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 baghdad
IN BAGHDAD, April 2007. John McCain has made eight trips to Iraq since the invasion in 2003.
Photo credit: Sgt. Matthew Roe, 10th Public Affairs Operations Center Handout/EPA/Corbis

In my conversations with ex-POWs, talk turned again and again to Tet—a military victory instantly viewed as a defeat. Many survivors of the so-called “Hanoi Hilton,” where a large contingent of the prisoners were held, report that after Tet, their captors bragged about their smashing propaganda victory against the Americans. “They told us all the time how they were going to win the war,” McCain’s cell mate Richard Stratton told me. “Even before Tet, the interrogators always said, ‘We can’t win on the field of battle. We’re going to make friends with dissident groups in your country, and then we’re going to force your government out of our country.’ Then they told us they won in Tet, and in one way, they were right. They won because America thought they won.”

Many of the POWs still express anger at Lyndon Johnson for mismanaging the war, and in particular they blame the organized left, and what they see as its sympathizers in the press, for mislabeling a North Vietnamese offensive that was clearly repelled as a defeat for the Americans. “The thing that really bothered me was that LBJ, he let those demonstrations on college campuses really affect him,” Paul Galanti, a Navy pilot who was shot down and taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese in 1966, told me. “He should have smashed those demonstrations. To let them happen was anarchy.” Galanti, like several other ex-POWS, was a supporter of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group that spread unfounded accusations about John Kerry in 2004. The “Swift Boat” attacks against Kerry were a delayed reaction to what some veterans saw as Kerry’s betrayal of their cause upon his return home from Vietnam. “I have some pretty strong feelings about those sorts of people,” Galanti said.

Galanti and others among the ex-POWs continue to feel resentment toward the press, and the antiwar left. It is understandable, of course, that these men would be angry at the Americans who visited Hanoi during the war as part of “peace” delegations, and who expressed solidarity with the North Vietnamese, who were then torturing American servicemen in the same city. And it is understandable that they would be critical of what they saw as self-defeating American tactics.

“I think a lot of us feel that it would have been nice, when we came out of jail, to find out that we had won the war,” McGrath said.

McCain seems to be in a minority of ex-POWs, in that he does not seem actively resentful of the American left, his Vietnamese captors, or, particularly, the politicians who, in the mid-1970s, voted to cut off funding for South Vietnam. “McCain’s a guy who became friends with antiwar protesters, and he worked hard to normalize relations with Vietnamese,” Mark Salter, his senior adviser and co-author of five of his eight books, told me. McCain says that when he was released, he was mainly concerned with the war’s effect on the country’s morale, and on the military’s. “At that time, I thought about how divided the country was,” he told me. “You know, that was bothersome to me. The treatment of veterans—the only heroes were the POWs, people who had gotten captured, and in all due respect to us, that’s not the object of warfare, to get captured.”

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.”

Says Salter: “He left the horror behind in Vietnam, but he didn’t leave the lessons—the personal lessons, and the political/military lessons. It’s why he speaks about victory.”

In a New York Times Magazine article published in May, the writer Matt Bai suggested that part of the reason why McCain, alone among the Vietnam veterans in the Senate, continued speaking about victory in Iraq was that as a POW, he essentially missed the Vietnam War. Some of his colleagues, Bai wrote,

suspect that whatever lesson McCain took away from his time in Vietnam, it was not the one that stayed with his colleagues who were “in country” during those years—that some wars simply can’t be won on the battlefield, no matter how long you fight them, no matter how many soldiers you send there to die.

Bai quoted another veteran, former Georgia Senator Max Cleland, who said: “I think you learn something fighting on the ground, like me and John Kerry and Chuck Hagel did in Vietnam. This objective of ‘hearts and minds’? Well, hello! You didn’t know which heart and mind was going to blow you up!”

Bob Kerrey, a former senator from Nebraska, who is a Vietnam veteran—and an Obama supporter—dissented from this view. When we spoke recently, he said that it’s absurd to suggest McCain’s experience as a tortured prisoner of the Vietnamese gave him an overly rosy view of how the war was progressing: “McCain lived that war. We all lived it differently, but you can’t say that being a POW is sitting the war out. I mean, Jesus Christ.”

Kerrey also dissents from the view, shared by many of McCain’s friends, that Vietnam was the war that most shaped the candidate’s view of today’s conflicts. “Ask him the W. H. Auden question,” he told me. “Auden used to ask people to name their first memory of a public event, what they remember that everyone else remembers. John probably remembers a war in which it was very clear who won and who lost.”

“When I was a very small child,” McCain said, when I asked him Kerrey’s question, “I remember this: a guy pulled up in front of our house and said, ‘Jack, the Japs’—that’s what they called them then—‘the Japs have bombed Pearl Harbor.’ I remember [my father] going upstairs and grabbing some things, and from then on, I only saw him a couple of times until 1945. That’s what I remember.”

In 1945, McCain was 9 years old. He told me he remembers the celebrations well, but that these memories are shadowed by memories of his grandfather’s death from a heart attack, four days after the Japanese formally surrendered on the deck of the battleship Missouri; Admiral John S. McCain Jr., who commanded a Fast Carrier Task Force in the Pacific, witnessed the signing.

John McGrath, the POW historian, said that McCain’s generation understood warfare through the prism of World War II. “As teenagers, I think we were shocked when in Korea, which they wouldn’t even call a war, we had a negotiated victory,” he said. “That was the first shock, that America would settle for a negotiated settlement. And you have Vietnam. I remember one statement that has always rung in my head, that we’ll only have armed conflicts, no more wars.”

Presented by

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

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In