In 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.
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