Humming along under a gray New Hampshire sky aboard the Straight Talk Express, his campaign bus, hero-for-President Senator John McCain says, "The shadow of Vietnam doesn't hang over everything I do.
But he's wrong--it does. Indeed, it defines the man. For decades, McCain has brandished his years as a wounded, roped and beaten American prisoner of war in North Vietnam to build his reputation. He's used it to boost his political career, first as a member of the House of Representatives, then as a senator, now as a presidential candidate who has emerged from the Republican pack as Texas Governor George W. Bush's chief competitor. The story of McCain the POW mesmerizes many voters and has charmed the media, who've been attracted by McCain's accessibility and blunt-spoken manner. In a political season when "character" rather than issues seems to be the determining factor for many voters, McCain is counting on his Vietnam experience to trump Bush and, if it comes to that, Vice President Al Gore or former Senator Bill Bradley.
Indeed, for some Americans, his endurance under wartime prison conditions--described in excruciating detail in his bestselling autobiography, Faith of My Fathers--is all that needs to be said about McCain. Measured against the lightweight, almost juvenile Texas Governor, he appears mature and reliable. "McCain's a man!" says Caroline Wojcicki, 50, of Amherst, New Hampshire, who's come out to cheer on the Arizonan at a candidates' debate in Manchester. "George Bush is still a boy--maybe a good boy, but still a boy." In that, she echoes the sentiments of many New Hampshire Republicans and independents, who've elevated McCain to clear front-runner in polls taken in the Granite State.
But there is a dark side to McCain's posture as a hero. Though he suffered as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, he seems blind to the suffering inflicted on that nation by America's brutal and misguided war. Trained as a naval officer, grandson of a senior World War II admiral and son of another admiral who, McCain says, "had command over the war in Vietnam" as commander in chief, Pacific command, McCain is too willing to call on American military power to enforce US interests overseas. Angry in temperament and pugnacious in style, McCain exhibits a swaggering readiness to avenge America's defeat in Vietnam. Like the man he succeeded as senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater--whose militaristic style alarmed voters when he ran for President in 1964--there is only one word to describe the prospect of John McCain with his finger on the button: scary.
For McCain, strategic thinking starts and ends with Vietnam, and with the Americans who fought and died there. "The memory of them, of what they bore for honor and country, causes me to look in every prospective conflict for the shadow of Vietnam," McCain said in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in August. Yet in looking for that shadow, McCain draws all the wrong conclusions.
Rather than accepting America's defeat in Vietnam as a humbling one and a fitting end to an arrogant and vainglorious exercise of military power, McCain considers the war in Vietnam to have been a "noble cause," whose loss might have been avoided but for the timidity of America's political leaders. Like many Vietnam-era military men, McCain believes that the war could have been won had America sent ground forces into North Vietnam and launched a strategic bombing campaign using B-52s. "That," says Daniel Ellsberg, the Vietnam-era Defense Department official who leaked the so-called Pentagon Papers, "is an incredibly discredited point of view." McCain appears unworried by concern that such actions would have led to enormous US casualties and perhaps caused either China or the Soviet Union to enter the war.
McCain's gung-ho attitude toward the Vietnam conflict has its roots in the months he spent in Vietnam's skies. In Faith of My Fathers he describes how, looking down at Soviet ships unloading arms in Vietnamese ports and at the construction of surface-to-air-missile sites, he chafed at the "frustratingly limited bombing targets" that restricted air raids to military installations, roads, bridges and power plants, calling such constraints "senseless" and "illogical." "We thought our civilian commanders were complete idiots," he wrote.