Questioning the Unquestionable

That’s the apparent shitstorm we have slated for the day; is it kosher to question John McCain’s military experience in the context of this election season? That’s exactly what General Wesley Clark did yesterday on Face the Nation, and John Aravosis took it about three hundred steps further when he brought up the propaganda film that McCain participated in.

Now, I think John may have taken things a touch far, but in general, and this goes against much of what I’ve been saying in recent months, I think you have to question McCain’s service.

Interestingly, the first time I heard the John McCain is a traitor for talking under torture idea was not from a liberal, but instead from a hardcore conservative co-worker of mine. I was upset at the accusation now, and I think Aravosis is out of line here. Simply put; McCain was tortured.

I dare any keyboard commando to refuse making a propaganda tape after extensive torture. I know I wouldn’t be able to; I’m soft and squishy and I really don’t like pain (or spiders). But while I think whatever McCain did under torture is, at the very least, excusable, I also think that it doesn’t automatically identify him as either a hero nor someone who is particularly qualified to run the country.

Jill at Brilliant at Breakfast has about the right perspective on this. Sometimes people are just victims, and what happens to them is horrible.

But, to be honest, to say that McCain’s five years as a POW makes him uniquely qualified to be the President of the United States, more specifically, the Commander in Chief, is ludicrous. Under this metric, Jessica Lynch would be qualified for high office.

This isn’t necessarily to say that Jessica Lynch isn’t qualified for high office, but if she is, and John McCain for that matter, they both have a whole lot of other standards to meet.

This is why I think it is important, and necessary to question McCain’s military service. Not as a matter of discrediting his service, or trying to turn what was honorable service into what was dishonorable service, but instead to break this illusion that because John McCain was a fighter pilot who was captured, held as a prisoner of war, and tortured for five years, he has unique qualifications to oversee the entire military.

The truth is, the two have nothing to do with each other, but far too many Americans assume that because of McCain’s experience as the former, he automatically has unmet mastery of the latter.

As a result, McCain has gotten a free ride when it comes to the foreign policy debate in this election. Because you have to declare John McCain a war hero, people are prevented from asking the tougher questions that any other candidate would rightly be forced to answer when it comes to National Security and Foreign policy.

As DDay points out, this is likely truest of all among the press who are so affected by their own guilt and awe felt towards McCain that they don’t feel right asking John to actually back up the foreign policy and military mastery that is unnecessarily heaped upon him.

The result is that while McCain’s resume is suitably long, his substance on foreign policy is remarkably thin. He doesn’t discuss foreign policy outside of Iraq and Iran. He doesn’t talk about Afghanistan, and he most certainly doesn’t talk about al Qaeda and its strongholds in Pakistan. In a true fit of irony, McCain is seen as the stronger candidate on foreign policy when in truth his foreign policy is virtually identical to that of the current president’s whose own actions and policies in that arena are viewed by most Americans as disastrous.

Further, and this is something that few seem to talk about, is that McCain’s military experience doesn’t even necessarily seem to translate into a respectable understanding of how the military works. This as evidenced by one of the most frequent attacks he launches at Obama for not being willing to “listen to the commanders on the ground.”

In a nutshell, that seems to be all that McCain’s foreign policy truly entails; listening to the commanders on the ground. But this gross misunderstanding on where the President sits in relationship to the military chain of command can only result in the kind of dangerous circular logic that got us here in the first place.

When we look at the military as a whole, it is a tool tha tis to be used at the discretion of the President, with the body of Congress acting as an important check on power. It is the president who sets policy, congress that approves policy, and the military that enacts that policy.

The particulars are a little more complex than that, of course, but for the sake of brevity, that’s how it is supposed to work, with the President being the ultimate decision maker. What John McCain’s rhetoric essentially promises, though, is that McCain will hand over the decision making to the military.

That’s not their job, and we’ve already seen the kind of negativity that can result when you put the military in what is essentially a politician’s job in General David Petraeus. Petraeus, has taken much criticism, mostly from my friends on the left, for going to congress and delivering his testimony. But what many people fail to understand is that Petraeaus was given a task to perform. It’s not his decision to decide whether the task is doable, that rests completely with George W. Bush. Petraeus’ job is to accomplish the task by any means necessary.

Thus, when you remove the decision making prerogative of the President, you create a perpetual machine with no safety stop. They will keep grinding and grinding away at the task at hand because their function is not to say “no”, not to say “stop”, not to say “we can’t do it”. As the old saying would have it, their’s is not to wonder why, their’s is but to do or die.

Which creates the ultimate irony of the John McCain presidency, one that is often remarked upon for his strengths in the arenas of foreign policy and military service. For as much credit as he is given, a careful understanding of what he offers reveals that he has at best a strange grasp of the President to Military relationship, and that he would cede his responsibilities of making the most important decisions to those people who are not, by their very function, supposed to make them.

And this is merely the surface, which is the most disturbing part, and which is why we must continue to discuss the relevance of McCain’s military service to his hopes of being president. Because for as long as that illusion persists, that McCain is automatically qualified to stand in as Commander in Chief, people are going to continue to fail to ask the right questions, the necessary questions to actually determine if he is in fact qualified.

With those questions unasked and unanswered, we won’t find out until it is far too late.

6 Responses to “Questioning the Unquestionable”

  1. tas says:

    The one thing that gets me about ceding executive power to the military is what if that was done in the 1960s, when one General Curtis “Let’s Nuke The Fuck Out Of Russia!” LeMay was still in the military’s chain of command?

    We elect president’s, not generals. The Department of Defense offshoot of the Executive Branch is supposed to serve as civilian control over the military, not the opposite. And if McCain doesn’t understand this, then he shouldn’t ever be president.

  2. Craig says:

    A touch far??? John is a practioner of the ugliest kind of political slime. Just because he supports “your side” in the political battle doesn’t mean you should give a pass to malicious character assassinations when they occur.

    Is losing a potential future link to a higher-profile like-minded blogger more important than maintaining integrity?

    Seriously, if the Democrats had a war veteran running for President and some Conservative bloggers started questioning his honor by referring to his participation in making a “propaganda film” while he was a tortured prisoner of war, people would be (rightfully) losing their minds over such despicable actions.

    A touch far?

  3. anon says:

    For goodness sake, besides being shot down over vietnam and being a POW he was also involved in the USS Forrestal Fire that killed 134, injuring 161, and was near the bottom of his class at the USNA.

    Either he is horrible soldier or one of the unluckiest ones ever, so let’s let him run the military and a war!

  4. gcotharn says:

    McCain’s refusal to go home before longer serving prisoners is a plus in his favor. It proves a sense of honor and a sense of duty. It proves willingness to risk one’s own life, and one’s comfort, in service to these ideals. Voters like to see these personal qualities in a candidate. McCain has earned the right.

    No reasonable person believes McCain’s experience fully qualifies him to be POTUS. However, it partially qualifies him, and it highlights difference between him and Barack.

    Does Barack’s life indicate he possesses senses of honor and of duty to nation? Does Barack’s life indicate a willingness to risk his life and his comfort in service of honor and duty? These questions may be argued. However, in the case of McCain, the argument is over. This is a difference between McCain and Barack which voters notice.

    Barack has said he doesn’t believe the American Dream is available to all Americans. He believes the American Dream is, for many Americans, mere myth and propaganda. Barack is making an argument that America is now an unfair nation, and that he will lead us to becoming a fair nation.

    Voters legitimately wonder: does such a candidate feel senses of honor and of duty to an unfair nation? Why would he? Does Barack love America, or does he really only love his vision of what a more liberalized America would be?

    Voters care about this. Stormy times may come. Voters want assurance that POTUS will stand up for America in those times. If Barack loses, it will most likely be b/c of this type of voter worry about him. It won’t be racism. It will be this: does Barack love and believe in America?

    Barack cannot quell voter fears in this area by sending out Wes Clark to define McCain (and there’s NO WAY Clark made those statements without first clearing them with Barack’s campaign – be serious). To win, Barack has to emphasize, again and again, unqualified love for America. He has to decide he believes in the American dream. Barack can only quell voter fears by defining himself. He cannot quell voter fears by defining McCain.


    I think this was thoughtful post by you. Yet, though you put thought into your assertions, I disagree with many of them.

    I don’t think many voters believe military service qualifies one to be POTUS.

    I don’t think media hold back on the tough security questions b/c they are intimidated by McCain’s heroism. Some media may be reticent to closely examine his military record, but they will not hold back on tough questions about world problems (except insofar as media are ignorant of world problems – which is frequently the case – but has nothing to do with McCain).

    McCain’s foreign policy experience swamps Barack’s experience; Bush’ Iraq policy is winning Iraq – and Americans are more and more coming to understand that. As an example of one American who is coming to understand Iraq is being won: how is Barack’s recent “slow withdrawal depending on conditions” any different from Bush’ “as Iraqis stand up we will stand down”?

    Re: McCain and listening to commanders on the ground

    First, giving full consideration to military expertise does not equate to agreeing with the conclusions of military experts. Barack has leapt to conclusions about Iraq without fully doing his homework.

    The second problem with your argument is that McCain frequently criticized conduct of the Iraq War in the period before the surge. McCain argued we needed more troops and more aggressiveness. This was independent thinking on McCain’s part. It was also politically risky. It was not meekly condescending to … anyone.

  5. Kathy says:

    Barack has said he doesn’t believe the American Dream is available to all Americans. He believes the American Dream is, for many Americans, mere myth and propaganda.

    I didn’t know he said that, specifically, but he’s right. Certainly, the American Dream was literally, by law, unavailable to large segments of the U.S. population prior to the second half of the 20th century (women and African-Americans). Unless you’re saying that in about 50 years, a dream that had been systematically denied women and blacks for centuries suddenly became a full-blown reality and completely within reach, I’d say the notion that the American Dream is not available to all Americans is pretty much a statement of fact.

  6. gcotharn says:


    It’s not my main point, at all, but I am saying that “[within] about 50 years, a dream that had been systematically denied women and blacks for centuries suddenly became a full-blown reality and completely within reach”.

    But, you and I could go back and forth about that for hours, and would, at finish of the process, end up agreeing to disagree. It’s a shame we cannot share wine or beer or margaritas as we go back and forth, as that might make things more collegial and amusing and fun. We could each tease the other over being a fool.

    My real point is that most of the real voters – the ones who actually do visit polling booths and cast ballots – do believe in the American Dream. Barack faces a real challenge if he is to bring enough of these voters over to his side. He’s doing a delicate balancing act: I love America; the American Dream is propaganda; trust me to make America into what it should be. That is a delicate and tough sell.

    In my favor, only hours after my above comment, Barack began making that exact argument in his speech in Independence, Missouri: I am patriotic! I love America. Trust me to make her better.

    Anyway, that’s my real point: Barack has to do a delicate balancing act. Break out the flag pin.


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