The Wars of John McCain

John McCain believes the Vietnam War was winnable. Now he argues that an Obama administration would accept defeat in Iraq, with grave costs to American honor and national security. Is McCain’s quest for victory a reflection of an antiquated pre-Vietnam mind-set? Or of a commitment to principles we abandon at our peril? Is there any war McCain thinks can’t be won?

There are some obvious, even eerie, parallels between Admiral John McCain’s steadfast commitment to victory in Vietnam, and Senator John McCain’s dogged pursuit of victory in Iraq.

A few weeks ago, sitting in his suite in a Columbus, Ohio, hotel, I handed the senator a copy of his father’s 1972 Times opinion piece.

“1972?” he asked, reading it. “I hadn’t seen this. I was still in the prison.” He turned to Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina who is among his closest friends in the Senate, and who had wandered into the suite while McCain and I were talking. “Hey, Lindsey, look at this article. This is from when The New York Times still published op-eds by McCains,” he said with a half-smile. The week before, the Times opinion editor had rejected a characteristically pugnacious McCain op-ed that was highly critical of Barack Obama, for what McCain called his flawed understanding of the situation in Iraq.

I handed McCain a batch of his father’s exhortative cables to General Abrams. I’ve known McCain for some time and, while he can be a heroic talker, given to digressive, and often droll, colloquies on the news of the day, it has sometimes been difficult to pry from him insights into his own experience in Vietnam; he has a general aversion to what he once described to me, in a different context, as “this psycho stuff,” meaning, among other things, self-analysis. So I was hoping these cables, which he hadn’t previously seen, would prompt him to introspection.

He 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.”

A few days before this conversation, the German magazine Der Spiegel had published an interview with the prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, who seemed to express support for Obama’s plan to withdraw American troops from Iraq within 16 months of his taking office. “That, we think, would be the right time frame for withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes,” Maliki was quoted as saying. Though a spokesman for Maliki later argued, unconvincingly, that the prime minister’s remarks had been mistranslated, the statement buttressed Obama and damaged McCain. McCain is an unfaltering supporter of General David Petraeus, the former commander of American forces in Iraq and now chief of U.S. Central Command, who argues that conditions on the ground, rather than a set timetable, should dictate the pace of American withdrawal. Now, it seemed, the Iraqis themselves were endorsing Obama’s plan. McCain, of course, had been a prime supporter of the original invasion, while Obama, at the time an Illinois state senator, had argued against it.

Maliki’s statement came at the outset of a conspicuously hapless stretch of campaigning for Senator McCain in midsummer, when he seemed to be slipping from bemused jadedness about Obama into a disenchanting, Karl Rove–style aggressiveness. An hour before McCain and I met in Columbus, Senator Obama had delivered a speech to 200,000 people in Berlin, and Obama’s tour of Middle Eastern and European capitals had enthralled the media. The McCain campaign’s response to Obama’s Berlin visit was to arrange a luncheon for its candidate at a German restaurant. When McCain returned from lunch, he asked me a question about Obama: “Did he really appoint a transition team?” I told him Obama had. For a moment an insult seemed to be forming on his lips, but all he said was “Huh,” as he shook his head.

Graham’s presence in Ohio wasn’t coincidental; he was staying close to McCain that week, in order to keep watch over the candidate’s spirit. But Graham could not control McCain’s incredulousness at the sight of Obama, a man he plainly does not respect, striding so assertively across large stages.

“I’m sure he’s extremely intelligent, he’s extremely articulate, and I’m sure he has the ability to learn—but he has no experience,” McCain said of Obama. “Community organizing doesn’t lend itself to knowledge of national-security issues.”

I pointed McCain to another cable, from August 1968, to General Abrams. In it, Admiral McCain, proposing a series of attacks near Hanoi, wrote, “I envisage, as in Tet, that our forces will again inflict serious casualties on the enemy … If we can couple these losses with a resumption of a bombing campaign that will have a heavy military and psychological impact on the heartland, plus Arc Light [a B-52 bombing campaign] and ground follow-up raids into his Laotian/Cambodian sanctuaries, I believe we would be well along the road to winning the war militarily and the stage would be set for a favorable political settlement.”

To Admiral McCain and other military leaders, the Tet Offensive of 1968, in which Vietcong guerrillas and North Vietnamese forces launched unsuccessful attempts on Saigon and other cities, was a tactical military defeat for the North Vietnamese. The attacks, which began on January 30, 1968, were meant to ignite a popular uprising in South Vietnam. Forces attacked five major cities—including Saigon, where the American Embassy was assaulted—as well as dozens of other smaller cities and towns. The attacks were repulsed almost immediately, except in the city of Hue, which was held by the North Vietnamese for nearly a month. When they recaptured Hue, American and South Vietnamese forces discovered the bodies of more than 5,000 civilians, many of whom had been executed. In part because of their own brutality, the uprising the North Vietnamese hoped for never materialized. “The Tet Offensive was a massive military and political defeat for the Communists, who had wrongly expected the South Vietnamese people to rise up and support the offensive,” Jim Webb, now a Democratic senator from Virginia, wrote in The Wall Street Journal eight years ago.

But because of the scope of the offensive and the number of American casualties it inflicted, Tet was widely interpreted by the American media as a strategic defeat for the United States, and prompted a crisis within the Johnson administration. In his writings, Admiral McCain never appears to acknowledge that Tet was understood that way. His son does acknowledge that Tet was seen as a loss, but nonetheless rejects what he terms the “defeatist” interpretation.

“A turning point in the war came the day after the Tet Offensive, when Walter Cronkite, who was consistently voted the most respected man in America, said that he didn’t believe we had any more reason to have a military presence in Vietnam,” McCain told me in one of our recent conversations. “This is anecdotal, but Lyndon Johnson was said to have turned off the television, and said, ‘We’ve lost the war.’” But, McCain said, “Tet was a military victory for America.” He told me the story of a meeting between the North Vietnamese officer Colonel Tu and an American officer, at which “the American guy said, ‘We won every battle,’ and Tu said that was ‘irrelevant.’”

McCain went on, “I believe I might take this one step further. We had literally all Americans out by 1973, and we had a Vietnamese army that was pretty capable but they needed our air support … and Richard Nixon could not use air power because of Watergate, and it was a conventional invasion that the north launched against the south. So it really was a myth that somehow the Vietcong, these guys in black pajamas, were able to win against South Vietnam. It was guys in Soviet tanks, in armored columns,” who overran the south, and they could have been repulsed by American air power and a properly equipped South Vietnamese army.

McCain’s endorsement of Vietnam revisionism raises an inevitable question: Did the troop surge in Iraq provide him with an opportunity to achieve victory in the type of war that his father tried, but failed, to win?

McCain resisted the premise. “Vietnam cannot be the defining, overarching lesson of history,” he said. “There are other lessons of history … There are lessons in the Malaya conflict, the Korean conflict. One of the conscious things I’ve tried to do is not overlearn the lessons of Vietnam.”

But could the Vietnam War have been won?

“I think it was winnable,” he said.

I asked him if he had ever feared a repeat of Vietnam in Iraq.

“One gift of the Vietnam War was that I could see we were losing in Iraq,” he said. “I could see the signs over there that we were losing: not enough boots on the ground, the Westmoreland strategy of ‘go out and kill people and go back to the base and let [the insurgents] filter back in.’” Then he referred to one of his Iraq War nemeses, the current Army chief of staff, General George Casey, who preceded General Petraeus as commander of American forces in Iraq. McCain told me that Casey seemed to him to be a modern-day Westmoreland.

“Did you ever see the chart that Casey had for a while, that showed the Iraqi army’s training numbers going up and up and then suddenly there’s a gap?” he asked. “What happened? ‘Well, we had a little setback in the training.’ We’re up to 250,000, 300,000, and then back to 100,000. Why’s that? It was the same bullshit numbers as the Five O’Clock Follies.”

Presented by

Jeffrey Goldberg, an Atlantic national correspondent and the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror (2007), blogs at More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.