
Frantically, he pulled out his comrade, who lay comatose, blood pouring out of his ears. The squad leader tugged at the dead weight and managed to throw him off, jumping down to shield him before the vehicle blew up. Later, at the field hospital, the squad leader asked about the soldier he had brought in, who only months before had saved him when he was felled by flying shrapnel.
“Your brother is alive,” the medic said, “on the bunk next to you.” In an amazing fluke, Chuck Hagel and his brother Tom fought side by side in a unit of 12. At times, because of casualties, the squad was reduced to just the two brothers and four other men. Now Mr. Hagel, a Republican former senator from Nebraska whom President Obama has nominated to be secretary of defense, faces another battle — as a maverick who was once a foot soldier in the conservative Congressional ranks. Attacks have come from hawkish former colleagues, pro-Israel advocates angered that Mr. Hagel once referred to them as “the Jewish lobby,” and gays offended by a 1998 reference to an ambassadorial nominee as “openly, aggressively gay,” a comment for which Mr. Hagel recently apologized.
When the brothers returned from Vietnam, Chuck with two purple hearts and Tom with three purple hearts and a bronze star, they came to blows over the war. Their arguments dramatized the divisions that tore America apart. Tom, who became a liberal Democrat and law professor, called it a rotten, immoral war, while Chuck countered that it was a noble cause gone wrong. Tom once told me, “Till the day I die I will be ashamed I fought in that war.” Chuck said that as he lay near death, remembering the squad mates who had been ripped in half by land mines, he vowed “in my whole life, if there is anything I do, it’s going to be to try to stop wars.” At Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies, Chuck was often the lone man who dared to say, “there is no glory in war.”
The brothers finally came together, after Senator Hagel criticized President George W. Bush’s post-9/11 Patriot Act, warrantless wiretaps and the Iraq war. “There’s been a sea change,” Tom said, happily, as his brother voted with Democrats in 2007 to link war financing with a timetable for bringing the troops home. “I felt after four years it had gotten worse in every measure,” Chuck explained. “We cannot stay as an occupying force in the Middle East, which is essentially what we are.” Which, of course, is one reason the far right is gunning for him, along with the Israel lobby. In 2007, Senator Hagel made light of being called a “defector” and “defeatist.” As a war survivor, he has seen far worse skirmishes than the ones on Capitol Hill, but has privately expressed astonishment at the vicious attempt at character assassination this time around.
Mr. Hagel would be the first enlisted combat veteran to be defense secretary, a grunt who has seen war from the trenches. Others who have plunged America into war — like the former defense secretaries Robert S. McNamara and Donald H. Rumsfeld, both former officers — had never fought in combat.
As I discovered in researching a book, Chuck Hagel had dreams of glory from the start. As an adolescent, he signed a letter he wrote to a relative, “Senator Hagel.” His father, also named Charles, a World War II tail gunner in the Pacific, was a hit in V.F.W. and American Legion halls, but took his family down a drunken road that led to a shrinking income, in smaller and smaller towns. Chuck started working at age 7, delivering papers, and at age 11 had to drive the car when his mother went to collect his father at the bars, propping him up on the passenger seat as they rode home.
Mr. Hagel learned to get along as an easy charmer and prodigious but affable self-promoter. He is well-liked by journalists. Colleagues think him an all-around good guy who sees all sides, speaks his mind and is not afraid to make enemies, as he has of Mitch McConnell, now the Republican Senate minority leader. In 1998, as a freshman, Mr. Hagel unsuccessfully challenged Mr. McConnell, of Kentucky, for leadership of a Republican senatorial campaign committee.
Mr. Hagel does hilarious impersonations but is humble about his past. When he began in the cellphone business, where he made a fortune, the field was so new that at parties, friends would stare blankly when he described his work. He would take off a shoe and hold it to his ear and say, “In 10 years everyone is going to be going around with phones stuck to their ears.” At a party after he was elected to the Senate, he gave a mock prayer: “Give me wings to get straight to the point.” Everyone who had ever heard his long-winded diatribes groaned in recognition.
No doubt some armchair militarists on the Hill — many of whom ducked Vietnam — will question whether combat experience has much to do with running the Pentagon. It would be a travesty if they defeated Mr. Hagel. His experience has taught him the physical and mental toll of combat. He would surely think twice before sending young men and women into unnecessary, stupid or unwinnable conflicts. This is a strength, not a weakness. One thing I know: Chuck Hagel will stand up to whatever is thrown at him.
Myra MacPherson, a journalist, is the author of “Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation.”