The Other Side Of The Coin

Well, it’s been about a week since retired General0 Weasely Wesley Clark made his pronouncement that there is nothing about John McCain’s military service that “qualifies” him to be president. I’ve been mulling that off and on, and I’ve come to the conclusion that Clark is absolutely right.

According to the Constitution, the qualifications for president are pretty simple, and military service is not part of them. Clark is absolutely right. One need not have served in the military to be president. Indeed, some of our finest presidents had little or no military experience — Ronald Reagan, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson come to mind. On the other hand, some of our most disastrous presidents were men with distinguished military careers — Ulysses Grant, Jimmy Carter, and (I’m ashamed to admit) New Hampshire’s own Franklin Pierce all come to mind.

Indeed, the veteran status of our candidates has been of varying importance, often depending on how it favors the Democratic nominee: in 1992 and 1996, men who had been genuine war heroes were defeated by a man who actively avoided military service. The pendulum swung the other way in 2004 and 2008, when the Democratic nominees had the superior records. Now it seems it’s back the other way, as a genuine, indisputable war hero is running against a man who never served (but, unlike Mr. Clinton, came of age after the draft was abolished and service was entirely voluntary).

So, it seems that Mr. McCain’s military record really wouldn’t be a good indicator of how well he would do as president. What, then, might it indicate about his character and judgment and personality?

Let me make one thing clear: I am not an enthusiastic McCain supporter. He wasn’t my first choice for nominee. (That was Fred Thompson.) Nor was he my second or third choice. (Those were Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani.) At one point, I had them both at my third tier of preferences, under the “I think I can live with them as president” category.

Since then, as I’ve learned more about Obama, he’s fallen quite a bit in my eyes. McCain has dropped a little, too, but the simple fact of the matter is that they are the two choices we have.

So, General Clark doesn’t like what McCain’s service record says about his qualifications to be president. He joins a long list of distinguished Democrats who have chimed in on McCain’s service.

Senator Jay Rockefeller:

“McCain was a fighter pilot, who dropped laser-guided missiles from 35,000 feet. He was long gone when they hit. What happened when they [the missiles] get to the ground? He doesn’t know. You have to care about the lives of people. McCain never gets into those issues.”

Senator Tom Harkin:

“I think he’s trapped in that,” Harkin said in a conference call with Iowa reporters. “Everything is looked at from his life experiences, from always having been in the military, and I think that can be pretty dangerous.”

Harkin said that “it’s one thing to have been drafted and served, but another thing when you come from generations of military people and that’s just how you’re steeped, how you’ve learned, how you’ve grown up.”

(Harkin, it should be noted, was busted lying about and exaggerating his own military record during Viet Nam.)

Barack Obama backer and Democratic candidate for the U.S. House Bill Gillespie:

“Admirals’ sons,” Gillespie said, unopposed for the Democratic nomination in the 1st Congressional District held by Republican Rep. Jack Kingston, “were treated like royalty. They were privileged people. They were given a silver spoon. Their careers were prepared for them.”

Gillespie, a former Army officer who served in Iraq, said McCain was the kind of admiral’s son who became a “maverick.”

McCain, Gillespie added, was “somebody who needed to stand out, someone that needed to draw attention to themselves and … was usually out for themselves.”

He said his “heart grieves” for McCain’s suffering as a POW.

“After that,” Gillespie said, “he was somewhat of a celebrity and it went to his head. … I think he was a self-promoter for the last four years (in the Navy.)

OK, that’s one way of looking at John McCain’s service record. Just for fun, for balance, let’s look at it another way, shall we?

John McCain was a Navy pilot who mastered one of the most challenging — physically and psychologically — tasks any pilot can do: landing a jet on an aircraft carrier. That particular feat has been described as a “controlled crash landing,” on a moving target. As I understand it, you have to land an aircraft moving over 100 MPH on to a runway that’s moving away from you at over 30 MPH. And you can’t do it straight on, you have to do it at an angle — the landing strip on a Forrestal-class carrier (where McCain served) is about 10 or so degrees off to the left. To do this requires incredible focus, concentration, spatial perception, hand-eye-coordination, courage, and an instinctive knowledge of physics. To do this, repeatedly, is almost superhuman.

Toss in such conditions as crappy weather and darkness, and it gets even more impressive.

John McCain served in the military during a time of war, and participated in that conflict. What lessons might he have taken away from that? Well, as someone who’s seen war up close and personal, who lost friends in that war, he knows better than any other candidate (probably since Admiral James Stockdale or Senator Bob Dole) just how horrific war can be, and how it should always be the last resort of our nation — but that there are worse things than waging war — such as waging a war and not winning, or not waging a war today that will prevent an even more horrific war in the future.

John McCain was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese, where he was tortured for literally years before being released. What might one take from that experience? Well, that America has enemies, and those enemies can really, really, really hate us and will hurt us at any opportunity. And that it has been a very, very long time since we faced a foe that actually respected the rules of war. (I’d say that the last one was Nazi Germany, and while they generally abided by the rules of war, they had plenty of other moral and ethical failings that should keep us from growing too nostalgic.)

While a prisoner, McCain was coerced signing a “confession” of war crimes for the North Vietnamese. He says — and rightly so — that the lesson he learned was that every man has a breaking point, and he found his. He also learned that, under torture, a person can be compelled to say or do anything — but will still be able to repudiate it after the torture has ceased.

John McCain was offered early release, as he was the son of an admiral, and refused. What might that say? That he understood his duties and obligations under the military’s code of conduct (and even more important, but unwritten, rules of honor) and obeyed them: he refused any preferential treatment, and insisted that the rules and regulations regarding US military personnel taken prisoner be followed.

John McCain was not only tortured while a prisoner of war, he was permanently crippled — he can’t raise his arms above his shoulders. He probably qualifies under the Americans with Disabilities Act. As such, he’s not only likely to be sympathetic to those who labor under disadvantages and disabilities, he’s also an example of how to adapt to and meet those challenges, and how to not let them prevent you from succeeding in life in spite of them.

John McCain commanded men in a Navy squadron, a training squadron based in Florida. During his command, he helped teach a lot of young men how to do the nigh-impossible (cited above) and during his tenure, turned it from a mediocre squadron to an award-winning one. This shows both leadership, and the ability to get things done.

John McCain spent 24 years on active duty in the United States Navy, retiring at the rank of Captain to run for Congress. One way of looking at this is that this is a man who has devoted his entire adult life to public service, to serving the nation in any way he can.

Now, do I believe all of what I just wrote? Hell, no. Some I think is true, some I think is flat-out spin, and most of it is some of both. But it’s just as valid an interpretation of McCain’s record as that being spun by Barack Obama’s proxies — if not more so.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Large parts of his military experiences would serve a President McCain well. Other parts would not. His utter lack of experience in the private sector, especially, would be a detriment. Fortunately for him — but unfortunately for the rest of us — his opponent has a similar utter lack of experience in “the real world.”

Exploring the aspects of John McCain’s service record, and how it would affect his possible presidency, is not only fair, but downright mandatory. But to denigrate that service, to slam what he did, is to spit in the faces of all of our veterans who did the very same things during their own careers.

Jay Rockefeller didn’t insult John McCain. He insulted every bomber pilot who ever flew for our nation.

Tom Harkin didn’t insult John McCain. He insulted every man and woman who chose to make a career out of the military.

In their haste to cut down McCain, they cut too wide a swath, and there was plenty of “collateral damage” among those we should most honor. That is disgusting and disgraceful, and that these two men are highly influential United States senators (and one of them the scion of one of the wealthiest and most powerful families the world has ever known).

But, in the end, if it means that a Democrat will win the presidency, that’s all that matters, right?

The Knucklehead of the Day award
The Knuckleheads of the Day award