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?
john mccain nixon
NIXON GREETS McCAIN at a White House
reception for returned prisoners, May 24, 1973
Photo credit: Ron Sachs/Corbis Sygma

During the three years after President Bush declared an end to major combat operations, McCain was the rare Republican who was publicly critical of the administration, and in particular of General Casey and then–Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. His anger at Rumsfeld remains palpable. “You’ve got to tell people exactly what’s going on,” he said. “This goes back to ‘Mission Accomplished,’ ‘a few dead-enders,’ ‘last throes.’ I used to grind my teeth.”

By the beginning of 2007, his frustration was boiling over publicly. At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, he reprimanded Casey. “You will need to explain why your assessment of the situation in Iraq has differed so radically from that of most observers and why your predictions of future success have been so unrealistically rosy,” he said.

McCain had already begun calling for a troop surge, and for a radical shift toward a more Creighton Abrams–like strategy of clearing territory of insurgents, and then keeping those insurgents out. The mission of additional troops, he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that appeared in January of last year, “would be to implement the ‘hold’ element, elusive thus far, of the military’s ‘clear, hold, build’ strategy: to maintain security in cleared areas, to protect the population and to impose the government’s authority.”

Recent American successes in Iraq seem to have justified the change in strategy that McCain had proposed, but during our conversation in Ohio a few weeks ago, McCain, and Graham, were at pains to remind me of the idea’s former unpopularity. “John Edwards mocked the idea as the ‘McCain Doctrine,’ if you’ll recall,” Graham said. The surge, McCain said, “is the reason Harry Reid hates me so much, because he said the war was lost.”

Was the word lost anathema to you? I asked McCain. “Well, that was certainly something that alarmed me. If you say the war is lost, who won? Does that mean al-Qaeda won against us? The Ba’ath Party?”

McCain reminded me that in July of last year, The New York Times had endorsed an immediate pullout of American troops, even if one consequence of such a withdrawal would be genocide. “Americans must be clear that Iraq, and the region around it, could be even bloodier and more chaotic after Americans leave,” the Times editorial read. “There could be reprisals against those who worked with American forces, further ethnic cleansing, even genocide.”

“Genocide!” McCain exclaimed.

“They were running for the exit signs,” Graham said, and Democrats weren’t the only ones unhappy with McCain’s vociferous calls for troop increases.

“Some of our Republican friends were jumping ship,” McCain said. “I can’t tell you the number of guys who said, ‘We’ve got to get out.’” Earlier he had told me, “I think another problem is that some of the leading thinkers in America said the war was lost, it was over—Tom Friedman of The New York Times, Joe Klein of Time, a long list of people who are widely respected said the war was lost.”

Graham recalled the numerous bipartisan attempts, including one led by the Republican defense stalwart John Warner, to bring the war to a quick close: “There were nine different plans, and we beat the shit out of them. I love John Warner, but we just beat the shit out of him.”

“If we’d done what Obama wanted to do, we’d have been out by March 2008, and the surge could never have happened,” McCain said.

I asked McCain if he thought Obama was a “defeatist.”

“When he says ‘End the war, whatever it takes to end it,’ there’s no doubt that—especially in the primary when he was appealing to the left of his party that felt betrayed by Hillary Clinton—that ending it was the first priority, just ending it. And that meant, whatever the consequences were. I’m not saying that he wanted defeat.”

But, I asked him, didn’t you say publicly that you believed Obama would rather lose the war than lose the election?

“I don’t think he said we have to lose,” McCain said, “but he did say in unequivocal terms, to standing ovations, ‘I’ll bring them home, we’ll end it, we’ll end it, I’ll bring them home.’” (What McCain had actually said of Obama, just before this conversation, was: “It seems to me that Senator Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign.”)

One of McCain’s former Hanoi cell mates, Richard Stratton, once told me that he and his friends understood McCain’s motivation during the fight for the surge. “I knew that the surge would work, because John McCain was in the Senate,” said Stratton. “We knew that he wouldn’t let what happened in Vietnam happen in Iraq.”

I asked Orson Swindle, another former cell mate and a close friend of McCain’s who now volunteers for his campaign, the same question I had asked the candidate: Was McCain’s ardent support for the surge a way of making up for the failure of American politicians to help Creighton Abrams—and John McCain Jr.—implement their strategy for success in Vietnam?

“Look, Abrams’s plan worked,” Swindle said. “It was working. Very few people knew that. It’s almost as if John looked at the solution in Vietnam and said that this could work in Iraq. To a certain extent, it’s true. John was not going to let happen to these guys in Iraq what happened to us.”

He went on, “He made this very McCain-like statement then that might to some have sounded a bit like grandstanding: ‘I’d rather lose an election than lose a war.’ Because he understood the profoundness of losing the war. Only a person with his life experiences could understand that.”

I told Swindle that McCain had argued to me that he doesn’t think about Vietnam overly much when he thinks about the wars of today.

“Bullshit,” Swindle said. “He’ll say Vietnam didn’t affect him, that he doesn’t think about it, that he’s aloof from it. But I see it. It’s there.”

Despite the widely held perception among elites that the Vietnam War was both ignoble and unwinnable, for many Americans this is not an entirely settled question. A CBS News/New York Times poll conducted in 2000 found that 37 percent of Americans believed that it was a “noble cause,” as opposed to 35 percent who thought it was not. And in academia, the Vietnam War’s “winnability” is the subject of vigorous argument. Mainstream academic thinking still holds that America was predestined for failure in Vietnam, but revisionist scholars argue that victory—defined, in this case, as a non-Communist South Vietnam able to defend itself against North Vietnamese invasion—was possible, even into the mid-1970s.

“I would argue not only that we were winning in Vietnam, but that we had won, and then we kicked it away,” Lewis Sorley, a former Army officer, whose book A Better War is the principal text of the revisionists, told me. “We defaulted on our commitments to the South Vietnamese, and that was the Congress that did that, not the military and not the administration.”

Sorley argues that by the time of the American drawdown, in 1973, the South Vietnamese were able to repulse the north, with the help of American equipment and, to a lesser extent, air support. But Congress, eager to be done with the Vietnam quagmire, cut off all funding—“and that sealed the south’s fate.”

Sorley’s is still a minority view. “We lost in Vietnam because we got beat,” Andrew J. Bacevich, an international-relations scholar at Boston University and a Vietnam veteran, told me. “I served during the period when Abrams was supposedly winning the war, and what I saw there [in the Central Highlands of Vietnam] makes it impossible for me to believe that we were winning. That’s a personal statement, not a scholarly judgment, but what I saw were South Vietnamese forces that were utterly incapable, a South Vietnamese government that was utterly ineffective, and an American Army that was falling apart.” But among many of John McCain’s peers—the roughly 660 POWs who were freed in 1973—there seems to be little doubt on the subjects of the war’s nobility, and its winnability. In recent days, I’ve spoken with a number of McCain’s fellow POWs, and they were in agreement on these two subjects.

“There was a time when politicians were dedicated to winning wars,” one ex-POW, John M. McGrath, told me. McGrath serves as the historian for an organization of ex-prisoners called Nam-POWs, of which McCain is a member. Of those 660 men who were captured by the North Vietnamese, or by their Vietcong proxies in Southeast Asia, about 590 are alive today; only those men who cooperated with the North Vietnamese, or took early release from Hanoi, are ineligible for membership in Nam-POWs. (The North Vietnamese offered some of their prisoners early release in exchange for making anti-American propaganda statements. The POWs insisted that, according to their honor code, prisoners could be released only in the order in which they were captured.)

McGrath, a former Navy pilot who was shot down south of Hanoi in 1967, on his 179th mission, said that a failure of American will, rather than a failure of tactics, caused the U.S. to “abandon” the objective of South Vietnamese independence, which could have been achieved and guaranteed in the manner that the U.S. has, with the help of the American troops stationed there, guaranteed South Korean independence from North Korea for more than 50 years.

Presented by

Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. 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.

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