DURING THE 2004 ELECTION, Democrats and their allies on the activist Left were adamant that a candidate’s military record was strictly off-limits to criticism. John Kerry was a war hero, and to suggest different was, as columnist David Ignatius averred, defamation. It turns out these partisans meant to exempt themselves from the rule.
As an example, observe the nascent smear campaign against John McCain’s military service. This past weekend, retired general and declared Barack Obama backer Wesley Clark went on CBS’s Face the Nation, where he proceeded to dismiss the import of McCain’s military background in the current race. “I don’t think getting in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to become president,” Clark sniffed. The real issue, according to Clark, was that McCain was “untested and untried.”
McCain’s campaign was quick to condemn Clark’s comments. Secretly, though, it must have been pleased. With his surrogates blasting away at McCain’s war record, Obama was left exposed on several flanks. If McCain, with his 22-year career in the Navy and his 26-years in Congress, is “untested and untried,” what then is one to make of Obama, whose single term in the senate is most notable for its pious adherence to liberal orthodoxy? Meanwhile, to discount McCain’s distinguished military career – his honors include the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, the Legion of Merit, the Purple Heart, and the Distinguished Flying Cross – as nothing more than “getting into a fighter plane and getting shut down” is to traffic in precisely the kind of sleazy politics that Obama, once upon a time, professed to reject. Of all the fights one could pick with McCain, the battle over his war service surely is the most ill-advised. Recognizing the fact, Obama later rejected Clark’s statement through a spokesman.
But according to Obama’s supporters on the Left, he was wrong to do so. On liberal blogs, it’s de rigueur to sneer that McCain’s naval service is actually a sham, his accomplishments falsely inflated to sell the senator as a war hero. In this account, McCain is a serial incompetent who “lost” five planes as a pilot. As a writer on the Huffington Post recently put it, “From day one in the Navy, McCain screwed-up again and again, only to be forgiven because his father and grandfather were four-star admirals.”
That is one way to look at it. Another is that McCain’s critics are shamefully ignorant of the war record they disparage.
Take the planes that McCain lost, allegedly through his bungling. Even a brief review of the record indicates otherwise. Twice, McCain’s planes experienced engine failure, forcing him to eject. In both cases, McCain biographer Paul Alexander observes, McCain survived a crash “that occurred through no fault of his own.” On another occasion, in July of 1967, McCain’s A-4 Skyhawk, then aboard the USS Forrestal air craft carrier, was destroyed when a missile accidentally fired from another plane struck its fuel tank. McCain barely survived the blast, and 134 sailors were killed in the ensuing blaze. Most famously, in October of 1967, McCain was shot down over North Vietnam by a surface-to-air missile. Ejecting from the plane, McCain broke both his arms upon landing and was captured by the Vietnamese; he would spend the next six brutal years as a prisoner of war.
None McCain’s fault, these crashes would seem merely to affirm his dedication to his country in the face of life-threatening trials and tribulations. And while it is true that McCain could have benefitted from the prestige of his admiral father, he specifically declined to do so, refusing his Vietnamese captors’ offer to be released so that comrades who had been imprisoned longer could be set free. In the face of this evidence, to portray McCain as a screw-up son of privilege is to invert the truth.
Equally unimpressive is the simulated outrage that McCain may have killed civilians in battle. An old standby of the anti-war movement, it has not improved with age. In the first place, there is nothing to suggest that McCain either intentionally targeted or approved of the targeting of civilians. Far from it, he has always insisted that one of the unacknowledged successes of American bombing raids in North Vietnam was their ability to cripple the communist regime with a minimum of casualties.
Notably, no comparable concern for civilian life animated those who, like Tom Hayden and Noam Chomsky, now interrogate McCain’s morals on this count. As the leader of the egregiously misnamed Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s, Hayden raised funds and furnished propaganda for a North Vietnamese regime that would go on to kill or imprison over a million Vietnamese and force nearly two million into flight. As for Chomsky – who doggedly defended the genocidal atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and its murder of over 1 million Cambodians long after the grim facts were made known – the notion that he is fit to pass judgment on anyone is itself an affront to decency.
Don’t look to the establishment media to referee this fight fairly. The New York Times, indirectly wading into the controversy, reports that military veterans, particularly those who served on Navy Swift boats, are up in arms over the use of “swift boating” as an all-purpose pejorative for campaign smears and below-the-belt politics. Unmentioned by the Times is that the term was coined and is now deployed by the same anti-war Left that claims to find it so objectionable. If the unscrupulous attacks on McCain don’t deserve to be condemned as “swift boating,” nothing does.
Democrats, for their part, seem to think they’ve found a winning issue in McCain’s war record. Given what the resulting debate reveals about both the candidate and his opponents, they’re probably correct. It’s just that the winner is likely to be John McCain.