NYT: McCain "sealed away" from the lessons of Vietnam

In the New York Times’ upcoming edition of their Sunday magazine, they take a look at John McCain’s divergent views of the Iraq War from those of his fellow Vietnam veterans. In The McCain Doctrines, Matt Bai reports that most of these colleagues (with the noted exception of Bob Kerrey) attribute McCain’s support for Iraq to the fact that he didn’t serve on the ground in Vietnam — and that his years as a POW somehow “sealed” him away from the war’s lessons:

There is a feeling among some of McCain’s fellow veterans that his break with them on Iraq can be traced, at least partly, to his markedly different experience in Vietnam. McCain’s comrades in the Senate will not talk about this publicly. They are wary of seeming to denigrate McCain’s service, marked by his legendary endurance in a Hanoi prison camp, when in fact they remain, to this day, in awe of it. And yet in private discussions with friends and colleagues, some of them have pointed out that McCain, who was shot down and captured in 1967, spent the worst and most costly years of the war sealed away, both from the rice paddies of Indochina and from the outside world. During those years, McCain did not share the disillusioning and morally jarring experiences of soldiers like Kerry, Webb and Hagel, who found themselves unable to recognize their enemy in the confusion of the jungle; he never underwent the conversion that caused Kerry, for one, to toss away some of his war decorations during a protest at the Capitol. Whatever anger McCain felt remained focused on his captors, not on his own superiors back in Washington.

Not all of McCain’s fellow veterans subscribe to the theory that the singularity of his war experience has anything to do with his intransigence on Iraq. (Bob Kerrey, for one, told me that while he was aware of this argument, he has never believed it.) But some suspect that whatever lesson McCain took away from his time in Vietnam, it was not the one that stayed with his colleagues who were “in country” during those years — that some wars simply can’t be won on the battlefield, no matter how long you fight them, no matter how many soldiers you send there to die.

“McCain is my friend and brother, and I love him dearly,” Max Cleland, Georgia’s former Democratic senator, told me when we talked last month. “But I think you learn something fighting on the ground, like me and John Kerry and Chuck Hagel did in Vietnam. This objective of ‘hearts and minds’? Well, hello! You didn’t know which heart and mind was going to blow you up!

“I have seen this movie before, and I know how it ends,” says Cleland, who lost three of his limbs to an errant grenade during the battle of Khe Sanh. “With thousands dead and tens of thousands more injured, and years later you ask yourself what you were doing there. To the extent my friend John McCain signs on to this, he is endangering America’s long-term interests, and probably his own election in the fall.”

This sounds remarkably close to Jay Rockefeller’s accusation that pilots don’t care about the consequences of their actions. Last month, he trotted out that explanation as a way to minimize McCain’s military experience. Unfortunately, it insulted the service of McCain as well as thousands of pilots currently serving in the nation’s military, and Rockefeller eventually apologized.

Now we have unnamed fellow veterans claiming that McCain doesn’t understand war enough because of his captivity for the last five years of the Vietnam War. That is simply absurd. Cleland says that he didn’t know which heart and mind would blow him up, but McCain didn’t have to wonder at all which would torture him. He got a good, close look at the evil that totalitarians produce for over five years “on the ground”. How exactly does being forced into the captivity of the enemy “seal” one away from their tactics and their motivations?

Furthermore, when McCain got out, he got himself an assignment at the National War College to study the war and its lessons in great detail. As far as is known, none of his colleagues bothered to do the same. McCain also served for over twenty years on Senate committees overseeing the armed services and their strategies and tactics after having studied them through the NWC. For almost 40 years, McCain has kept himself not just informed but critically involved in matters of national security and defense.

The men named by Bai served their country well, but which of them have that kind of experience, study and track record? Laughably, Bai never quite asks how Kerry’s three months in-country trumps McCain’s years of imprisonment and study (his first tour was in the blue-water Navy offshore of Vietnam. not “on the ground”). Furthermore, between himself and either Democratic candidate, which one has the most qualifications to serve as Commander in Chief and to develop policies for national security?

If the Times wants to argue that McCain doesn’t understand Vietnam, they’ll have to do better at explaining how all of that experience handicaps his perspective. Once again, we have another non-story, albeit one with more interesting background.

Addendum: One minor point. Cleland did not lose his extremities as a consequence of the battle of Khe Sanh. He lost them thanks to someone else’s mistake in dropping a live grenade near Cleland, and his attempt to pick it up thinking he himself had dropped it. It didn’t happen during the battle at all. That doesn’t lessen the sacrifice Cleland made for his country or his amazing courage in overcoming his severe injuries, but Bai should have done a little more research in writing this piece.

Update: Bai also uses the Basra Narrative here, too, in drawing parallels between Iraq and Vietnam:

Still, in this current conflict there are echoes of Vietnam that have grown too loud to easily ignore. Both conflicts were entered into under pretenses that were later widely discredited. Reports from the front in Iraq depict American soldiers who find it difficult to discern friends from enemies as they try to navigate an unfamiliar culture, language and landscape. American leaders are talking yet again about transferring responsibility for the war to local forces and the police, but Iraqization doesn’t seem to be faring a whole lot better than Vietnamization did; last month, some 1,000 Iraqi troops deserted during a crucial battle in Basra.

Bai fails to mention that the Iraqi Army prevailed in Basra, which his own newspaper finally acknowledged a few days ago. They also forced the Mahdis to surrender Sadr City, and now are about to take on AQI in Mosul.