BY MATT HUTCHINS
On February 5, the Washington Times published a letter submitted by three HLS students in defense of Dean Elena Kagan ’86 as a response to an op-ed written by Flagg K. Youngblood, a veteran and Yale alum. The students who stood up in Kagan’s defense, Geoff Orazem ’09, Hagan Scotten ’10, and Erik Swabb ’09, are all veterans of the Iraq war, and they are unanimous in their support of Kagan for the position of Solicitor General. When the Record caught up with these students, they agreed to discuss Dean Kagan and the other appointments and policy initiatives announced thus far by the Obama Administration.
The Youngblood op-ed accused Kagan of being an “anti-military zealot” and warned that in opposing the Solomon Amendment, which mandates equal access for military recruiters, Kagan had trampled the constitutional rights of students and disrespected the military. The veterans say that their letter was mainly prompted by the inflammatory language Youngblood used to disparage Kagan’s views toward the military.
Orazem, who served as a Marine Corps infantry officer in the invasion of Iraq, called the op-ed’s attacks a “low blow” and “unfounded.” Hagan Scotten, formerly a Captain in the Army Special Forces, agreed, saying, “He was just playing off of political stereotypes. Kagan has great respect for the military, and if anything she wants everyone to be allowed, regardless of whether they are openly gay.”
Dean Kagan’s annual dinners for veterans and the wives of servicemen have given Orazem, Scotten and Swabb an opportunity to gauge her views on the military. “The dinners were a unique opportunity to interact with Dean Kagan informally,” said Orazem. “She is a little intimidating, because she always has very intelligent, penetrating questions to ask.”
Orazem also noted that Kagan once shared an anecdote about a visit to Westpoint, when she was invited to speak about Constitutional issues. “She was very complimentary about the cadets, the discipline, the culture of respect, and the history of the institution.” Scotten agreed that Kagan is a very inquisitive individual and noted, “She will be an extraordinarily competent Solicitor General.”
After printing the letter from the veterans, the Washington Times subsequently printed another letter which responded to the veterans and reiterated Youngblood’s fears that Kagan would fight the Solomon Amendment and use her office to erode the preferred recruiting status of the military. The veterans noted that there are legitimate policy disagreements surrounding the Solomon Amendment and the efficacy of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy toward homosexuals.
Scotten and Swabb indicated that they believe the policy is not in the best interests of the military. “In a critical situation, if you have to choose between competence and sexuality, we know what we will choose,” said Swabb. Scotten agreed that the policy could ideally be eliminated, but said, “It is unlikely to change because of the political cost.”
Orazem, on the other hand, agrees with the military’s policy even as he concedes that it is in some ways irrational and counterproductive. “I think it’s a good compromise.” Swabb argues that as long as the policy continues it is unclear when the military will be “ready” to open its doors. He said that in light of the irresponsible conduct of many heterosexual soldiers, “The biggest threat to unit cohesion is probably not going to be its homosexual member.”
The veterans were uniformly satisfied with the decision by President Barack Obama ’91 to retain Defense Secretary Robert Gates and to appoint General Eric Shinseki as Secretary of Veterans Affairs. “Keeping Gates shows that the Obama administration wants the best, most competent people, not just those with similar ideological views,” said Scotten. “There shouldn’t be a Democrat or a Republican view of military affairs. Gates is a career professional, and as long as he is a loyal Secretary of Defense he can be held on to by President Obama.” Swabb agreed that Gates would serve the President well. “Gates held people accountable and helped oversee positive policy changes in Iraq.” Swabb added that he believes Gen. Shinseki will bring greater efficiency to the administration of veterans affairs. “When I first came to Harvard, I had to write my Congressman in order to get my G.I. Bill benefits. That solved the problem relatively quickly, so you could say that there is a system that works. It’s just this is not exactly the way the system should work.”
During Kagan’s confirmation hearings, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) asked the Dean a series of questions to probe her views on the War on Terror and detention of enemy combatants. The veterans agreed with Graham’s view, with which Kagan agreed, that combatants, wherever they are held, should be designated as such according to a clearly defined process which is subject to judicial review. Orazem said that the determination in the field of who is an enemy combatant is not so difficult when you are engaged in a firefight but becomes more complicated when friendly militias turn over “enemies” to collect a bounty. “The controversy is in the details,” said Scotten. Swabb noted that with the status of forces agreement having been concluded with Iraq, most of the detainee controversy would shift to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region.
The veterans also agree that their experience in the military does not necessarily give them particular expertise or views on political issues such as the status of detainees and or whether the war on terror is a true “war” because on a practical level such issues are determined for soldiers by the Rules of Engagement. “Gitmo was never really important to me,” Scotten stated. “Detainees I handled went to a facility in Iraq and were interrogated there by other people.” Orazem stated that these disputes are irrelevant to the actions of all but an extraordinarily small number of individuals in the military. Questions such as “When and how do we determine that an individual is no longer a threat?” or “How do we release individuals who are not a threat to the United States but face execution in their home country?” will have to be dealt with by lawyers, not soldiers.