By Bob Poliquin, Managing Editor ~
In a 1999 speech to the American Red Cross, John McCain said, “War is wretched beyond description, and only a fool or a fraud could sentimentalize its cruel reality.”
If John Sydney McCain III’s life were a movie, the plot would be confusing at best. What you think of him pretty much depends on when you walked into or out of the show because there are painfully shameful fits and yet stunningly heroic starts. There is the handsome and privileged admiral’s son who graduated near the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy. The cocky fighter pilot who, probably due to his own arrogance or negligence, crashed two jets and severely damaged another, all before being shot down over Hanoi. Bad luck or bad airmanship? It depends on whom you ask. Of course, no right-thinking person casts aspersions for him being downed over Hanoi; after all, the “enemy” was shooting back. But even McCain’s behavior as a prisoner of war and later as a career politician brought him great criticism and great praise. Again, depending on whom you ask.
At the Naval Academy: The son and grandson of Naval Academy graduates who both made full admiral (four stars), McCain had big, if not impossible, shoes to fill. He didn’t. He graduated 894th out of 899 in the 1958 class of midshipmen.
Early Career: Then it was off to flight school at Pensacola where his reputation was that of a hard partier, womanizer, and below average fighter pilot. That being said, according to those who have done it, landing on an aircraft carrier is equivalent to landing on a floating postage stamp. And that’s during the day when you can see the carrier. At night, in the dark . . . think about that for a moment. McCain may have been a below average Navy fighter pilot, but he wasn’t a below average aviator.
The POW: General Douglas MacArthur said, “The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.” Between McCain’s capture on October 26, 1967, and his repatriation on March 14, 1973, he is famous and infamous for two events. When his father was appointed Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command (CINCPAC) in 1968, McCain was offered and early release, which he famously refused. In the second, in 1969, McCain made an infamous video confession of his war crimes.
On the offer for early release, McCain recalled in his memoir Faith of My Fathers, “I knew that every prisoner the Vietnamese tried to break, those who had arrived before me and those who would come after me, would be taunted with the story of how an admiral’s son had gone home early, a lucky beneficiary of America’s class-conscious society.” Regarding his confession, McCain notes, “Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine.”
The Politician: McCain eventually made O-6 (which is a Captain in the Navy, full Colonel for those not familiar with Navy rank) before retiring in 1981 and entering politics in 1982 as a candidate for Arizona’s 1st Congressional District. In response to a local critic that he was a “carpetbagger” and had not resided long enough in Arizona to run for office, McCain snapped, “Listen, pal. I spent 22 years in the Navy. My grandfather was in the Navy. We in the military service tend to move a lot. We have to live in all parts of the country, all parts of the world. I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the first district of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.”
McCain was elected to the House in 1982 and to the Senate in 1986, where he served until his death August 25, 2018. One particularly low point in his political career was his involvement in the “Keating Five” savings and loan scandal of the 80’s. Among his numerous accomplishments are his selection as Chair of the Committee on Armed Services, his outspoken criticism of state-sanctioned torture of military/terrorist prisoners, and his kind but firm defense of Barack Obama, his opponent for the presidency, when a McCain supporter referred to Obama as an Arab.
So, how will John McCain III be remembered? The day McCain died, a State Department Foreign Service Officer I know sent this text to me: “Each time he [McCain] would come to Iraq, I would brief him on what we were doing. He loved ‘Hanging with the boys.’ I think it always gave him a reprieve from the chaos and insanity of Washington, DC.” My friend added, “I often thought to myself what I would do if I was ever captured when I was in Iraq or Afghanistan. I guess we never really know until we are put into those situations.”
And then Maeve Reston, writing for CNN Politics, summarizes McCain’s life this way: “[H]e was a man of great contradictions: a playboy fighter pilot turned hero, a romantic and cynic, and as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said, a man who came to accept that his honor and his imperfections would always be in conflict.”
McCain understood that “every man has his breaking point” and that every man, regardless of how morally noble or physically courageous, if he has done anything at all important or at all difficult, eventually exposes his feet of clay. John McCain could have quietly stepped away from the spotlight, yet he chose a life of service, passing away at age 81. For that service, history will remember him kindly.
This article will be featured in Living @ Sun City Carolina Lakes magazine in November in memory of John McCain and in honor of all veterans.
About the author: Bob Poliquin, a resident of Sun City Carolina Lakes, served for 23 years in the USAF, rising from the ranks (E-4), was selected for Officer Training School, and retired as a Lt Col in 2002.
Photo courtesy of Joshua Wilking.