Wayne O’Leary

John McCain and the Romance of War

It all comes down to “the surge.” That’s what John McCain’s campaign for president amounts to in essence. Voters will either accept the argument that winning in Iraq is the most important piece of business on America’s plate, or they won’t. If they do, then the perceived success of the Bush-Petraeus surge, which GOP nominee McCain has supported from the beginning, is tantamount to a successful last eight years and, by extension, the rationale for putting the tactic’s leading cheerleader (excepting the Current Occupant) in the White House.

It will be a hard sell. The US economy, beset by record-high oil prices, the worst housing market since the Great Depression, an institutional financial crisis of immense proportions, a sagging employment picture, and a dollar struggling to keep pace with Third World currencies, is in its grimmest shape in perhaps two generations. Against that backdrop, Republicans want their countrymen to look overseas and worry about Middle East democracy, Third World nation-building, and “victory” in an armed struggle of our own making, the reasons for which are becoming more obscure by the day.

“I know how to win wars” is the McCain mantra, despite the fact that he’s never been in a winning war. McCain spent his own war, Vietnam, in a prison camp, and that conflict was ultimately lost. The straight talker learned little in a strategic sense from the experience. He did learn much about personal courage and human endurance, but those are different lessons entirely. General Wesley Clark was exactly right when he said of McCain that being shot down in combat and surviving enemy capture is no qualification for being president. But somehow, it all mixes together in John McCain’s mind and self-image. His mental process seems to go something like this: “I took part in war. I suffered in war. Therefore, I know how to win in war. Therefore, I am qualified to lead because war is the nation’s most important concern.”

In one sense, it’s hard to blame the Arizona senator. He comes from America’s warrior class; he’s a third-generation career military man, the product of a family whose background is not in business, government, or academia, but in uniformed service. That gives McCain a unique perspective to be sure, but a narrow one all the same. It’s a perspective that ennobles war as the expression of manly virtues, romanticizes it, and places it in the top rank of all possible human endeavors. You can see its reflection in the faces of McCain supporters at his political rallies. They tend disproportionately to be middle-aged veterans with an overwhelming sense of pride in their service experience. For many, it was the high point in their lives, and McCain’s election would validate it.

McCain and his military supporters, who constitute his core base, share a John Wayne view of the armed forces that revolves around heartfelt concepts like honor, loyalty, and sacrifice, but also encompasses a contrived ambivalence toward war—the platitudinous assertion that all real vets hate war, which flies in the face of a simultaneous love of war’s trappings (the uniforms, the flags, the medals, the ceremonies, the insider camaraderie) and, invariably, unqualified support for the war of the moment. This ties into the notion that America fights only just and defensible wars, wars that once undertaken must be unquestioningly backed to the hilt. What inevitably follows is the tribalistic declaration, enunciated long ago by naval hero Stephen Decatur: “Our country ... may she always be right, but our country right or wrong.”

The needed rejoinder, seldom recognized by the war romantics, is anti-imperialist Carl Schurz’s late-19th-century revisionist maxim: “Our country right or wrong. When right to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right.” Unfortunately, John McCain’s warrior mindset is focused on the more pugnacious Decatur version. How else to explain his repeated emotional refrain that anything short of total, clear-cut, unambiguous victory in Iraq would amount to a shameful retreat and a national humiliation? This, of course, immerses us in the semantics of war. What constitutes victory in the muddled context of the Middle East? In purely military terms, the struggle in Iraq was won in 2003 with the melting away of Saddam Hussein’s defeated army, even though, contrary to President Bush, the mission was not accomplished - - if by mission is meant a successful geopolitical outcome.

What John McCain apparently wants to win is not a war but an occupation, and how do you win an occupation? One way might be to adopt the late Vermont Sen. George Aiken’s solution to the Vietnam quagmire, which called for America to just declare victory and leave. But McCain wants an officially acknowledged victory in the great martial tradition: a formal capitulation complete with a flourishing of trumpets, a lowering of flags, and a handing over of swords. So we must stay until that happens—for the military’s honor and morale.

Like Robert Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore sniffing victory in the napalm clouds of Apocalypse Now, McCain scents impending Iraq victory in the presumed success of the surge, almost an end in itself by now. The entire Mesopotamian project was in jeopardy—that is, the wrong side in a civil war was about to gain the upper hand—until an American military operation turned the tide and restored order. This wishful explanation of the recent diminishment of violence is wrong on several counts.

In fact, the changed environment stems more from the Anbar Awakening (the Sunni insurgency’s rejection of al Qaeda in Iraq), the strategic stand-down of radical Shi’ite forces in Baghdad, and the completed ethnic cleansing of the capital city’s formerly mixed sectarian neighborhoods (peace through murder and intimidation). The surge, which was limited to Baghdad and environs, came later and merely assisted in the process. And the reduced level of violence means nothing unless there is political follow-up and national reconciliation, which are barely on the horizon.

Nonetheless, in the mind of John McCain, a military solution (the only proper kind) has been applied and must be allowed to work itself out. We may have had no legitimate reason to invade Iraq, but having done so, the McCain canon insists, we can’t leave without final, unequivocal, absolute victory. Keeping alive the romance of war requires nothing less.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2008

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