McCain: No Surrender!

For John McCain, critical inquiry stops at the water's edge.


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).

NEXT: New Stem Cell Research Raises Question: Is Living Longer Moral?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I’ve never seen McCain as either a real candidate or a viable candidate. I think the party puts him out there to be both a cheerleader and a foil to those who never see anything positive in Iraq or ignore any facts about the war. So, I really don’t care that he ignores lessons from history. He isn’t going to the Republican candidate, ever.

  2. It seems to me that what McCain wrote about Churchill and the Dardanelles, quoted by Welch, is more nuanced than what Welch wrote about that topic. And yet McCain is apparently the guy with the simpleminded black-and-white view of history.

    If McCain is off base, so is the encyclopedia Encarta, among other sources:

    Although the attack was one of the few brilliant strategic ideas of the war, Churchill’s cabinet colleagues withdrew their support for the idea as soon as Britain met resistance, letting Churchill take the blame as scapegoat.

  3. It seems odd that one of Welch’s criticisms was McCain’s interest in putting the Vietnam war “behind us” and pushing for normalization of relations. It seems Welch is over eager to paint McCain as a war monger. Any time McCain does something libertarians might find sympathetic, it gets dismissed out of hand.

  4. Michael — I wouldn’t characterize that as a “criticism” (in fact I praise it in my book, if not this piece). It’s more that he has shown almost zero intellectual curiosity about whether we should have fought in Vietnam at all, focusing *instead* trying to get it behind us so that we can heal our wounds & go forth confidently into the world.

    For a guy who wrestles very openly with a lot demons & policy decisions, he just doesn’t spend much time re-thinking the implications of the decisions to go to war, aside from kicking himself (in Worth the Fighting For) for opposing Clinton in Bosnia. His main lesson from Vietnam is that we should have fought harder.

  5. McCain is a dangerous hothead.I suggest you all read up on his father’s role in covering-up the Israel bombing of the USS Liberty.Just like Oldman Mr. McClean, covering, lying for LBJ, we have now, Mr. Lump face McClean covering, lying for Jr. Bush.
    This man is off his meds, lock’um up.

  6. jojo,

    That was as thrilling a butchery of written English as I’ve seen all day. And I have to read a public forum filled with gamers as part of my job. Congratulations to you, sir.

  7. I also read gaming forums, mainly because I play Final Fantasy XI.

    I agree Isildur, a Japanese teen could put together symantics better than that.

  8. k isildur, dave. attack his point for punctuation. sry ever1 ain’t great at everythin’ like uze.

    Do you know how he looks stupid to you for his English?

    Well, that’s how you look to me for an uneducated, bashing response that holds less of a thought than his post.

  9. And btw, I don’t agree with what he said.

    Wow, see how easy that was without being a Simplistic.

  10. Matt,

    Well, you’ve piqued my interest. I haven’t read your book yet, but now I think I will.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.