Why My Former Hero Shouldn’t Be President
In an open letter to John McCain, an Iraq vet questions the Senator’s military record—and says he failed the country on torture.
Dear Senator McCain,
From my earliest days at the Naval Academy, I wanted you to become president. Despite the 40 years that separated us, I felt as if I knew you.
Maybe it was the adventurous chronicles of your naval exploits or our timeless sense of pride in service to country. Then again, maybe it was just my roommate, who bore an uncanny resemblance to you. John also wanted to be an aviator. Like you, my John was a maverick who got into trouble, kept his hair too long for the academy’s comfort, and spotted free beer like a well-tuned radar gun. My John was an honorable man whose grades ranked fifth from the bottom—exactly like you. But strangely, while you graduated, landing a competitive spot in flight school, my John was jettisoned for “mediocrity.” He didn’t fail to make grades or exhibit conduct unbecoming of a gentleman: My John was denied the thrill of shaking President Bush’s hand, barred from naval service, and slapped with a retroactive tuition bill for his marginal performance.
As a 17-year-old midshipman, I envied your audacious style, senator. Dating a Brazilian fashion model and taking a fighter jet for a weekend “training flight” to another girlfriend’s house showed panache worthy of a Top Gun cameo. Your swaggering social life as commodore of the base “yacht club”—infamous for gilded bathtubs full of brandy and mattress-padded toga parties—was the stuff of adolescent dreams, according to Robert Timberg’s congratulatory account in The Nightingale’s Song. And it goes without saying that your tales of torture at the hands of the Vietcong sent shivers down my spine.
But now, as a 28-year-old Iraq vet and former nuclear submariner, I feel like a believer who saw the truth behind your curtain. Years after you lost the 2000 nomination, I witnessed you quietly sell your soul for the sake of regaining political support, shaking my faith in your ability to lead and forcing me to question whether mediocrity and self-promotion have been the real hallmarks of your career.
In your autobiography, you described misconduct at Annapolis that nearly caused your expulsion, but classmates took the bullets for you. Thinking back on your aviator escapades, I now wonder whether flying a gas-guzzling warplane to the Army-Navy football game was the best use of American tax dollars (especially since you crashed on the way home). And the yacht club? The child in me celebrates your liberal sense of adventure, but what exactly was your definition of overboard?
I’ve never crashed an airplane, but my submarine crashed in an embarrassing accident that resulted in the summary firing of our chain of command. But according to published accounts, you had already crashed three airplanes under your solo control by the time you were my age—two after “engine trouble” and another after snagging power lines during a low-flying stunt. My captain and commodore took nosedives for their water-landing, but somehow you, the yacht club commodore, remained upwardly mobile, unscathed by what the Navy characterized as “routine ejection.”
Off the coast of Vietnam, a shipboard catastrophe cut short your chances to soar in combat. While preparing for takeoff from the USS Forrestal, another plane’s missile malfunctioned, shooting into your A4 Skyhawk. “It felt like my plane exploded,” you wrote, but fortunately, the impact just knocked your bombs into a lake of burning fuel. You shut down your engines, popped the canopy, and leapt through a wall of flame before “running as fast as [you] could” away from the fire—just how pilots are trained to respond. Enlisted sailors raced toward the inferno, brandishing extinguishers like knives in a gunfight. Seconds later, a thousand-pound bomb cooked off, obliterating the firefighters, blowing you back, and shredding your plane.
I know that politics is a blood sport, Senator, but your strong survival instinct needs to evolve. After 9-11, much more was at stake in the international arena than your presidential dream. While terrorism is real, our paranoid, legalistic response has only endangered America more.
“John McCain is here today because he had strong survival instinct,” explained Jerel Jones, a Forrestal sailor who produced a documentary about the disaster. As the fire raged, forklifts driven by enlisted men pushed burning planes overboard. Stunned and singed, you went below decks and helped jettison bombs. The ship reeled from explosions. You “thought it was going to sink.” But with the fire out and the crew in chaos, you left the Forrestal, catching a press helicopter and reporting for duty to a front-page celebrity interview with The New York Times—routine ejection, indeed!
“Hours after the fire that ravaged the flight deck and killed so many fellow crewmen,” the Times reported, “Commander McCain sat in Saigon and shook his head, ‘It was such a great ship.’ ”
When asked about the crewmen, 138 of whom would perish, you remarked that the enlisted men “certainly would have survived, had they not stayed to help the pilots fight the fire.”
Years ago, I marveled at your strong survival instinct. Today, after comparing the credible accounts of this apocalypse at sea with my own naval experience, I’m baffled that you left your shipmates behind to plant the seeds of your public image. Furthermore, it seems selfish that your words relegated the blue-shirts to being mere helpers, when they—not the pilots—saved the day. But strangest of all is that the accounts of the fire mention nothing of your mourning for the dead who once packed your parachute. While your shipmates were still grieving aboard the Forrestal in the Philippines, your autobiography implies that you grieved on vacation in the French Riviera and London before transferring off the Forrestal and lunging back to war in a matter of weeks.
Forgive me if you know something that the public doesn’t—I could understand if your grief was private—but what were your priorities as a leader? Where did the troops who sacrificed their lives under you fit into your celebrity lifestyle?
When you were shot down and imprisoned in Vietnam, the McCain name preceded you, earning you the ominous title of “crown prince.” As you described in Faith of My Fathers, your captors devised an especially gruesome regime of torture, forcing your false confession to “war crimes” as well as disclosure of operational information. It truly breaks my heart to think of the pain, injustice, and indignity that you suffered. But amazingly, from the depths of that infamous place, you pieced together your broken integrity in a way that first inspired my faith in you and solidified my faith in America. While propagandists broadcast your litany of false confessions, your steely eyes blinked a secret message in Morse code:
Torture—it was a single, silent word, spoken before unwitting captors, from the eyes of the victim to the eyes of the world. Coming from you, John, that single word said everything: It was a shout of defiance, a condemnation of injustice, and a pure, unfiltered reason to continue the fight. As Martin Luther King declared, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Forty years passed. As I prepared for Iraq, you prepared for the presidential bid. The news of Guantánamo and secret CIA prisons crept from fringe media to the mainstream. Homicides of detainees in US custody continued to rise, quietly. Alberto Gonzales waffled before Congress about the definition of torture (it depends on what your definition of “is” is, right?). John Yoo, the prolific author of torture-policy memoranda, cast a harrowing glimpse into what Dick Cheney described on Meet the Press as America’s new “Dark Side.” When asked whether the president could “crush the testicles of a terror suspect’s child,” Yoo responded, “I suppose it depends on why the president thought he needed to do that.”
America needed John McCain to take a stand. By enduring torture, senator, you became a statesmanlike war hero, the lone American maverick who could champion the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 and lasso the neck of an administration run amok. But there was a catch: The bill that passed unanimously on your moral authority concealed a secret compromise. The Graham-Levin Amendment made confessions obtained through torture admissible in military tribunals and precluded legal recourse for people tortured by our government.
Ironically, the same absurd logic transforms your forced-confessions from Vietnam into treason against America. Worse still, a shifting, legalistic definition of torture permitted abusive and unethical practices to continue under a darker shroud of secrecy. In 2006, the Military Commissions Act (recently declared unconstitutional) continued to hide the bodies in your closet, further limiting habeas corpus and granting outright immunity to the Bush administration. But this behavior shouldn’t surprise me, senator—back in your day, the Naval Academy’s unwritten rule was to protect the brethren who had done wrong, not to “bilge your classmates.”
Overall, your politically expeditious compromise was a perverse twist of fate; instead of standing before propagandists in a Vietnamese prison, denouncing America, and blinking a secret message of torture, you stood before America, denounced torture, and winked a secret message to Cheney, Rumsfeld, Gonzales, and their discreetly violent political base; I’ve got your six, boys … let ’em have it!
I was stationed in Baghdad when you shopped its market, sans helmet, pretending that all was well—it was a reckless and selfish stunt that endangered American soldiers. At a dinner with Senator Graham the following week, I made a point of wearing full body-armor. The dinner was a meeting of senior public affairs officers—the soap of the Baghdad spin cycle. Your closest ally in the Senate explained that America would benefit, politically, if Iraqi courts convicted some terrorists. Graham then called for show trials that would justify holding America’s prisoners indefinitely. Between your pre-emptive pardon to the architects of torture and Graham’s off-camera filibuster on due process, America’s moral authority vanished like Osama bin Laden.
I know that politics is a blood sport, senator, but your strong survival instinct needs to evolve. After September 11, 2001, much more was at stake in the international arena than your presidential dream. While terrorism is real, our paranoid, legalistic response has only endangered America more—an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And just as your experiences in Vietnam made you an unlikely hero, America’s corrupt, inhumane, and often homicidal treatment of human beings who have yet to see their day in court has undoubtedly dignified the cause of real terrorists. In this way, your self-promoting, sanctimonious, and resoundingly mediocre compromise pushed those who hate America to shout in defiance, rallied insurgents in condemnation of our injustice, and handed extremists a pure, unfiltered reason to continue their jihad.
America deserves better than this.
As a Naval Academy graduate who made the grade, an Iraq veteran who risked his life, and an officer who swore “to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” my concerns have earned their day in court.
Now, if you please, Senator McCain, in the spirit of habeas corpus, show me the body.
Faith of My Fathers, by John McCain and Mark Salter, Random House, 1999
The Nightingale’s Song, by Robert Timberg, Simon & Schuster, 1995
The New York Times, July 31, 1967 (front page)
Taxi to the Dark Side, Jigsaw Productions / Think Film, 2007, directed by Alex Gibney
Meet the Press Interview with Vice President Dick Cheney, September 14th, 2001