Joe Conason: What John McCain didn't learn in Vietnam

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[Joe Conason writes a weekly column for Salon and the New York Observer. His new book is "It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush."]

Nobody has denigrated the service of John McCain or his suffering in captivity as a prisoner of North Vietnam, as much as his supporters wish to pretend that someone did. Nobody has denied that his valor in captivity offers insight into his character. But so far almost nobody has asked the most important question about McCain's military experience, which is how his past might influence his future as president.

The most pertinent issue is not what McCain did or didn't do during the war in Vietnam, but what he learned from that searing, incredibly bloody and wholly unnecessary failure of U.S. policy. Clearly he learned that torture is morally wrong, illegal and counterproductive, and he has spoken with great moral authority on that issue. But listening to him now and over the past decade or so, he also seems not to have learned why that war itself was a tragic mistake -- and why we needed to leave Vietnam long before we did.

Indeed, what is most striking about McCain's attitude toward Vietnam is his insistence that we could have won -- that we should have won -- with more bombs and more casualties. In 1998, he spoke on the 30th anniversary of the Tet Offensive. "Like a lot of Vietnam veterans, I believed and still believe that the war was winnable," he said. "I do not believe that it was winnable at an acceptable cost in the short or probably even the long term using the strategy of attrition which we employed there to such tragic results. I do believe that had we taken the war to the North and made full, consistent use of air power in the North, we ultimately would have prevailed." Five years later, he said much the same thing to the Council on Foreign Relations. "We lost in Vietnam because we lost the will to fight, because we did not understand the nature of the war we were fighting, and because we limited the tools at our disposal."

Very few military historians agree with McCain's bitter analysis, which suggests that a ground invasion and an even more destructive bombing campaign, with an unimaginable cost in human life, would have achieved an American victory. But perhaps because he is obsessed by the humiliation of defeat -- which fell directly on his father, Adm. John S. McCain Jr., who served as the commander in chief of Pacific forces during the Vietnam conflict -- the former prisoner of war seemingly can formulate neither a rational assessment of that war's enormous costs nor of its flawed premises and purposes.

To reach such an assessment requires, at the very least, a review of the relevant statistics, although such data can scarcely convey the war's horror. Numbers are useful, however, because they provide perspective on the assertions of politicians like McCain, whose rhetoric of "victory" is otherwise meaningless.

More than 58,000 Americans were killed in action between 1965 and 1973. More than a million and a half Vietnamese died during that same period, including hundreds of thousands killed by American bombs like those dropped by McCain during the mission that led to his capture, imprisonment and torture. Prosecution of the war diminished American prestige, as did our eventual defeat -- and the price paid by our armed forces and the returning veterans is still painful to recall. The economic cost of the war, calculated in current dollars, may have been as high as $1.7 trillion.

In McCain's mind, those lives and that treasure were expended in a "noble cause." Presumably he believes that we were seeking to preserve the freedom of the South Vietnamese from North Vietnamese communist oppression. But the politics of Vietnam and the geopolitics of the war were at once more complicated and simpler. Complicated because South Vietnam was a corrupt dictatorship that had forfeited the loyalty of most of its citizens, who regarded the United States not as a liberator but as the latest invader in a long procession that dated back centuries and included the French and the Chinese as well...
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