There’s a saying that John McCain never saw a war he didn’t like. That is only partly true. He understood the price of war more than most. What McCain believed was that the United States, rightly or wrongly, had a strategic and moral obligation to use its power to impose liberal democratic principles. He proselytized war, that heavy instrument of human violence, because he believed it was the best way to end tyranny and its associated human rights abuses. His voting record on the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, to name just a few, attests to this belief.
It seems ironic that a neoconservative (as he was called) should have the same moral ends as human rights groups (as they are called). Both hold that the values of liberal democracy are moral imperatives, and both want the United States to use its power to reshape the world, often with the same tools – lectures, sanctions, intervention, and so on. I say it seems ironic because it really isn’t. It is the vision of U.S. foreign policy that emerged from World War II, which imparted its lessons to students such as McCain.
The United States saw World War II as a moral war. The Axis powers were evil states that did evil things. Their people needed to be saved from their own governments. It’s a tempting thought to dismiss, but doing so, I think, would be a mistake. There were important strategic considerations for joining the war, of course, but the immorality of the Axis powers was the basis for the sacrifice. That sacrifice required the use of overwhelming force, which led to the destruction of those regimes, the imposition of liberal democracy and the liberation of the Japanese, German and Italian people.
This vision was the foundation for the resistance to the Soviet Union and, later, China. The conceptual framework for defeating communism was the same as for defeating the Nazis: Stop their advance by stabilizing liberal democracies on their periphery, arm their enemies, then launch an overwhelming military campaign to defeat them.
The ensuing war was a world war by different means. Some fronts such as Korea were mostly conventional wars. Others like the Congo were covert, waged through proxies. Each side sought to undermine the other in a particular place rather than in a global theater. Decisive victory would have led to nuclear war, so combat was waged in relatively unimportant areas.
But in limiting their engagement, they violated the “total war” principle that governed World War II. Total war was intended to annihilate the enemy. These new wars were intended to defeat the enemy without annihilating it. The goal for both sides was the triumph of their ideology. In this sense, neither victory nor loss would alter the balance of power. So the point was not to win but to confront and block.
Nothing after World War II could be considered total war, not even the war in which McCain cut his teeth: Vietnam. When McCain went to school, there was a saying that the U.S. had never lost a war, Korea having been a tie. That was true until the U.S. lost in Vietnam. (Some may argue that it counts as a win because the U.S. defeated the Communists in every engagement. Yet the North’s flag flew in Saigon all the same.) And it lost because it pursued a World War II end without the coherence of a World War II means, whereby all resources were dedicated to total victory. Vietnam was not worth all of America’s resources, nor was total victory the goal. So some resources were devoted to an inarticulate goal, and those resources were wasted.
It was in this war that John McCain was famously captured, imprisoned and tortured for five years. He was eventually released, and when he came home, he came home to a country in which he, the warrior, was blamed for the war, where activists openly challenged America’s liberal democratic credentials and questioned the moral depravity of the enemy government and thus the moral rectitude of their own. In World War II, no one doubted that the Axis powers were morally depraved. No one criticized the soldiers for the devastation they wrought. Partly that’s because World War II was a morally unambiguous main event, not a sideshow in a global conflict whose primary goal was the avoidance of both victory and nuclear war.
Over time, though, America came together and accepted that the principles of World War II applied in Vietnam. Those who fought, fought a repressive regime. Those who served, served honorably.
But the things we were taught in school were no longer true. The United States had been defeated in a war. Now there are those who hesitate to pursue the moral ends of World War II, not because the ends are unjust but because victory, long held to be assured, is no longer guaranteed. John McCain was not one of those people. He never wavered in that belief, even if he evolved in other ways after he became a senator. He returned to Vietnam and accepted the regime, still a communist dictatorship, against which he fought. But he never forgot the lessons of World War II. He accepted the American moral mission. He continued to believe that the U.S. would win whatever war it entered. He became subtler and more understanding of the challenges, but his belief was unshakable that intervention was the moral course.
And so, paradoxically, McCain’s war was not Vietnam but World War II, where right governed all things and all wars are won by Americans. McCain never quite accepted that World War II was the exception, not the rule. He never quite accepted that some enemies cannot be defeated, even if they are militarily inferior, even if they are willing to die. He never quite accepted that the cost of pursuing human rights everywhere outstrips the ability and appetite of the American people. And he continued to believe in a neutral intervention in which Americans take no sides but awe everyone with their sheer firepower.
McCain and America fought the war in Vietnam based on the core principles of World War II – the right and might of the United States. We all know that in wars that are “just,” there is no such thing as too much power. But in, say, Iraq and Afghanistan, we learned there are wars where overwhelming force is no match for an enemy prepared to die, and willing to fight forever, no matter how many human rights they trample.
John McCain lived an extraordinary life, a life to be admired and emulated by the few who would dare, and he died a hero. He was a hero not because he was shot down or because he was tortured, but because he climbed into the cockpit of his A-4 day after day and flew into the most intense surface-to-air belt in the world, knowing that the chance of dying was high. He represented perhaps the purest of American times, the times when it was understood what was just, and when the decision to go to war carried with it the certainty of victory. McCain leaves behind two valuable lessons. One is the meaning of character. The other is that times change, and as they do, so too does the execution of power.