Let me start by saying that I don’t hate John McCain. While I think its kind of trite and meaningless to say I “respect” him for his experience in Vietnam, I do have a sincere sense of reverence for it. Though I am left of center relative to the U.S. political culture, and would never consider voting for a politician of his record, I have long been interested in his repeated inclinations to act differently in the political realm. I think his maverick status is far overblown, but so is the critique labeling him a run of the mill Republican and/or politician.
That said, he is a politician. The degree to which he differs from the pack does not absolve him from this “condition.” And, from my perspective, his great failure as a man seems to be his stubbornness as a politician. This quality and its accompanying inability to exhibit self-reflection have been part of his long career and continue to exhibit themselves in his campaign for the presidency.
A true maverick wouldn’t buy his own hype. He wouldn’t possess a chronic inability to see the cracks in his own self-constructed facade. He would exhibit a little introspection on matters of state and the question of war. Most politicians do that only when they’ve been caught with their proverbial hand in the cookie jar and need to exhibit humility or act contrite in order to save their political career. That’s expedient. I don’t necessarily fault a politician for being expedient (that may be the nature of the game), but I do fault one for pretending they aren’t so and then acting accordingly. John McCain has created and then cultivated his maverick persona as a political tool to make him more effective and win himself reelection. That is expedience. Worse, however, it seems he has also nurtured this self-construct as a way to absolve himself when he is stuck in the politics of expediency, corruption, and incompetence he so often criticizes.
It’s his stubborn unwillingness to question himself and his motivations that are troubling in this world of complexity. I’m not a psychologist, so I’ll leave those kinds of analyses aside, but as a historian who has more than a little bit experience with the process of weighing evidence and forming analysis with respect to politics, McCain has a record of acting in a rash, impulsive, and blind manner, and then sticking to his mistakes as if he were an adolescent caught in a lie.
The clearest example of this tendency is his defense of his actions in the “Keating Five” scandal. In that episode, as with other times he was in the wrong, he manages to externalize the blame as something outside of himself. For example, in his 2003 book Worth the Fighting For, McCain can never acknowledge any fault of his own, he is never guilty of a lapse in judgment or wrongdoing, no matter how unintentional. Even in the final chapter, when he discusses his stance on the South Carolina flag controversy (a position he later recanted) it is the environment of politics and not himself that is to blame.
The recent debate offered numerous examples of McCain’s unwillingness to reconsider the failed stances of his political career. While you can attribute these to political expediency (“what else can a politician do”), the times in which we live and the examples of his failed decisions are far too important to let alone due to the swarthy mess of U.S. politics.
With respect to Iraq, he is unable to admit his mistakes. When asked what the lessons of Iraq were, McCain said the following:
What? Did he just say the lessons are that you can’t lose a war? He did. He could have said the lessons were that we need to exhaust diplomacy before going to war; or to question with extreme scrutiny all evidence before going to war; or to honor our soldiers by making sure we never again deploy them for the wrong reasons. Maybe he couldn’t. But he could have shown that he is aware that such answers are reasonable and common.
My great fear is that McCain is trapped in Vietnam. The “again” he refers to in his answer above is Vietnam. The great lesson of this war, to him, is that you keep fighting until you win–as if all wars are able to be won by the U.S. if we only have the right strategy, use the right weapons, or want it enough. He exhibits the exact tendency shown by the U.S. government and military in the 1960s and 1970s, as revealed in published evidence like The Pentagon Papers, that is, a government so stuck on thinking of themselves as right they could not (re)consider the litany of fallacious assumptions that got them into war in the first place.
McCain is no maverick when it comes to U.S. foreign policy, including his record on when to use force and how to remain engaged in wars for the wrong reasons. There is no “honor” in this failure of his, there is only severe tragedy. In Vietnam, that tragedy amounted to more than 58,000 U.S. lives alone, not to mention the millions left injured in less lethal yet no less real or painful ways. What will McCain’s tally be in Iraq?