McCain Never Called Himself A Hero

A McCain biographer rips apart a young veteran’s attack on the senator from The Daily Beast yesterday.

10.08.08 5:54 AM ET

On The Daily Beast yesterday, Iraq veteran Christopher Brownfield ends his “ Open Letter to John McCain” by saying that, as a graduate of the Naval Academy and an Iraqi veteran, he’s “earned” the right to voice his opinions. True, but that doesn’t mean he’s right. The John McCain he describes bears no resemblance to the man I’ve covered and interviewed now for almost a decade.

For much of his political career, John McCain has been the target of attacks from fellow veterans. Most of these attacks have grown out of the work he did with Senator John Kerry on the issue of MIAs and POWs who remained unaccounted for after the Vietnam War. When a Senate committee McCain and Kerry co-chaired found there was “no credible evidence” any American MIAs or POWs remained in Vietnam, they were viciously criticized by veterans who believed there were. When McCain recommended to President Bill Clinton that the United States should normalize relations with Vietnam, the attacks from those veterans only intensified.

For much of his political career, John McCain has been the target of attacks from fellow veterans.

Now, with Brownfield, we have a new type of attack: hero-worshiper, disillusioned by McCain the politician, strikes out at McCain the hero. First of all, McCain himself has never set himself up to be a hero. In the numerous interviews I’ve done with him through the years, I have brought up the issue of heroism. “Do you consider yourself a hero?” I asked him once. “No,” he replied, “but it’s been my great privilege to serve in the company of heroes.” He was referring to his fellow prisoners of war with whom he served in the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War—a hellacious experience foreign to the vast majority of American servicemen, Brownfield included.

Specifically, Brownfield complains that at the Naval Academy midshipman McCain’s legendarily aberrant behavior—his bad attitude and unwillingness to excel landed him fifth from the bottom of his graduating class, a distinction about which he often jokes himself—was overlooked by his superiors because of who he was. That may be true, but few families have given more to the American military than the McCains.

McCain’s grandfather, Admiral John Sidney McCain, helped Admiral Halsey win the war in the Pacific during World War II. McCain was so spent because of the pressure he had been under during the fighting that he dropped dead of a heart attack days after the war ended. (McCain’s standing in the military warranted a front-page obituary in The New York Times.) Then McCain’s father, John Sidney McCain Jr., rose through the ranks of the Navy, reaching the rank of admiral. When he earned his fourth star, the McCains became the only family in American history to have a father and a son achieve the status of four-star admiral. And when your entire lineage is defined by the military, as was the case when midshipman John Sidney McCain III entered the United States Naval Academy—there was a McCain on the officer staff of General George Washington during the Revolutionary War—it’s hard for your superiors to ignore who your are, or what almost unparalleled contribution your family has made to the American military.

Secondly, Brownfield wants to call into question McCain’s behavior as a Navy pilot following an explosion that resulted in a deadly catastrophe on the USS Forrestal—a now notorious episode in military history. From the accounts I’ve read, after the accidental misfire of a rocket that caused the explosion of an airplane next to McCain’s, McCain escaped his plane and then the inferno, after which he helped rescue other sailors and pilots before he assisted throwing overboard bombs that could have exploded in the fire that was raging on the ship. McCain continued such duties until the fire was under control. “But with the fire out and the crew in chaos,” Brownfield writes in his letter, “you [McCain] left the Forrestal, catching a press helicopter off and reporting for duty to a front-page celebrity interview with The New York Times.”

There’s a fundamental problem with this disingenuous sentence. As a veteran of the military, Brownfield knows no serviceman simply decides to “catch” a helicopter off a ship or “report for duty” for a newspaper interview—both of which would represent a clear violation of the chain of commend for which the serviceman could be reprimanded, perhaps severely. Brownfield knows that a serviceman can depart a ship in a helicopter or give a press interview only on the orders of his superiors, who had clearly decided that the best way to put a positive face on the horrific disaster of the burning of the Forrestal was with McCain—the son and grandson of American military royalty.

In point of fact, following the Forrestal fire, McCain had a choice to remain with the ship, which was returning to port for repairs. But he decided to ask for a transfer to the USS Oriskany, a request his superiors granted. It was while he was flying airplanes off the Oriskany that he was shot down over Hanoi. His five and a half years in the Hanoi Hilton could have been avoided, had he remained on the Forrestal.

Finally, in his letter Brownfield shifts forward in time—what McCain’s service at the Naval Academy and on the Forrestal and his tenure as a senator has to do with each other is never made clear—and questions McCain’s statesmanship for an amendment he did not write. In 2005, the United States Senate passed by an overwhelming majority the Department of Defense Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2006. Attached to the bill was an amendment commonly known as the Detainee Treatment Act—an amendment, authored by McCain, that prohibits inhumane treatment of prisoners, including those at Guantanamo Bay. Also attached to the appropriations bill was the Graham-Levin Amendment. Written by Senators Lindsey Graham and Carl Levin, the legislation allows evidence obtained through torture to be used by the Department of Defense. Because McCain voted for the overriding bill, he has been criticized for supporting Graham-Levin, which he did not write—criticism Brownfield repeats.