In 1956 John F. Kennedy, then a young senator from Massachusetts, wrote a book entitled Profiles in Courage, a Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short biographies describing acts of courage and integrity by eight United States senators throughout the history of the Senate.
More than five decades later, to coincide with Veterans Day, another U.S. senator, John McCain, Vietnam veteran and presumptive chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has delved into a similar genre, portraying the lives of 13 heroic military men and women: 13 Soldiers: A Personal History of Americans at War.
McCain and his co-author, Mark Salter, have outlined all of America’s major conflicts from the Revolutionary War through Iraq. Some, like America’s cruel war in the Philippines, are almost forgotten. But this instructive book is crammed with battlefield details, struggles, and strategies, along with an intriguing cast of characters and their untold stories.
Patriotism and political correctness shine through—chapters are devoted to a Latino, two blacks, and two women, all of whom served with valor and distinction.
Aside from Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., there are no celebrities or well-known names. According to McCain, Holmes was chosen because his experiences in the Civil War totally changed his attitude and life.
An intellectual Boston blue blood and a Harvard graduate, Holmes was an idealist who joined the Union Army surrounded by his classmates and a few personal servants. He saw heavy action in some of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles, from the Peninsula Campaign to the Wilderness, suffered serious wounds, and almost died from dysentery.
After the carnage ended, with 620,000 killed, Holmes returned to Boston, his illusions and ideals shattered. He became one of the country’s most eminent jurists, serving on the Massachusetts Supreme Court and later as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court for 30 years.
Until the end of his long life (he died two days before his 94th birthday), Holmes carried his lunch in a tin ammunition box he brought home from the war and preferred to be called “captain” instead of “judge.”
Joseph Plumb Martin was 15 when he enlisted in the American Revolution, initially for six months, although he remained a soldier for the entire war. He served with Washington’s out-numbered troops on Long Island and after five tortuous years fought at Yorktown and witnessed the British surrender. He returned home a pauper without a pension and 50 years later, at 70, chronicled the travails of the War of Independence. His account received little attention, but 100 years later historians discovered his memoir, which now serves as a primer for students of the Revolution.
Also included are the adventures of Edward Baker, a Buffalo Soldier who was part of an all black regiment that fought alongside Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Baker posthumously received the Medal of Honor.
Then there is swashbuckling Sam Chamberlain, whose exploits and daring in the Mexican-American War inspired novelist Cormac McCarthy. And Monica Lin “Doc” Brown, a front line combat medic who risked her life during a ferocious ambush in Afghanistan to care for her wounded buddies. She was profiled on 60 Minutes, and awarded the Silver Star, only the second female to receive the honor since World War II.
In a phone interview from Arizona, McCain says he chose his subjects with an eye toward compiling a narrative that would provide an overview of the nation’s different wars. “We tried to put in context the conflicts so people would understand,” he said. “We examined a lot of stories. And I think the book [demolishes] to a large degree the argument whether women should be in combat or not.”
Talk about the serious problems we have caring for veterans when they come home.
The low point was Vietnam because of the opposition to the war. Some of that spilled over into our mistreatment of our Vietnam vets. In retrospect I think the American people had real guilt feelings about that and belatedly they honor our vets now and try to help them in a way that is better than any time in history.
The GI Bill is most generous. I just came from a ceremony that celebrated pre-vets day down at Arizona Public Service—20 percent of their employees are vets. Wal-Mart embarked on a program to hire 100,000 vets. The City of Phoenix does not now have a single homeless vet; they have constructed apartments for them. So there is a greater appreciation. We still have a long way to go, but it has improved dramatically since the post Vietnam syndrome when Vets were spit on. We still have a long, long way to go. This VA scandal graphically demonstrated that. I am going to a football game—Arizona State University is playing Notre Dame—and the whole theme of that evening is “Honor our service men and women and our vets.” You would not have seen that when you and I were much younger.
Because we have so little skin in the game, it seems that the public is indifferent.
I agree, but in this day and age we are not going back to the draft.
But wouldn’t it be more morally fair to go back to the draft?
Morally, but not practically. In other words, during the days of the draft, they were drafted for two years. In the Korean War, they took six weeks to train them how to use a rifle and then sent them off to war. Now we send them to basic school, advance school, Ranger school—we are really giving them skills that are necessary in these very complex and difficult conflicts that we are in. So what we should do is encourage other programs such as Teach for America, the Peace Corps, Americorp. Those are some of the ways to get people the experience of serving. You don’t have to be in the military in order to do that.
What did you learn from your five-year internment in Vietnam?
It gave me appreciation for and the love of those who I served with and my appreciation for the leadership for those who were senior. But there is one other lesson that probably is more important, and that is when I saw the problems that our vets had—that really was one motivating factor. When I embarked on an effort to normalize relations between our two countries, I thought it was the healing that brought that I am always most proud of.
But did you, like Justice Holmes, come back totally changed?
No, not really, because I was an older person. I was a professional Navy aviator. I knew what I was getting into. It’s a lot different from an 18-year-old draftee. No, I don’t think it changed me as much as what you expect. My gratitude for the wonderment and beauty of our country, my love of my fellow prisoners—it made me a better person, a very imperfect but a better person than I ever could have been under any other circumstances, to tell you the truth. I don’t recommend it, it’s not like going to a spa.
Have you always been a history buff, or a military history buff?
I have always been a history buff, always been fascinated by the impact of history, the people and individuals that made history, and how those lesson should not be lost on our guys today. A lot of guys come to me today and say, what book should I read if I want to understand the challenges we face? I say, read Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy. Start out with that so you understand what happened, beginning with the Treaty of Westphalia. Henry has the ability to give really good instruction but at the same time make it interesting, and that’s what makes great historians.
You have dealt with war and remembrance. What would you like on your tombstone?
I had not thought about it much but maybe something simple like, “He served his country.”
One of my favorite parts of the book is the beginning—the guys I dedicated it to, they have all passed away. I was so close to every one of them. When I think of them, I also think of the transience of all this and the importance of doing what you can while you can.