In 1981 and 1982, I lived on the east side of the Phoenix valley, building houses. I would drive my truck to construction sites in the morning, and I still remember seeing the election signs dotting the intersections in the desert — John McCain for Congress.
I didn’t know who John McCain was then, as I didn’t know who any of the other candidates were. I now know that he retired from the Navy as a Captain in 1981 and was elected to Congress in 1982. The signs apparently worked.
In the “Faith of my Fathers,” McCain tells the story of himself and his family. He writes in a non-flowery, matter-of-fact tone, like he would tell the story verbally. There is no fanfare, there are few opinions, there are just facts, strung together historically, and it reads well and easy. You don’t want to put it down.
This book is copyrighted 1999. McCain wrote this during his first run for president. I might note that he also wrote it before Bush was elected, before 9/11 and when the country was still in the economic boom of the Clinton years.
In that context, I need to share a passage from pages 334 and 335:
No one who goes to war believes once he is there that it is worth the terrible cost of war to fight it by half measures. War is too horrible a thing to drag out unnecessarily. It was a shameful waste to ask men to suffer and die, to persevere through awful afflictions and heartache for a cause that half the country didn’t believe in and our leaders weren’t committed to winning. They committed us to it, badly misjudged the enemy’s resolve, and left us to manage the thing on our own without authority to fight it to the extent necessary to finish it.
It’s not hard to understand now that, given the prevailing political judgements of the time, the Vietnam War was better left unfought. No other national endeavor requires as much unshakable resolve as war. If the government and the nation lack that resolve, it is criminal to expect men in the field to carry it alone. We were accountable to the country, and no one was accountable to us. But we found our honor in our answer, if not our summons.
This could not have been written better. Would McCain as president in 2001 have started the Iraq invasion? Would McCain have gone into Afghanistan with resolve and actually FOUND bin Laden? Would McCain have had the charisma and will to keep the American people engaged positively to support the war, once started?
Now briefly to the story of the book, which is a gripping account of faith, quest, commitment, honor and the military and its lifestyle.
There are three John McCains. The grandfather, the father and the son. The grandfather eventually was an admired and venerated 4-star admiral in the Navy, enaged through World War II. He died early at the age of 61. The father also turned out to be a 4-star admiral in the Navy. Thus they were the first and only father and son team to ever both be 4-star admirals. The father eventually became the CINCPAC — in Navy jargon the commander of all the forces in the Pacific, which is about half the globe, and therefore second most prestigious job in the Navy, after the Joint Chief. Ironically and painfully, the father was the commander in the Pacific while McCain, the son, was a prisoner of war in Vietnam (under his command).
This family history shaped the way John McCain thinks. He is a military man through and through. He sacrifices everything, including his family time, for that relentless job. Navy officers go away for months on end, during war for years, leaving their wives and children to fend for themselves at home. Navy officers have a powerful code of honor, which follows them and dictates their actions as well as their feelings and opinions every step of the way.
This is the background in which McCain volunteered to be a fighter pilot in Vietnam. He was shot down over Hanoi in 1967, and ended up as prisoner of war until the end of the war in 1973. When we was shot down, he broke both arms and one leg badly at the knee during the ejection when he was hit by the airplane. He landed in a lake in the middle of Hanoi, and almost drowned, when the one last limb working, his left leg, could almost not get him off the bottom of the lake and to the surface. Somehow he managed to survive, only to be pulled out and beaten by Vietnamese civilians. Eventually he was ‘rescued’ by the Vietnamese military and put into prison in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.”
The story of the Hanoi Hilton itself and the heroics of the men held there is the subject of many other books. After just reading and writing about Stolen Lives in this blog, telling what solitary confinement in a third world country is like, this almost felt like a repeat.
With two broken arms and one broken leg, he was beaten and tortured during the first few months, without any adequate medical care and only minimal and eventually botched operations on his leg. His arms were never set properly. Several times his arms and legs were refractured when he was beaten. He spent most of his years in captivity on crutches, due to his bad right leg. Medical care was withheld as a torture method. The prisoners were tortured initially to obtain military information about the initiatives of the war, from the newly captured prisoners that would have such information. Later they were tortured to extract video taped footage to be used for propaganda. The Vietnamese wanted to show the world how injust the war was by turning public opinion globally and in the US against the war. This could be done by having American officers make anti-war and unpatriotic statements, supposedly by their own volition. This hardly ever happened. The code of honor required that the prisoners endured terrible torture without ever breaking.
Prisoners were not allowed to communicate. They were kept in solitary confinement for months and sometimes years on end. When caught communicating, they were beaten for days and punished by being thown into squalid cells of 6 foot by 3 foot and no ventilation or sanitary measures for months. Health care and nutrition was completely inadequate, and some prisoners died from disease. At one time McCain describes being punished by standing, facing a corner, for more than two days. When he finally collapsed, he was beaten again for not following the rules.
McCain never broke. His body supported him through the years, and his mind’s strength carried him forward to survival and eventual freedom.
I cannot imagine how you can vote for president in 2008 without reading John McCain’s memoir first. You get to know the man and the character of the man, and after all, that’s what will drive his decisions.
John McCain is more qualified to be the commander in chief of the US military than any other candidate in recent history. He is eminently more qualified to make decisions about putting soldiers in harm’s way than George W. Bush ever was and ever will be. We would have a different history had McCain become president in 2000.
If being a good commander in chief was the only qualification for president, I’d have my mind made up. Unfortunately, that is not so, and there are many other factors that are just as important. And that is a subject of a future blog entry.
As I was reading this, enthralled in the story, amazed how any man could endure such hardships and make such sacrifices, I kept having to remind myself that this man I was reading about, and his time in the 1960ies, was the same man that was all over the news right now as the nominee of the Republican Party for president. It didn’t seem real, or possible.
Now you go and buy Faith of my Fathers and start reading, so you will be prepared to vote in November.