What would the children have said?

Last week as most Americans were remembering Senator John McCain’s lifetime of service, a Duke professor was busy penning an op-ed in which she groused that while people were lauding McCain’s life, they also were, she complains, “spending less time frankly discussing his weaknesses.” Much of her essay is offensive not just to the memory of Senator McCain and the sensibilities of those that grieve his death, but also to veterans and those who care about them.

Sure, the op-ed writer makes note of a few positives about McCain, but still brings up a decades-old and deeply personal matter: Senator McCain’s 1980 divorce. She then goes on to cast literary stones at what she evidently judges to be his “weaknesses.” Decide for yourself what you think of what she says, but as a veteran, I found this part of her op-ed especially disheartening:

“When the final tally is made of the death and disaster that were the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, McCain’s advocacy will have to be reckoned with. The son and grandson of Navy admirals, McCain’s support of military intervention was unwavering. Might he have seen the wars differently had he seen them through the eyes of a child of Iraq or Afghanistan rather than through the eyes of a U.S. military careerist?”

“Military careerist”? To call someone who served in the armed forces a “military careerist” is a slur of the first order. This isn’t an affront of recent vintage: Richard Halloran pointed out in the New York Times back in 1988  that “careerists” are:

“[M]ilitary officers who are more concerned with their promotions than with the performance of their current duties. They seek assignments that will make them visible to senior officers, or settle into comfortable jobs that open the way to lucrative civilian jobs.”

Does anyone on planet earth (other than perhaps this op-ed writer) truly think that term describes John McCain in any way? McCain was Sam Damon, not Courtney Massengale. (And anyone who doesn’t know what that means ought to steer clear of using the “careerist” word in reference to a military officer.)

Moreover, the very suggestion that John McCain – of all people – did not appreciate the consequences of war is as insulting as it is wholly preposterous. McCain knew war as few others did. He spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war enduring horrific beatings and torture, and living in brutal conditions. The injuries he sustained as a prisioner were so severe that he was never able to fully recover.

McCain could have shortened his captivity had he accepted the early release the North Vietnamese offered. But McCain would not accept it as he knew they were aiming for a propaganda victory that would demoralize the remaining POWs by showing him as a privileged son of an admiral. His refusal to break faith with his fellow captives has deep meaning. As the Business Insider reports:

‘McCain’s survival through years of nearly fatal torture and hardship in the Hanoi prison known as the “Hanoi Hilton” was made more impressive by his refusal to be repatriated before the release of all the American POWs captured before him.”

Furthermore, nothing in the op-ed suggests the writer read what Senator McCain said about the very subject she seems to think he fails to appreciate. In 2008 he explained that the “advocacy” the professor denigrates is not because he is “somehow indifferent to war and the suffering it inflicts.” Rather, McCain said:

“I hold my position because I hate war, and I know very well and very personally how grievous its wages are. But I know, too, that we must sometimes pay those wages to avoid paying even higher ones later.”

In fact, if anyone knows the cost of war, it’s someone who has actually seen its horror. As General Eisenhower noted in 1946, “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.” Yet he also recognized the harsh realities of the world when he warned that “as long as there persists a threat to freedom, [free nations] must, at any cost, remain armed, strong, and ready for the risk of war.”

General Douglas MacArthur said something similar in his famous 1962 Farewell Speech at West Point:

“Your guidepost stands out like a tenfold beacon in the night: Duty, Honor, Country. You are the leaven which binds together the entire fabric of our national system of defense. From your ranks come the great captains who hold the Nation’s destiny in their hands the moment the war tocsin sounds….This does not mean that you are warmongers. On the contrary, the soldier above all other people prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war. But always in our ears ring the ominous words of Plato, that wisest of all philosophers: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” (Emphasis added.)

To me, the op-ed conjures up stereotypes about those who served, labels that date back to the Vietnam War. Writing in the New York Times last year Kyle Longley explained how the 1960s antiwar mantra of “Hey, hey, L.B.J. how many babies did you kill today?” adversely affected the way Vietnam veterans were treated when they came home:

“Implicit in the chant was the instrument of Lyndon B. Johnson’s brutal, inhuman policy: the young men fighting in Vietnam. And it didn’t take much for many Americans, especially war protesters, to decide that the soldiers were themselves brutal and inhuman — leading to an ugly backlash against returning servicemen.”

Many Vietnam vets suffered because of that stereotyping, so you may understand why it’s really infuriating to now hear anyone even insinuate that those who serve or have served are somehow disposed to use force in any situation short of grave necessity. I thought (hoped?) we were past all that.

Fortunately, today the vast majority of people have more confidence in the military than any other institution in American society, including organized religion. Moreover, 78% Americans also believe “that members of the armed services contribute “a lot” to society’s well-being.” And another recent poll shows that military officers are second only to nurses as the profession most respected by Americans.

But the op-ed made me realize, sadly, that negative stereotyping still exists about the small minority of Americans who serve or have served in the armed forces. The truth is that military service can help to create peace and justice. The Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World) explains this:

“Those who devote themselves to the military service of their country should regard themselves as the agents of security and freedom of peoples. As long as they fulfill this role properly, they are making a genuine contribution to the establishment of peace.”

Still, what might a “child of Iraq” (as the professor puts it) say about U.S. military interventions as seen through the child’s eyes? If asked in 1990 or 2003, maybe something like this: please save me from this monster I see – Saddam Hussein  – as he’s responsible for killing as many as 500,000 of my countrymen.

If the “child of Iraq” was a 12 year-old Yazidi girl in 2015, she might have said, please save me from rape and sexual slavery that I’m seeing all around me, and that I’m a victim of as well.  In this respect, consider the New York Times reportage about the religious perversion of the Islamic State. In article entitled “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape” the Times records the account of the “systematic rape of women and girls from the Yazidi religious minority.”

The article relates a heartbreaking story that a preteen Iraqi girl of the Yazidi faith tells about an ISIS fighter who “bound her hands and gagged her” before getting on top of her. The Times reports:

“I kept telling him it hurts — please stop,” said the girl, whose body is so small an adult could circle her waist with two hands. “He told me that according to Islam he is allowed to rape an unbeliever. He said that by raping me, he is drawing closer to God,” she said in an interview alongside her family in a refugee camp here, to which she escaped after 11 months of captivity.

Does anyone think intervening to try to stop such abominations is wrong?

What might a “child of Afghanistan” have said in 2001? Maybe something like, please save me from Taliban who I have seen impose “a brutal version of Sharia law, such as public executions and amputations, and [who have] banned women from public life.”

A female child might also have said something like this in 2002, please free me from Taliban tyranny because I’ve seen that “women and girls [are] almost completely excluded from educational opportunities.” (Today, according to USAID, 39% of the 9.2 million children enrolled in school are girls, and 100,000 women are university students).

In 2018, a male or female “child of Afghanistan” might say: please save me from Taliban, al-Qaeda, and ISIS terror, as I have seen the UN reports that show they are responsible for at least 67% of the civilian deaths. 

Of course, no one – including McCain – denies that mistakes were made in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and Vietnam for that matter), but to pretend the world would be a better place with Saddam Hussein alive and in power in an Iraq that occupies Kuwait (why doesn’t the professor ask about a “child of Kuwait”?) is simply wrong. Much the same can be said for about an Afghanistan in which the inhumane Taliban would rule and al-Qaeda is permitted to plot their evil terror without restraint.

People can rightly debate the wisdom of Senator McCain’s political positions (though propriety suggests that now is not the time for that). Regrettably, the professor who penned that op-ed mostly focuses not on policy disagreements, but rather fixates on what she thinks are McCain’s personal weaknesses.

The reality is that he would be the first to say he was, like all of us, imperfect. But the imperfect can still do great things, and McCain certainly proved that. When once asked what being a Christian meant to him, McCain answered, “It means I’m saved and forgiven.”

McCain wanted to be remembered simply as someone who served his country, and that he clearly did. Similarly, General MacArthur wanted to be remembered as someone who “tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty.”

Isn’t that what we all should strive to do?

Still, as we like to say on Lawfire®, check the facts, assess the arguments, and decide for yourself!

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