John McCain: A Life at War

America’s war in Vietnam  

While American veterans of the Second World War are referred to domestically as “the greatest generation” and veterans of the war in Korea more grimly referred to as “the forgotten generation”, for the young Americans who fought in the disastrous war in Vietnam, there was no single legacy but instead multiple and often conflicting ones.

In 1968, the high casualty rate during the Tet Offensive turned public opinion in the United States largely against the war in Vietnam. While the hippy culture and left-wing anti-war movement of the late 1960s was never as mainstream throughout America as it was in certain districts of New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, Tet was the beginning of the end when it came to mainstream America’s support for the war in Vietnam.

There was no greater symbol of the moderate centre-left antiwar movement than Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy who looked set to win the primary of the Democratic party and face the same Richard Nixon that his brother John faced in the 1960 election. Tragically, while needless deaths were piling up in Vietnam, prominent political assassinations were doing much the same in the United States. Not long after the assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy was gunned down at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.  The US had lost another Kennedy and by 1975 what most Americans already knew became fact: The United States had lost its war in Vietnam.

The veterans coming home from the war were not greeted with the ticker tape parades of world war veterans nor were they afforded the ability to silently slip back into civilian life as the generation of Americans who fought in Korea were. Many Vietnam veterans became part of the antiwar movement itself as many famously threw their medals of honour into the streets or onto the steps of the US Capitol.  Others succumbed to drugs or alcohol while homelessness still plagues some surviving Vietnam veterans. Others yet joined police forces and became teachers but few were afforded the dignity of previous generations of veterans who “won the wars” in which they fought.

McCain’s captivity

Unlike many of the young men drafted into the military and forced against their better judgement to fight in a war they did not want to fight and could barely understand, John McCain came from a long line of military men and did not hesitate to fight in the war in Vietnam.

In 1967, McCain was flying a A-4E Skyhawk above Hanoi when it was shot down. McCain was captured alive and imprisoned for five years. When he was released, he received something of a unique heroes welcome in the midst of a war were the American street increasingly felt no heroism came into play. By the time  McCain was released from prison in 1973, the United States would see the Watergate scandal, economic stagnation and the oil crisis take precedence over the last stages of the war in south east Asia.

It would take another decade before McCain could maximise his image as a “war hero” as in the 1970s the US simply did not have time for heroes. This was the age of a crumbling presidency, a Dollar that was no longer as good as gold and a time when the jingoistic Hollywood films of the 1940s were replaced by Apocalypse Now – the surreal masterwork whose fictional storyline based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darnkess captured the nations’ feelings abut the failed, futile and freakish American war in south east Asia.

A Republican maverick beloved by his political opposition

John McCain entered the US Congress in 1983. The era of Ronald Reagan whose policies McCain generally supported tended to see the restoration of jingoism in the American psyche in a sharp contrast to the previous decade when cynicism dominated the political landscape. McCain went from the US House of Representatives to the US Senate after easily winning election in 1986. McCain would be consistently re-elected to his Senate seat and would in fact die prior to relinquishing it.

McCain’s record as a Senator was always controversial. In terms of domestic policy he was something of a renegade as he endorsed multiple policies that were generally associated with the Democratic party and American liberalism. Whether campaign finance reform, joining the Democrats in opposing the tobacco industry, voting in favour of restrictions on enterprise in order to address climate change, opposition to pork barrel spending and a position that was seen as many Republicans as “soft” on Mexican immigration, McCain ended up making many enemies in his own party while winning a surprising amount of respect from prominent Democrats.

It was from the position of a political maverick that McCain entered the 2000 presidential race campaigning to become the nominee of the Republican party. Ultimately, he lost to George W. Bush who at the time was seen as being safer pair of hands when it came to traditional Republican issues including tax reductions, fiscal conservatism and perhaps ironically an opposition to interventionist wars.

A time for war 

Until the late 1999 US war on a crumbling Yugoslavia, John McCain’s voting record on military interventionism was quite mixed. He initially opposed involvement in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and also opposed Bill Clinton’s notorious intervention in Somalia. McCain also deviated from the Republican mainstream in supporting the ban on arms sales to Iraq long before George H. W. Bush decided to pivot from an Iraqi ally to an opponent of Saddam Hussein’s government.

It was only after 1999 that John McCain’s reputation as someone who never met a war he did not like became solidified. After the 9/11 atrocity, McCain became an outspoken proponent of the neocon strategy of so-called “preemptive war” which in reality meant aggressive war cloaked in an exceptionalist ideology. While McCain’s status as a maverick in domestic politics meant that he was kept at arms length by the neocons of the Bush White House, McCain’s status as someone who actually went to war helped bolster the credentials of the neocon movement whose composition was largely formed around self-described intellectuals who almost to a man avoided serving in the Vietnam war.

While McCain was something of the useful cheerleader for the neocons, it was only after 2008 that his status as a political hero was cemented in the most unlikely fashion.

From rivals to partners: Obama and McCain 

In 2008, McCain won his party’s primary and would face off against the young, articulate black Senator Barack Obama who won a hard fought primary campaign against his main rival Hillary Clinton. Few modern Presidential candidates fought a campaign as poorly as McCain. Where Obama’s campaign was centred on the themes of optimism, hope and a rejection of the wars of the Bush years, McCain’s looked like more of a retirement party than a presidential campaign. When McCain made the choice of asking Alaska governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate, things went from bad to worse. Palin’s frequent rhetorical faux pauxs and her apparent ignorance regarding foreign policy made it clear that McCain had lost the election long before polling day.

McCain returned to the Senate where he opposed many of Obama’s flagship domestic proposals along with his fellow republicans. But after Obama won a second term, McCain became a kind of unofficial member of the Obama White House, appealing to a candidate who campaigned on a platform of peace to go to war.

Obama followed McCain’s suggestions in respect of continuing to pursue war in Afghanistan, invading Libya in 2011 and funding anti-government militants in Ukraine and Syria. As Obama like Bush before him went from a peace candidate to a staunchly pro-war President, McCain was there at every turn praising the moves for war while criticising only the fact that they did not go far enough.

Long before the arrival of Donald Trump, McCain painted both Russia and China as supreme enemies of the United States while he frequently dismissed criticisms that in Syria the US was on the side of jihadist terrorists while undermining a secular government that was fighting them. He further never apologised for being photographed with open neo-Nazis in Ukraine even when occasionally confronted with questions regarding such policies.

In many respects, McCain’s Indian summer was during the second term of Barack Obama where his pro-war attitudes were able to help Obama divide the Congressional opposition while lending a form of credence through experience to the Obama White House which was notorious for being home to more Harvard men than military veterans.

From Republican maverick to liberal hero: McCain in the age of Trump 

While John McCain was always viewed with suspicion by many members of his own party for his unpredictable domestic policy stances, in the age of Trump, John McCain became something he never was at any prior moment in his life. McCain’s opposition to and bitter personal rivalry with Donald Trump led McCain to become the darling of a post-modern liberal movement that embraced the pro-war policies of the Obama era and rallied around anything and everything that Donald Trump clearly hated.

McCain may well have been as surprised as anyone that his pet issues of opposing anything mildly Russian and calling for more rather than less war in the Middle East were now the calling cards of a Democratic party mainstream that began to see McCain as a grandfatherly figure both for his hardline militant foreign policies and his open disdain for Donald Trump. This saw McCain being largely abandoned if not excoriated by pro-Trump media personalities and activists, something he appeared to revel in as it only increased his prestige among liberals and anti-Trump neocons.

The Trump-McCain rivalry continued until McCain’s dying day. Neither man ever made peace with the other and Donald Trump’s self-evidently obligatory Tweet of condolences is notably briefer than statements made by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush.

McCain and the world 

McCain was if anything more polarising around the world than he was at home. In the countries where the US waged McCain supported wars, he is remembered as a supreme menace who at times led the Obama administration by the nose into places where even George W. Bush did not dare to tread. Among Takfiri factions in Syria and Libya, among the neo-fascists in Ukraine, the ultra-nationalists of Georgia and the Kurdish separatists throughout Syria, Iraq and Turkey, the MEK terror group in Iran, the royalist Iranians in the United States and the breakaway regime in Taipei, McCain will clearly be missed.

McCain – hero, villain or failure? 

McCain will certainly always be a hero to some and a villain to others and all for the same reasons. The more overriding question therefore is, was John McCain’s political life a success or a failure?

The English parliamentarian Enoch Powell famously said “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs“. Insofar as McCain never attained the office of Presidency he longed for and as he died at a time when his Republican party is being led by a man who in terms of policy and personal proclivities is literally the “anti-McCain” – one could say that John McCain’s political career was a prolonged series of disappointments with the rise of Trump merely being the most visible.

But on the other hand, McCain was also a success in so far as he was the pro-war Vietnam veteran who died being praised by the Democratic party whose most charismatic would-be leader in the late 1960s condemned the war that McCain happily fought in. While never allowed into the neocon club, McCain also won the hearts of the neocons in an age of Trump when they needed all of the allies they could find.

Perhaps the biggest tribute paid to McCain came from a man he continually insulted, heaped scorn upon and even lied about through his final decades. Even before his death, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the following about McCain,

“Well, honestly, I like Senator McCain to a certain extent. And I’m not joking. I like him because of his patriotism, and I can relate to his consistency in fighting for the interests of his own country”.

Given the fact that what McCain said about the Russian President was consistently negative and given the fact that McCain authored policies which helped to endanger Russia’s national security, perhaps McCain’s career was neither a success nor a failure but instead is best described as one which strove for consistency and ended up being mired in contradiction. Today, McCain’s loved one’s are waking up to a personal loss and a strange reality wherein the President of Russia has nicer things to say about Senator John McCain than does the President of the United States. In this sense, the real rule of politics is to always expect the unexpected.

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