The New York Times Magazine published an interesting piece this week about how Sen. John McCain’s Vietnam experience has shaped his Iraq policy. But it left out a highly salient factor: His father.
Sen. McCain told the reporter, Matt Bai, that we could have won in Vietnam had we realized that in 1968 a new strategy launched by Gen. Creighton Abrams had begun to be effective. The Times piece neglects to mention that Gen. Abrams reported to the commander-in-chief, Pacific Command or CINCPAC – who, from 1968-1972, was Adm. John Sidney McCain, Sen. McCain’s father. “The war,” Sen. McCain wrote of his father, “was his responsibility.”

It’s overly simplistic to conclude that Sen. McCain would take a path just because it’s what his father would have done. But listen to how Sen. McCain describes his father’s views about Vietnam and it’s not hard to hear echoes of how he analyzes Iraq.
First, according to Sen. McCain, the policy pursued by Abrams and his father – for instance, the bombing of the port of Haiphong and the invasion of Cambodia — was turning things around. “For the rest of his life,” Sen. McCain writes in “Faith of Our Fathers,” “he believed that had he been allowed to wage total war against the enemy, fully employing strategic airpower… he could have brought the war to a successful conclusion.”
Second, President Nixon’s decision to use military success to sue for peace was misguided. “In our anxiety to get out of the war, we signed a very bad deal,” Adm. McCain believed, according to his son. This was, he said, the inevitable result of deciding that the goal was getting out, rather than winning.
Third, it’s clear that both McCain senior and his son believed that the loss came not from bad judgment but from flagging “resolve,” a concept he invokes often in “Faith of Our Fathers.” Whenever Henry Kissinger suspected that Mr. Nixon’s “resolve” was wavering, he’d call in John McCain. The South Vietnamese failed in part because they lacked “adequate resolve.” As the American people “grew ever more impatient,” even Mr. Nixon after his landslide “did not possess enough political strength to oppose the people’s will.”
Sen. McCain has not concluded that the will of the people should therefore be ignored. Far from it. “No other national endeavor requires as much unshakable resolve as war. If the government and the nation lack that resolve, it is criminal to expect men in the field to carry it alone.”
Finally, Sen. McCain’s father seemed to believe that antiwar efforts primarily reflected a lack of concern for the soldiers, not a difference in judgment about the wisdom of the war. “He was puzzled and troubled by widespread and mounting congressional opposition to the war. Likewise, he was astonished at the breadth of opposition among the American people…. He believed something had gone badly wrong in a country that did not, by his lights, stand behind the men it had sent into harm’s way to fight for it.” Under that formulation, only those who advocate keeping soldiers in combat truly want to “support our troops.”
In a nutshell, Sen. McCain’s father believed that the Vietnam War had started to turn, thanks to a surge of aggressive new tactics, and that it could have been won if not for waning political resolve, the lack of which amounted to a betrayal of the soldiers. Sound familiar? Viewed in this context, Sen. McCain’s comments that we need to stay in Iraq as long as it takes make sense; it fits his sense of history and his sense of honor. Whether it seems like sound policy may depend on whether one believes the Vietnam War could have been won if we’d just stayed longer and fought more resolutely.
I’m not suggesting that Sen. McCain wants to vindicate his father or pick up where dad left off (though those who believe that such intra-family dynamics influenced George W. Bush may cringe at the thought of another foreign policy influenced by Oedipal urges.) But Sen. McCain clearly admired his father’s wisdom, sense of duty and analysis. I can’t help but wonder whether Sen. McCain feels that wavering in his “resolve” over Iraq would mean a betrayal not only of his principles, and the troops, but also the lessons taught him by his father.

Reptrinted from The Wall Street Journal Online.

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