At the September 5 Republican presidential debate in Durham, New Hampshire, Arizona Sen. John McCain put forth the Reader's Digest version of his candidacy's rationale: It's the War Against Islamic Extremism, stupid.
"I've spent my life on national security issues," he said. "I know the conflict. I know war. I have seen war. I know how the military works. I know how the government works. I understand national security."
Moments later, he spied an opportunity to show off this superior knowledge and understanding when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney had the temerity to inject the word apparently into the phrase "the surge is working." This was five days before Gen. David Petraeus' much-anticipated progress report to Congress.
"Governor, the surge is working," McCain snapped. "The surge is working, sir. It is working."
"That's just what I said," Romney protested.
"No, not 'apparently'—it's working," McCain shot back. "It's working because we've got a great general. We've got a good strategy." The next week, McCain set off on a 19-city "No Surrender Tour" to buck up support for the U.S. mission in Iraq.
John McCain's year-long slide in the polls finally reached rock bottom and began to slope upward right around the time he uttered these words. He is running for president on a vow: that at a time of generation-spanning war, only he has the battle-tested gravitas necessary to lead the country. He demonstrates this not by any signs of actually having a plan but by yelling "WE'RE WINNING!" and "WE CAN'T LOSE!" a little louder each day.
This dissonance between serious reputation and simplistic rhetoric isn't just an artifact of trying to wrest a primary nomination from a hawkish party. When it comes to war, McCain is genuinely—and dangerously—uninterested in shades of gray. From Iraq to Vietnam and all the way back to the Philippine Insurrection, the U.S. interventions under the most historical dispute are the ones that interest him the least. He's particularly uninterested in pondering whether they should have been fought in the first place.
In August, McCain and longtime adviser/co-author Mark Salter brought out a book, Hard Call: Great Decisions and the Extraordinary People Who Made Them (Twelve Books). It details the history-making actions of 20 men and women ranging from Abraham Lincoln to Harry Truman. Remarkably, given the subject matter and title, the classic make-or-break decisions of controversial wars are barely addressed.
So Winston Churchill's pre–World War I conversion of the British navy from coal-fueled engines to oil is lauded. But once World War I is under way and he establishes a disastrous record in the Dardanelles campaign and on the shores of Gallipoli, we get only this: "I think Churchill was made a scapegoat for the mistakes and irresolution of others. But that is not a universal opinion and is perhaps best left for another book." As for the lasting geopolitical necessities brought on by the U.K.'s sudden and massive thirst for oil, which was at least partly responsible for the way Churchill drew the map of the modern Middle East, McCain is silent.
He is similarly mostly silent on the "hard call" of the Iraq war. Here's the extent of the book's introspection: "Leave aside the question of whether we would have invaded had we known the true state of his weapons programs: some have argued we shouldn't have; others, myself included, argued that Saddam still posed a threat that was best to address sooner rather than later."
This pattern is repeated in McCain's other books and public utterances. In his 1999 memoir Faith of My Fathers, he describes his grandfather's time patrolling the Philippines during the long and bloody insurrection there as a Tom Sawyer–like adventure of swimming and fishing. He mentions that critics considered the 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic, which his father commanded, "an unlawful intervention" (and "with good reason"), but there the inquiry ends.
Nowhere is this historical incuriosity more evident than in McCain's public discussion of the conflict that concerns him most: Vietnam. When National Public Radio interviewer Terry Gross asked the senator in 2000 whether he would have still wanted to go to Vietnam had he known what he'd learned after coming home, McCain replied, improbably, "That question has never been asked of me before."
When he took an active role in the Senate's early-1990s investigation into whether there was any credible evidence that Vietnam still held U.S. prisoners of war, he was mostly interested in doing whatever was necessary—that is, declaring the POW/MIA issue resolved—to normalize relations with Vietnam and "put the war behind us." (To this day, those who believe that the U.S. government covered up POW evidence in Vietnam consider McCain a mortal enemy.)
The biggest hint of any sort of intellectual exploration regarding Vietnam came in McCain's nine-month stint at what was then called the National War College in 1973–74. There, McCain wrote in an introduction to a recent edition of David Halberstam's history The Best and the Brightest, he "arranged sort of a private tutorial on the war, choosing all the texts myself, in the hope that I might better understand how we came to be involved in the war and why, after paying such a terrible cost, we lost." The results of McCain's Vietnam studies, therefore, have been of particular interest to those trying to pin down his evolution on questions of intervention, particularly during the time he was transitioning from orders-taking soldier to orders-giving civilian.
But McCain's April 1974 research paper, recently released after a Freedom of Information Act request, has absolutely nothing to do with how we got into Vietnam. It's about how the military's post-Korea code of conduct for prisoners worked out in Hanoi.
It turns out John McCain's big foreign policy lesson from Vietnam was not about the seductive fallacy of the "domino theory" (which he was still espousing as late as 1973), or even the perils of the military draft during an unpopular war. The "consequence of failure" he suffered most then, and fears most now, is for the U.S. to lose faith in its might and its right.
"I am relieved today," he wrote in Faith of My Fathers, "that America's period of self-doubt has ended."
In McCain's world, learning from mistakes is not the path to success; victory is. No retreat, baby, no surrender.
Former Associate Editor Matt Welch is assistant editorial page editor at the Los Angeles Times and the author of McCain: The Myth of a Maverick (Palgrave Macmillan).