What faith of his fathers?

mccain 03In his new cover story for The Atlantic Monthly, writer Jeffrey Goldberg portrays John McCain as a believer in the military in general and the right use of military power specifically. My summary of Goldberg’s article is lengthy, so please bear with me.

McCain is similar in eerie ways to his father, John S McCain, Jr., the commander in chief of American forces in the Pacific during the Vietnam War, Goldberg argues. Both men believed that seemingly unwinnable wars were in fact winnable. All the politicians needed to do was to embrace a new military strategy and supply the troops with aide rather than seeking to withdraw them. Early in the story, Goldberg hands McCain a copy of a memo that McCain’s father wrote in 1969 that endorsed such a plan:

[McCain] pulled one out and began to scan it. “Look at this,” he said, holding up an April 1969 message from his father to Wheeler and Abrams. He started to read aloud: “As shown in the negotiations in Paris, the government of Vietnam is acting more independently of the U.S. and may become even more independent as U.S. troops begin to withdraw.”

He put down the cable and laughed. “History repeats itself, huh?” he said. “You’re darn right history repeats itself.”

When President Nixon, bogged down in 1973 by Watergate, was no longer able politically to continue the policy of Vietnamization, the results were catastrophic in McCain’s eyes. In Goldberg’s account, McCain worried above all about the the impact of a loss on the military:

McCain said the seeming disintegration of the military as a fighting force in the dispiriting days after Vietnam worried him most. “The drug problems — I was still in the military then, and you know, we had serious discipline problems, racial problems. One of the reasons why I felt so strongly about victory in Iraq was because the impact of what was basically a defeat on our military in Vietnam was devastating.”

Preventing another Vietnam has been the central theme of McCain’s political career, Goldberg argues. McCain is not a strict militarist, let alone a jingoist. Yet he has long believed that the proper application of military force is wise, in Goldberg’s account:

In one area, though, he has been more or less constant: his belief in the power of war to solve otherwise insoluble problems. This ideology of action has not been undermined by his horrific experience as a tortured POW during the Vietnam War, or by the Bush administration’s disastrous execution of the Iraq War. All this is not to suggest that McCain is heedlessly bellicose or reflexively willing to send U.S. soldiers into danger; he is the father of a marine and a Naval Academy midshipman, James McCain and John S. McCain IV, whose service he rarely mentions. And he opposed, presciently, keeping the Marines in Beirut in 1983, just before their barracks were bombed. But his willingness to speak frankly about the utility of military intervention sets him apart from his opponent. Senator Obama, though certainly no pacifist, envisions a world of cooperation and diplomacy; McCain sees a world of organic conflict and zero-sum competition.

Indeed, McCain has almost a theological belief in the necessity of military preemption. If the United States neglects the importance of preemption, McCain thinks, the nation suffers a loss of honor:

For McCain, the doctrine of preemption clearly falls outside the realm of mere politics, as does the need to “win,” rather than “end,” wars; the safety of America demands that they be fought, and honor demands that they be won.

McCain’s father, Kissinger said, saw the world the same way McCain sees it. “He was a military man, not a diplomat. Both men grasp the notion of consequences. From about 1967 on, we were experiencing a national trauma, with obsessive doubts about the fitness of government and with a yearning to just get out of Vietnam and get it over with, with a refusal to look at the consequences. Both of them understood that withdrawal without honor has costs. The son knows this from his own experience and from his father.”

I once asked Sen. Lindsey Graham to name something unusual about McCain in the context of the debate about Iraq; he said that McCain believes, among other things, that “some political problems have military solutions.” A related McCain belief that’s even more out of sync with America’s current mood: wars are quagmires only until someone figures out a way to win them.

To my mind, Goldberg’s article is impressive journalistically. He was fair to McCain; he portrayed reality from McCain’s point of view, quoting him at length. His article is timely, relevant, and insightful. And he did a ton of great reporting; not only did he find memos from 40 years ago, he interviewed McCain, his supporters, and adversaries.

Yet Goldberg’s article had one intellectual flaw: It omitted any mention of religion and how it shapes McCain’s views on the military and waging war. Religion would seem to be an obvious line of inquiry to explore. For one thing, the title of McCain’s best-known book is The Faith of My Fathers.

For another thing, McCain does profess to be a Christian and an important intellectual tradition within Christianity has long been just-war theory. What does McCain think of just war theory’s key principles? Goldberg could not be expected to ask McCain about all of its tenets. But why not ask McCain, for example, whether he thinks that as president he could negotiate with Iran rather than bomb it?

I also would have liked for Goldberg to flesh out McCain’s idea of honor. Does McCain understand honor purely in nationalistic or vocational terms? Does his notion have any religious connotations.

In summary, I would recommend Goldberg’s article to anyone interested in learning more about McCain’s worldview. But I would caution that in Goldberg’s account, religion and faith play an undetermined role in it.

NOTE: This post is not a forum about the Iraq War, the presidential election, or the Bush administration. If you feel impelled to write about those topics, please go to another website. All replies on those topics will be deleted.

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  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff

    From what little i’ve read, that’s gonna be a hard question to answer. You can look at McCain’s youthful military academy chapel Episcopalianism, and compare it to base chaplainism, which looks to be his “family faith.” The leap to Arizona Baptist semi-non-denominationalism is sui generis, and unique in many ways to the modern era. But how the world of establishment mainline-ism collapsed into the non-denominational world is way beyond the piece as framed — the gap is present in so many stories that try to bridge the world of post-WW II to today. How did the mainline hegemony vanish so quickly and decisively, and for what reasons?

    We’ll be dissecting that corpus for some time, even before we can be sure it’s a corpse.

  • AmaniS

    I would like the question asked of many politicians. Maybe most reporters think that a person’s religion does not weight in on how they think as heavily as others things. Maybe they are right.

  • Julia

    Maybe the “Faith of My Fathers” refers to the McCain family military tradition and not to religion at all.

    The hymn “Faith of Our Fathers” is, after all, about the recusant Catholic experience in England; it is not Episcopalian or Baptist or American.

    The reference in the post to generic chaplain-type Christianity found in the “lifer” military is an interesting angle I’ve not seen written about before. It’s influence might explain a lot about McCain’s religious mindset and lack of specificity.

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    For another thing, McCain does profess to be a Christian and an important intellectual tradition within Christianity has long been just-war theory.

    I wonder how much the just-war theory has played into the thinking of anyone except Roman Catholics, especially in the last fifty years.

    On a slightly tangential note, I was struck by the testimony-like quality of portions of McCain’s acceptance speech at the RNC. However, he wasn’t talking about his faith in God, but rather, his faith in his country. Speaking about his experience as a POW, he repeatedly said things like, “My country saved me”.

  • Elaine T

    McCain was devout enough /attended services regularly enough to be able to quote most of Episcopal(I guess) services to his fellow prisoners in Hanoi. One of them wrote about McCain doing that for them, and how it helped carry the prisoners through. The article was printed in the WSJ some time ago. (opinion page. might have been by Bud Day, but I may be misremembering)

    Now, I know from personal experience that just being able to quote doesn’t mean much other than that your folks dragged you weekly, and you have a decent memory. But still, that he could and would do that seems to indicate something – words memorized help shape one’s life and thought. And doing that for his fellow would have had some kind of impact on him.

    So I would like reporters to dig more deeply into this question, if they could.

    He seems very private about this kind of thing, though.

    FWIW, I had the impression without reading the book that Faith of Our Fathers did refer to patriotism and military service. Don’t know how I got it, though.