It can be tempting, if you are not a Washington insider or intimate, to put the Chuck Hagel business out of mind. Or try, anyway. He did so badly in the confirmation hearings that, as Stephen Hayes writes, “any senator who takes the advise-and-consent role seriously had to have real concerns about [Hagel’s] basic competence.” Still, presidents are entitled to appoint the people they want, you think, even when they are, manifestly, not the best possible choice or even up to the job. The republic has survived a lot of bad cabinet officers who, like Hagel, had baggage. And like them, he will serve and then move on. As will the country. It isn’t the Supreme Court, you think. It’s not for life.

But, then, this is not just any old cabinet post. Hagel will not be running the Department of Commerce. He will be the secretary of defense. The history of this post is not a roll call of political hacks but of very large and sometimes tragic figures, some of whom the nation is fortunate to have survived.

To reassure skeptical senators, Mr. Hagel said, near the end of his confirmation hearings, “I won’t be in a policy making position.”

But he will be. And if history is a guide, he might be something more.

The first secretary of defense killed himself and left behind, as a suicide note, hand written verses from Sophocles’ Ajax.

Far from thy dear, remembered rocks,

Worn by the waste of time–

Comfortless, nameless, hopeless save

In the dark prospect of the yawning grave....

Woe to the mother in her close of day,

Woe to her desolate heart and temples gray,

When she shall hear

Her loved one’s story whispered in her ear!

“Woe, woe!’ will be the cry–

A controversial figure to this day, James Forrestal was undeniably ground down by the hard bureaucratic struggles that followed World War Two and were fought over the size and shape of the nation’s defenses. Forrestal wanted more money for defense and a stronger Navy. He lost these battles and he made merciless enemies, to include the columnist Drew Pearson. He was a patient at Bethesda Naval Hospital, suffering from what was politely called “exhaustion,” after President Truman had asked for and accepted his resignation, when he jumped to his death.

Forrestal was the first and his ordeal by far the grimmest of any who have held the job. But others have also had it very hard. The longest serving secretary of defense was Robert McNamara. He arrived in Washington as the brightest on John Kennedy’s team of New Frontiersmen. He would bring a new way – a tough, analytical way – of doing things to the Pentagon. His legacy, when he left, was Vietnam, which was to many minds not Johnson’s War but McNamara’s. He was guilty of mismanagement; the one thing none would have expected and which he, himself, would have thought unimaginable and unforgivable. He was ruined and it was impossible for most to feel any sympathy for him in his disgrace.

Donald Rumsfeld held the job twice, served almost as long as McNamara, and left with his reputation almost as tattered. He came to the Pentagon eager to challenge all the old assumptions. He was, for a time, a darling of the media. He had helped rescue people trapped in the Pentagon after the September 11th attack. He had orchestrated the quick takedown of Iraq and Saddam Hussein. And then, things went bad and he could not at first acknowledge it or then come up with an answer. As the conquest of Iraq turned trended toward catastrophe, some of the senior officers he had challenged – not to say bullied – began publicly to blame him and call for his resignation. And eventually, after being asked by President George W. Bush, he offered it.

Rumsfeld, like McNamara, had most certainly been in what Chuck Hagel calls “a policy making position.” And, in fact, that phrase doesn’t do full justice to just how influential those men were. They shaped war-fighting doctrine by the weapons they chose to develop and procure and the senior officers they chose to promote.

Chuck Hagel, if he is confirmed, will almost certainly be responsible for managing a decline in the nation’s military capabilities. That decline is already underway. Leon Panetta, the current secretary of defense, is on the record here and says that things will only get worse – and, perhaps, much worse – if the budget sequester goes through. The Navy has already cut back from two aircraft carrier groups to just one in the Persian Gulf. The administration has made public its intention to shift the nation’s military focus to the Pacific where China is rising and behaving aggressively, if not belligerently. The Pentagon is in the early process of executing this shift, moving Marines to Australia. The Marine Corps, meanwhile, has announced a force reduction of some 20,000 personnel.

Another secretary of defense was faced with managing similar cutbacks in troops and equipment. Louis Johnson followed James Forrestal in the post and made himself the instrument of President Truman’s desire to unify the services and cut defense spending rapidly and deeply. This included stripping the Marine Corps to bare bone, a policy adopted as much out of pique as from any strategic considerations. Truman hated the Marines.

There was doctrine, however, in support of most of the actions Johnson took, including cancellation of a new aircraft carrier for the Navy. In the future, the nation would rely on the atom bomb and air power. Johnson put it to one admiral this way:

Admiral, the Navy is on its way out. There’s no reason for having a Navy and a Marine Corps. … amphibious operations are a thing of the past. We’ll never have any more amphibious operations. That does away with the Marine Corps. And the Air Force can do anything the Navy can do, so that does away with the Navy.

Then, North Korea launched an invasion of the South and pushed badly equipped, prepared, and trained U.S. and Republic of Korea forces into the Pusan perimeter. The line was augmented by strikes flown from a couple of Navy carriers that were still operational. And, a few weeks later, the Marines conducted an amphibious operation at Inchon that led to a rout of the North Korean army. By then, Truman had accepted Johnson’s resignation and replaced him with a solider, General George C. Marshall. Among Johnson’s last acts as secretary was to request from Congress a supplemental defense appropriation equal to almost 80 percent of the amount already budgeted.

Other than that, he was a failure. He was the president’s choice and a bad one.

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