By Anna Merlan
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Right before Barack Obama took off on his tour of Mideast battlefronts, John McCain pointedly reminded everyone which presidential candidate has the real military cred: "I know how to win wars," he told a town-hall meeting in Albuquerque. For good measure, he said it again. "I know how to win wars. If I am elected president, I will turn around the war in Afghanistan, just as we have turned around the war in Iraq, with a comprehensive strategy for victory. I know how to do that."
Despite McCain's occasional gaffes, like where Iraq ends and Pakistan begins, and juvenile outbursts, like his "Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" ditty, this seems like a reasonable claim. While Obama wouldn't know a Scud missile from a bunker buster, McCain is a famous combat veteran. He is the grandson and son of legendary admirals. His autobiography lays out his mighty military lineage: It includes Confederate cavalry officers, Indian fighters, and a staff aide to George Washington. Back in the old country, McCain's clan descended from Robert the Bruce, Scotland's fierce soldier-king (think Mel Gibson in savage war paint in Braveheart and you're close).
Still, you have to wonder whether this mighty martial gene pool has gotten watered down over the years.
For instance, even though McCain is paid proper and careful homage by everyone—especially Democrats—for his harrowing five and a half years as a North Vietnamese prisoner of war, it is pretty well established that the missions that landed him in the Hanoi Hilton in the first place were largely futile.
By the time McCain's Navy fighter plane was shot down while on a bombing run over Hanoi on October 26, 1967, Pentagon officials were already convinced that bombing wasn't having much effect on North Vietnam's war-making ability.
Not that they told anyone. Secret studies ordered by then–Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara—documents that later famously surfaced as the Pentagon Papers—proved that the government was pulling a bait-and-switch on the American people: "The public was told that North Vietnam was being bombed because it was infiltrating men and supplies into South Vietnam," McNamara's analysts wrote. The bombings' aim, the public was told, was "to reduce the flow and/or to increase the costs of the infiltration."
Privately, the aides acknowledged, "target selection had been completely dominated by political and psychological considerations."
This wasn't for lack of trying. In 1966 alone, American fighters dropped as much ordnance on the North as was used in all of World War II, pounding parts of the country into cratered moonscapes. The Pentagon dubbed its air campaign "Rolling Thunder." The name came from the hymn "How Great Thou Art" and was the Vietnam version of "Shock and Awe." Except it was a flop.
"Since the beginning of the Rolling Thunder air strikes on North Vietnam," the analysts wrote, "the flow of men and materiel from North Vietnam to South Vietnam has greatly increased, and present evidence provides no basis for concluding that the damage inflicted on North Vietnam by the bombing program has had any significant impact on this flow."
What to do? The substitute rationale for the bombing, the secret history confides, was that the strikes would help boost sagging morale in the south, and show Ho Chi Minh that the U.S. wasn't about to cut and run like the weak-kneed French.
At the same time, the bombing brought the usual collateral damage. In his book Faith of Our Fathers, McCain described how he and other flying aces were careful to hit only their assigned military and industrial targets. Contrary to both anti-war and Vietnamese propaganda, he wrote, it "was not a campaign of terror and wanton destruction against innocent civilians." The pilots and their commanders, he said, "exercised great care to keep civilian casualties to a minimum."
But mistakes happen. During the first six months of 1967, while McCain was part of an attack squadron of A-4 Skyhawks on the carrier Oriskany in the South China Sea, North Vietnamese officials said some 167 schools were bombed, along with 230 churches, three seminaries, and 23 pagodas. In late September—just a month before McCain's crash on his 23rd bombing run—U.S. planes managed to drop four massive container bombs (2,400 pellet bombs apiece) on a grade school in Thanh Hoa province, south of Hanoi. The school had just reopened after the summer recess and, according to Vietnamese reports, the attack killed 33 pupils, ages 8 to 12. Thirty more were wounded, including two teachers. That was a single incident. The American estimate is that the 1965-68 bombing campaign killed between 52,000 and 182,000 civilians; the Vietnamese claim the figure was several times higher.
Regardless of the death toll, the naval aviator with the blood of admirals and warriors flowing in his veins was also convinced that the attacks were a waste. "Most of the pilots flying the missions believed that our targets were virtually worthless," he wrote in his book. (He adds, in one of those lines that makes it hard not to like the guy, "We all thought our civilian commanders were complete idiots.")
So there's a moral quandary for you: Everyone—from the flyers in the air to the Pentagon pinheads calling the targets—admits the bombing doesn't work. Meanwhile, the bombing continues and civilian casualties keep mounting. Where exactly might this behavior register on a 1-to-10 scale of culpable war crimes?
For sure, it's not Radovan Karadzic and his 8,000 Muslim corpses in Bosnia. But neither is it the stuff of George Washington taking on the redcoats, or even Stonewall Jackson standing tall against the better-armed Yanks.
Of course, despite his officer's rank, McCain was only following orders, not giving them. And the real architects of that callous and blundering war have never been called to account. Henry Kissinger, who ordered the deadly Christmas bombings of Hanoi in 1972 using high-flying B-52s incapable of hitting precise targets, still waltzes through New York cocktail parties. But Kissinger is a major hero for McCain, who suggests in his book that had those raids continued, the U.S. would have won. (Kissinger is today a McCain campaign adviser.)
Thanks to the Internet's inherent factual sloppiness, there's a bevy of zealous left-wing websites, including a YouTube posting, that mistakenly claim that McCain admitted in a 1997 interview with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes that he committed war crimes. "I am a war criminal," the sites have him saying. But that's just a lefty leap of fantasy. The transcript shows that McCain was in the midst of explaining to Wallace how he had finally broken under torture. "I wrote a confession," he told Wallace. "I was guilty of war crimes against the Vietnamese people. I intentionally bombed women and children."
Of course, he did no such thing. You can't read McCain's account of his imprisonment and not seethe with fury at his jailers. There was the teenage guard who delighted in slapping him in the face and spilling his food every morning; the relentless interrogators who doled out beatings and rope-torture; the endless months in solitary confinement. Those five wrenching years as a prisoner of war, as well as McCain's daring flights through enemy anti-aircraft fire, make him a very brave man. But they don't make him innocent. Or, for that matter, an expert at winning wars.