Sunday January 13, 2013

The Eagle has received many letters to the editor about guns and gun laws since the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut a month ago, and ideally the continued focus on this issue in the county reflects a national determination not to allow this tragedy to fade into history as have so many mass shootings before it. It’s significant that many of the most passionate and well-reasoned letters about the need for tougher gun regulations have come from area veterans. Those who have served in the military know of what they speak when it comes to both weapons and war.

For those who have been in the military, guns are more than theoretical. Their reality goes beyond the parsings of the Second Amendment. Those who have fired weapons in combat or have only been trained on them know of their destructive impact. They realize they were designed and built with a specific purpose, and that does not include hunting or protection from a burglar. Military style assault weapons designed to butcher within seconds don’t have a place in civilian society and simply wanting one is not a sufficient reason for having one. Americans do have an entitlement mentality, and that sense of entitlement is not an argument against acting to protect society from clear hazards -- whether that is secondhand smoke, drunk drivers, or hand-held killing machines.

Veterans also tend to be skeptical about entering wars because, as is the case with guns, their destructiveness is tangible. Those who have fought overseas are more likely to see the realism of war clearly, unclouded by jingoism and movie-style heroism. For this reason, two of President Obama’s appointments to significant cabinet posts make it unlikely that America will embark upon any foreign misadventures in the next four years.

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, soon to become U.S. secretary of state, is a decorated Vietnam veteran who first attracted attention nationally for opposing the war. Former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, the nominee for secretary of defense, is a decorated Vietnam veteran who remained supportive of the war until its end but came to acknowledge its failings.

The senators, perhaps caught up in post-9/11 frenzy, voted to authorize the Iraq War in 2002, but Senator Kerry, a Democrat, later said he had mistakenly believed the Bush administration’s faulty intelligence on Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Senator Hagel in 2005 became the first Republican to break with his party on the war, declaring that "We’re locked into a bogged-down problem, not dissimilar to where we were in Vietnam." They both opposed the Bush administration troop surge of 2007 and became powerful advocates for foreign diplomacy.

There are Vietnam veterans in Congress who are military hawks, like Republican U.S. Senator John McCain, whose support of the Iraq War long past its expiration date was a product of wishful thinking. But Washington’s Iraq war hawks tend to be of the chicken hawk variety, like tough-talking former Vice President Dick Cheney, who when given the opportunity to fight in Vietnam as did Senators Kerry and Hagel used six deferments to stay out of the rice paddies. Anyone as eager to send young Americans to war as was Mr. Cheney should at least have availed himself of the experience of war himself.

"Having served with valor in Vietnam, he understands that we have a responsibility to use American power wisely, especially our military power," said President Obama last month in nominating Senator Kerry for secretary of state. "And he knows, from personal experience, that when we send our troops into harm’s way, we must give them the sound strategy, a clear mission, and the resources that they need to get the job done." While the president has not heeded his own words of wisdom in his Afghanistan policy, that description also applies to Mr. Hagel, who knows well the lessons of Vietnam and Iraq. On war and weapons, veterans like John Kerry and Chuck Hagel can speak from hard-won experience.