What makes anyone think that spending time as a prisoner of war improves a person’s ability to think clearly about matters of national security? Does anyone think that spending time in a cell on Alcatraz or in Attica enhanced those prisoners’ understanding of jurisprudence?
The danger is that such experiences have quite the opposite effect: prisons are infamous as “schools for crime” in which prisoners with too much time on their hands endlessly swap tips and best-practices for resuming and succeeding at their chosen pursuits once released.
John McCain runs a TV commercial in which he asserts “I hate war” and reminds us that he has seen it up close and personal. But we have seen his actions when confronted with the choice of war-or-not-war. And however much he may think he hates it, he chooses it time and again over alternative methods of resolving conflicts. At least, he has voted for every use of military force that came his way in the Congress: Panama in 1989, the Persian Gulf in 1991, and of course the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Hates war? Maybe. But apparently, he never saw a war he didn’t like at least a little. And he disdained an opportunity to back a graceful bill that would have recast this futile quest for ill-defined victory in Iraq around a “more limited set of missions” (S. Amendment 3876). Perhaps a classic illustration of the old axiom that if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Psychoanalysts have a word that seems to apply to John McCain’s relationship with war: “cathected”. It describes the situation when a person invests another person or a subject with intense emotional energy, even libidinal energy. But then what else might we expect of man who was born on a naval base, whose father and grandfather were both four-star Admirals in the U.S. Navy (there are few more exalted roles to be had than that) and who himself chose to have his most formative years shaped by life in a military academy (where, finishing with a rank of 894 out of 899 graduates, he still had a lot to prove about his military manhood)—a man who then went on to a well-documented career as naval warrior and POW, and whose political career was lubricated with an interim job as chief lobbyist for the U.S. Navy. Little wonder that his autobiography was entitled Faith of My Fathers and was saturated with military exploits. And he cheerfully agrees with “The Bush Doctrine” of launching a pre-emptive war anywhere, any time, if the country “feels” threatened.
John McCain’s cathexis to war would also account for his instant reaction on the morning of 9/11: “These were not just crimes against the U.S., they are acts of war. We will prevail in this war, as we have prevailed in the past.”
Of course they were nothing of the sort. They were exactly what he denied—crimes against the U.S. They were terrorist acts, as many realized immediately and the 9/11 Commission later pointed out so lucidly to the annoyance of the Bush administration and supporters like John McCain who had reacted as if 9/11 really had been an act of war. But Bush’s naming it “The War on Terror” didn’t make it a war, and in fact the misnomer triggered the use of all the wrong responses that actually started a real war—the totally unnecessary war on Iraq. (The Brits whose brilliant police work has identified and forestalled subsequent terrorist attacks understood the true, sleeper-cell nature of the danger—notwithstanding Blair’s politically motivated partnering with Bush in the invasion of Iraq.)
John McCain, whose genuinely heroic military service to America will be honored forever, still seeks “victory” in Iraq, still fears “defeat”, and still relies on military might to deal with threats that are more nearly bacterial than geo-political. What an unholy alliance—a Senator who has seen so much of war that it defines his innate response to defending America, joined at the hip with a President who knows so little of war (and was a no-show when it was his turn to learn firsthand) that its use becomes a juvenile reaction to complex global developments, in the absence of his possessing any alternative tools of statecraft.
Barack Obama would be well advised to appoint John McCain as his Secretary of Defense. By so doing, he would ensure that when military action became utterly inevitable, the forces would be equipped and managed by a leader who truly understands what they need in the field, what they need from Washington, and what they emphatically do not need from Washington. Everything about McCain’s lifelong experience would equip him to perform this role perhaps better than any predecessor ever. Meanwhile, the definition of when and where and why to use military force, rather than other means, would be left to a Commander-in-Chief whose thinking may be somewhat more supple on such matters.