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 hanoi cell

In April of 1969, the commander in chief of American forces in the Pacific, Admiral John S. McCain Jr., sent a cable to General Earle Wheeler, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and to General Creighton Abrams, the commander of American forces in Vietnam, with a pressing message. It is past time, Admiral McCain advised, for American units in Vietnam to overhaul their mission: the goal of the military effort in Vietnam should be to protect Vietnamese civilians from Communist insurgents, he wrote, rather than merely to hunt guerrillas in the countryside and then withdraw to the safety of permanent bases.

“The war has had from the outset major political as well as military overtones,” Admiral McCain wrote. “All agencies recognize that this is the time to put emphasis on protection of population and special enhancement of civilian security.” The South Vietnamese should do the main work of protecting civilians, McCain argued. The “national police should be the spearhead of this effort, and steps should be taken to attain the 120,000-man” South Vietnamese force by the following year.

The message was meant mainly for General Wheeler, and the Nixon administration. Abrams and McCain already agreed about the need to renovate American tactics in Vietnam. Both men were fairly new to their jobs. Abrams had succeeded General William Westmoreland the previous June and almost immediately had begun to discard many of Westmoreland’s divisive, and tactically fruitless, ideas, most notably his emphasis on search-and-destroy missions, which did little to sequester civilians from Vietcong control. Abrams had helped create the policy, soon endorsed by Nixon, known as “Vietnamization,” which demanded that the American-trained army of South Vietnam shoulder the burden of the fight against the north, and he had also tried, imperfectly, to reform the “Five O’Clock Follies,” the press briefings that provided notably optimistic reports about the war’s progress to a disaffected American public.

Abrams’s son, the retired Army general John Nelson Abrams, told me recently that both his father and Admiral McCain knew that their time was not boundless. “The strategy was, how quickly could you get the Vietnamese military to go from a support role to a lead role,” he said. The younger Abrams, who served in Vietnam as a frontline junior officer, and who dined with his father and Admiral McCain occasionally in Saigon during the war, said that both men understood that “time was running out for the American effort.”

“They never doubted that they were on the right track, but they also recognized that the American national will was the single greatest factor in determining whether the outcome would be victory or not,” he said. Both men were also impatient for victory, John Abrams said, in part out of concern for their own children. Two of Creighton Abrams’s three sons were serving in combat units, and Admiral McCain’s son, the naval aviator John S. McCain III, had been shot down over Hanoi on his 23rd bombing mission and was, at the time Admiral McCain drafted his cable to Wheeler and Abrams, a year and a half into what would turn out to be five and a half years of captivity in North Vietnam.

john mccain mother father parents
LT. JOHN S. MCCAIN III and his parents,
Roberta Wright McCain and
Rear Admiral John S. McCain Jr., stand beneath
a plaque of Admiral John S. McCain at the
commissioning of McCain Field, July 14, 1961
Photo credit: Associated Press

“You could see there was genuine fondness between them, and maybe in part because of the family commitment to the war, they were absolutely focused on winning,” John Abrams said, speaking of the relationship between his father and Admiral McCain. McCain, however, did not speak of his son’s captivity. “He would never show his emotions like that,” Abrams told me. After John McCain was released, in 1973, he learned that on several Christmases during his captivity, his father had traveled to the northernmost reaches of American-held territory, to be as close to him as physically possible. And only in 1973 did Admiral McCain learn that John McCain III had been singled out by the North Vietnamese for especially rigorous torture because he was the son of an important admiral. The North Vietnamese, in fact, referred to Admiral McCain’s son as the “prince.”

If Admiral McCain had doubts about America’s chance for victory, he concealed them expertly. In his public comments, he expressed supreme confidence that America had a plan in place to defeat the Communists. Though he was said to agree with General Abrams that overoptimistic reporting of battlefield successes had had the perverse effect of poisoning American public opinion, in a February 1969 interview with Reader’s Digest, he said, “We have the enemy licked now. He is beaten. We have the initiative in all areas. The enemy cannot achieve a military victory; he cannot even mount another major offensive.” In Faith of My Fathers, the biography of his father and grandfather—who was a legendary admiral of the Second World War—John McCain III reported that Henry Kissinger would bring Admiral McCain to see Nixon whenever the president seemed dispirited. “My father’s no-nonsense determination, Dr. Kissinger claims, was infectious and served as a tonic for the President’s flagging spirits,” McCain wrote.

“The reason I thought it would be helpful for President Nixon to see Admiral McCain on occasion was because he thought what we were doing was doable,” Kissinger told me a few weeks ago. “He talked about the practical problems. He wasn’t weighted down by what the op-ed pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post said.” Kissinger explained that although Admiral McCain spoke of “victory,” he understood the ambition of the Nixon administration to be the more finely calibrated goal of “withdrawal with honor.”

In 1972, the just-retired Admiral McCain wrote an opinion article for The New York Times in which he stated, “The South Vietnamese are doing sound military planning; the South Vietnamese Army has come of age; and the South Vietnamese Air Force is performing a steadily growing role in support of South Vietnamese Army ground forces. Vietnamization is successful.”

Less than three years later, Saigon fell to an invasion force of North Vietnamese tanks and infantry.

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.”

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.

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.”

John McCain has been said to have neoconservative inclinations; to critics, this suggests a commitment to the unilateral deployment of military force to bring about a democratic transformation in once-hostile countries. The question of whether he’s a neocon, however, is not entirely relevant; McCain has advisers from both the neocon and realist camps, and he’s too inconsistent to be easily labeled. 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.

I asked McCain whether his experiences of two wars—World War II, which saw America achieve absolute victory over fascism, and Vietnam, which saw, in his view, America dishonor itself—have informed his opinions on the subject of victory in the more ambiguous wars of the 21st century.

“We know that there will never be in our lifetimes a celebration like V-J Day,” McCain said. “I don’t know of any enemy we face, or possible adversary, where there’s a clear-cut victory. In Iraq, we will withdraw with honor, and the troops will come home, and there are other conflicts—in Afghanistan, over time, we’ll grow an army—but there will be no church bells ringing all over America and prayers of thanksgiving in cathedrals.”

Is this because of the nature of modern America?

“It’s the nature of the adversary,” he said.

Two aspects of his answer were interesting to me: his conscious use of the term withdraw with honor, with its explicit echo of Vietnam; and his equally explicit echo of an idea advanced by Philip Bobbitt, a Columbia law professor and former member of President Clinton’s National Security Council, who argues in his new book, Terror and Consent, that the struggle against terrorism is in fact a war but that, unlike with previous wars, we will not know when this war is over.

McCain calls Terror and Consent “the best book I’ve ever read on terrorism.” He has been carrying it with him this campaign season, showing underlined passages to his staff and to reporters, and he invited Bobbitt to fly with him for two days. Terror and Consent was recommended to him by Henry Kissinger, for understandable reasons: Kissinger, a foreign-policy “realist,” embraces Bobbitt’s argument that the so-called Bush Doctrine is “incoherent” because its call for the democratization of Arab states undermines another of its principles, the need to “preclude” states from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. “When we try to square the circle by connecting the means offered by the doctrine (unilateral action, preemption of the acquisition of WMD, counterterrorism) to its ends (promoting democracy), the doctrine falls apart,” Bobbitt writes. “It is highly implausible that the president intended to suggest that the U.S. would, or should, use preemptive military strikes to impose democracy, or that democracy, whether imposed or not, supplies a check on proliferation, terrorism, or ethnic cleansing.”

Bobbitt, like McCain, is also a stern critic of the Bush administration’s endorsement of torture, and of what he called, in an interview with me, its “disregard” for the law. “Rather than seeking legal reform” to address the new challenges of terrorism, Bobbitt writes in his book, “the U.S. has used the inadequacy of the currently prevailing law as a basis for avoiding legal restrictions on government entirely.”

The most controversial of Bobbitt’s assertions is that the absence of actual stores of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq does not undermine the need for America to “preclude”—he prefers preclude to preempt—certain countries from developing WMDs in the future. Bobbitt writes:

The war against a global terror network, al Qaeda, is in an early phase. Yet already owing to the Coalition invasion of Iraq, terrorists from this network or any other cannot someday call on Saddam Hussein to supply them covertly with weapons with which to attack the West when he would not have dared to have done so directly, and when he, but not they, had the resources to buy into a clandestine market in WMD.

The view of most Democrats, of course, is that the American experience in Iraq has almost fatally undercut the doctrine of preemption. Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island and a former Army officer, who traveled with Obama to Iraq in July, said of McCain: “I think he’s ignoring the consequences of Iraq. First of all, the intelligence and the arguments for Iraq have been proven universally wrong. The logic now is, ‘It doesn’t really matter if there are no facts to support this operation, because there’s always a chance that a country could go bad.’ I think this is totally unpersuasive as a matter of logic or strategy. The other test of Iraq is that it has cost us strategically. Iran is a much more influential country because of the Iraq invasion.” He went on, “You can justify practically any military operation, not based on the facts of the moment but on what might happen years from now.”

But McCain believes strongly that the only way to ensure Saddam would never pose a threat to American interests was to remove him from power. “Is there anyone who believes that Saddam Hussein wouldn’t have pursued WMD?” he asked me. “He told his interrogators he would. Is there anybody who believes that the sanction regime was going to hold, or that the status quo would hold, or that sooner or later they wouldn’t shoot down one of our planes patrolling the no-fly zone?”

This comment was unusual because McCain rarely discusses his original vote, in 2002, to authorize the Iraq invasion; he prefers to talk about the surge. The comment was also striking because it is almost identical to something he said to me around the time of the original vote. “There is no such thing as containment,” he said then. “If we don’t act, we’ll pay the price later. If we ‘give peace a chance,’ Saddam will pursue his ambitions against us, but he will be more powerful, and more deadly than ever.”

His constancy is noteworthy. Nothing in his experience, recent or not-so-recent, has moved him away from his essential belief that the president has a duty to confront perceived threats well before they reach American shores. I asked Kissinger whether he thinks that McCain can be too inflexible on the subject of preemption. He said McCain will not change his mind if he feels that the nation’s defense is at stake. Much of this, Kissinger continued, is related to McCain’s sense of national honor, and personal honor. “He will not do the easy thing,” he said.

I pointed out that McCain has changed many of his positions during his candidacy in order, it seems, to better conform to Republican orthodoxy. Kissinger replied: “Under the pressure of a presidential campaign, it’s possible that he will make adjustments. He may deviate from his positions, but he will not like himself for it.”

In my conversations with McCain, however, he never appeared greatly troubled by his shifts and reversals. It’s not difficult to understand why: tax policy, or health care, or even off-shore oil drilling are for him all matters of mere politics, and politics calls for ideological plasticity. It is only in the realm of national defense, and of American honor—two notions that for McCain are thoroughly entwined—that he becomes truly unbending.

Kissinger learned this at their first meeting. “When I was in Vietnam for negotiations on implementing the Paris Agreement, the North Vietnamese prime minister had a dinner—I was leaving the next day—and he said if I wanted to take McCain on my flight, it could be arranged,” he said. “I told him that I won’t take McCain or anyone else on my plane. The prisoner release would have to happen on a schedule previously agreed. Somehow McCain heard about this and months later, at the White House reception for returned prisoners, he said to me, ‘I want to thank you for saving my honor.’ What McCain did not tell me at that time was that he had refused to be released two years earlier unless all were released with him. It was better for him to remain in jail in order to preserve his honor and American honor than to come home on my plane.”

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 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.

The most plausible target of a McCain-ordered preemptive war would be Iran. In January 2006, he said, “There’s only one thing worse than the United States exercising the military option—that is a nuclear-armed Iran. The military option is the last option, but cannot be taken off of the table.”

I asked him in Columbus to describe a situation in which preemption might be required. He offered a scenario in which Iran provides the terrorist group Hezbollah with weapons of mass destruction to use against Israel.

“While we don’t go around launching preemptive strikes all the time, we can’t afford to wait until a terrorist organization, or a nation which is an avowed enemy of the United States, has the capability to use weapons of mass destruction—or even uses them,” McCain said. “If we knew with absolute certainty that the Iranians were going to support Hezbollah to make sure they got a weapon of mass destruction in southern Lebanon—would we just wait until Hezbollah attacks Israel with that weapon? Well, first of all, I don’t think the Israelis would wait, but I’m not sure. The consequences, as we know, are catastrophic.” (In May, when I asked McCain why the defense of Israel was an American national-security interest, he said, “The United States of America has committed itself to never allowing another Holocaust.”)

But McCain, though stalwart in defense of preemption, is not obtuse about its unpopularity; he knows that the idea of preemption has taken on a negative cast.

“With preemption, the connotation is that the cowboy just wants to go out and attack people,” he said. “The country is in one of our occasional periods of isolationism, a reaction to what [the public views] as failure, even when we are succeeding in Iraq—and we have succeeded in Iraq. There’s still going to be a greater reluctance than there was” before the Iraq War to try to stop an adversary from gaining possession of weapons of mass destruction.

As he said this, he seemed depleted by the discussion of preemption. It’s not the first unpopular cause he’s adopted, but it might be the most difficult one to sell to the American public.

“It’s very hard to run for president on this idea right now.”