In an interview at the height of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf was asked if the burden of command weighed heavily on him as he ordered troops into harm's way.
He replied that in the evening, while lying on his cot and looking at the ceiling, he was comforted in the knowledge that there were thousands of leaders making decisions and watching his back every day. "We call them sergeants," he said.
The sincerest of compliments from a commander who clearly appreciated the value and the wisdom of those on the front-lines who carrying out the orders from above.
Last week, President Barack Obama took a page from Schwarzkopf's command book, announcing that he was appointing a sergeant to oversee the nation's Armed Forces — former Nebraska Republican senator, and decorated Vietnam combat veteran, Chuck Hagel.
Hagel, if confirmed by the Senate, will become the first ever enlisted veteran — an ex-Army sergeant — to serve as secretary of defense, and the first Vietnam veteran. We think Schwarzkopf, a Vietnam veteran himself who died just weeks ago, would have approved.
Hagel is a controversial figure among some Democrats and Republicans because of past comments criticizing the Iraq War, gays in the military and suggestions of lukewarm support of Israel. And on some of those finer points, we, too, disagree with some of those statements and positions.
But foreign policy decisions are not the purview of the defense secretary, and public policy decisions related to the military are ultimately made by the commander in chief. The role of the defense secretary is to advise, recommend and carry out the orders from above. On those points, we believe Hagel is eminently qualified for the position.
But just as important, and maybe more, we find Hagel's sense of duty to our nation, and his deep commitment and understanding of the responsibility to the troops who will serve under his leadership, to be the strongest character traits that one can hope to find in a defense secretary.
Copyright The Norwich (Conn.) Bulletin. Distributed by The Associated Press.