Mary Hershberger: What Is the True Story of McCain’s Wartime Experience?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mary Hershberger is a historian, teacher, and author of Jane Fonda's War: A Political Biography of an Antiwar Icon, and Traveling to Vietnam: American Peace Activists and the War. She has taught at the University of Georgia, Virginia Tech, Eastern Mennonite University, Ohio State University, and at schools in East and Central Africa, including Makerere University in Uganda. ]

As we approach the end of an astonishing campaign season, one thing grows clear: John McCain’s campaign has suffered a string of disastrous decisions. These mistakes have overwhelmed even the campaign’s trump card—its image of John McCain as war hero. And not just an ordinary war hero but one who was captured by enemies, imprisoned near death, and “resurrected” to return home with visible wounds that marked his sacrifice.

Aside from the patriotic fervor and powerful religious themes this tale evokes in American Christians who believe that redemptive violence lies at the core of their faith, McCain’s campaign correctly counted on the media treating the image of war hero as if it stood outside history, beyond journalistic scrutiny. The “swift boating” of John Kerry four years ago left the media reluctant to engage in legitimate examination of John McCain’s claims.

As a historian who has studied Vietnam War documents, I read McCain’s Faith of My Fathers with growing concern over the troubling inconsistencies and internal contradictions that I found there.  When I sought out official reports, news accounts, film footage and other reliable sources to help resolve these contradictions, I consistently found questionable assertions in McCain’s claims. All memoirs are constrained by the limitations of our memory, but McCain’s accounts are unusually problematic, with many stories grossly exaggerated or simply made up.

Given the media scrutiny heaped upon Cindy McCain’s life during this campaign, one might expect the candidate himself would face equal investigation. That has not been true. When I wrote a piece documenting McCain’s less-than-heroic actions following the disastrous fire on the USS Forrestal, mainstream print newspapers and magazines turned it down, including those that printed investigative pieces on his wife and relentlessly dredged up every scrap of information to expose her vulnerabilities. Ask yourself—have you seen investigative reports of McCain’s claims about his military record that match the level of scrutiny given his wife?

McCain’s war record is a legitimate topic of investigation precisely because he cites it as evidence that he should be president, as proof that he is tested and ready to lead from day one. As such, it ought to be more thoroughly examined than anything else. The few investigations that have been carried out are not reassuring.

On the single issue of his plane crashes, for example, the Los Angeles Times has concluded that “though standards were looser and crashes more frequent in the 1960s, McCain’s record stands out.”  A pilot whose performance included two plane crashes and a collision with power lines usually underwent official review to determine his fitness to fly. McCain refuses to allow his military records to be released so that the voting public can see whether his record matches his claims. 

Much of the mainstream media frequently repeat without question McCain’s assertions about his war record, including his recent claim that he was on track to be promoted to admiral when he left the Navy. It is due to the diligence of writers on the Internet that claims like this have been investigated.  

A recent column by John Dean at Findlaw.com, which includes a Q & A with me, looks at other areas in which McCain has made claims at stark odds with official documents or news reports. Dean concludes that the dwindling importance of the mainstream media is related to its reluctance to “sort fact from fiction” in the wake of the Swift Boaters.  The result is that the media gives McCain a pass “rather than risk irritating him by digging out the truth of his military background.”

The irony of McCain’s free pass is that newspapers like the New York Times need look no further than their own pages to check his claims. For example, McCain says that when he was shot down on October 26, 1967, the Vietnamese beat him over and over and refused to provide medical treatment for days until, in desperation, he told them that his father was an important military officer. In contrast, the New York Times, on October 28, 1967, quoted Hanoi radio reporting the day before that, “the son of the commander of the United States Naval Forces in Europe was captured in North Vietnam.”  At the time, the New York Times reported that the Vietnamese knew about McCain’s family connections as soon as he was captured, not days later. Which story is true? 

Likewise, as a Rolling Stone piece recently pointed out, the New York Times reported on November 11, 1967, less than two weeks after McCain was captured, that he had said that Vietnam appeared to be winning the war and the United States appeared isolated. There is a significant conflict between this and McCain’s memoirs, one that has gone unexamined in the Times.  

I have found enough compelling discrepancies between McCain’s claims of his treatment in Hanoi and other sources, including his fellow POWs, to cast serious doubt on his overall account of mistreatment and torture there. McCain’s account of his meeting with French journalist Francois Chalais four days after he was captured asserts that he was combative with guards in the room and refused to talk about the care he was receiving. His account is significantly undercut by recently released filmed footage of that meeting and by Chalais’ printed report at the time.

Many newspapers that recently endorsed Barack Obama also paid homage to McCain’s record as a war hero and former prisoner of war and have lamented that, as the St. Petersburg Times put it, “his campaign in recent months has been unworthy of his record.” If the media had examined his war record as it should have, rather than taking his self-serving memoir at face value, it would be less surprised today that McCain the candidate has been prone to poor judgment, erratic behavior under pressure, and risky decision-making. The similarities between John McCain’s campaign record and his war record outweigh their differences.

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Clay Corry - 11/15/2008

I think it's pretty bizarre to see that someone, whose primary claims to fame are a couple of hagiographies of clueless, traitorous airheads, feels she has standing to attack a true war-hero for "poor judgement, erratic behavior under pressure, and risky decision-making."
Her "research" really doesn't support her conclusions, and only appears to do so if looked at from an ignorant, far-left, biased perspective. For instance, in the Dean interview she revisits the "carpetbagging" charge - it appears to me that for at least eight of the years in question, McCain was at boarding school and then the Naval Academy, not living at home with his parents. And again, to call McCain's actions following the Forrestal fire "less-than-heroic" is a value judgement not warranted by the facts, as given, - he was a pilot (GQ duty-station = pilots' ready-room?), i.e., not a firefighter or a corpsman, who had almost been killed, on an aircraft carrier that couldn't launch any aircraft; who then requested duty flying combat missions on another carrier. His POW record is not significantly undercut by recently released filmed footage; that footage was taken by a neutral third-party, four days into five and a half years of brutal confinement, and four days after violently breaking both legs and an arm, plus other wounds; and after he had received some medical treatment, and not yet any torture. If his books are somewhat "self-serving," they certainly come nowhere near the selfish arrogance displayed in John Kerry's record, he who set new standards for conceited, hypocritical ambition. {Not one, but TWO Purple Hearts, (etc, etc) - w/o a hospital visit, or lost duty time? Gimme a break! Then he tosses them over the White House fence - but no, he didn't, really, just kidding! Gimme a break!)
(Cf - I just got back from Iraq - I have a buddy that spent three weeks in the hospital when his weapon (.50 cal BMG) misfired - no Purple Heart for him; no enemy to blame it on.)

Paul Noonan - 11/4/2008

I've just come from voting for Obama, so this is not a partisan defense of McCain.

There is no necessary contradiction between the facts that North Vietnam was aware of who his father was within a day of his capture and the fact he witheld that information from them for several days.

When he was captured he had to give his name, rank and serial number. This may have been enough information for North Vietnamese intelligence to identify him and boast to the world of who they had captured. McCain was presumably kept ignorant of the fact that his captors knew who his father was and they probably subjected him to unusually severe abuse to get him to point out his father's importance in the hope of getting better treatment, which he in fact did. This would have been done with the intention of both lowering McCain's own morale and perhaps creating friction between him and his fellow prisoners.

Gerald Morine - 11/4/2008

Bombing the enemy is not heroic, it is simply doing one's job.
Surviving torture and long imprisonment under terrible conditions and inspiring other prisoners to do the same, that is heroic.

Lorraine Paul - 11/4/2008

"Bi-partisan", the myth of the of the morally bankrupt!

There is nothing 'bi-partisan' about condoning the murder of innocent civilians which is exactly what John McCain and his fellow pilots did in the US imperial war against North Vietnam. I am sick to death of this mealy-mouthed 'hero' bizzo regarding McCain! His orders flouted the Geneva Convention whereby civilians are not to be targetted. As a human being first and a citizen of the US second he should have refused to carry them out.

His military record regarding his imprisonment has always been ambiguous. It is about time someone challenged the 'official story' of this war-criminal!

Shame on you Mr Streeter, for taking such a morally suspect stance! The similarity between Mr McGovern and John McCain's actions does not need a PhD in ethics to be made obvious to a 'reasonable person'!

Dale R Streeter - 11/3/2008

Bill jones wrote: "What's this "war hero" crap? What's heroic about bombing and murdering innocent Vietnamese and then doing jail time for the crime when caught?"

I'm constantly amazed by the insipidity of some polemicists. If Mr. Jones has a problem with a military officer obeying his orders and serving in combat (where his own life was at risk) then perhaps he should take it up with Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic congress at the time who authorized that war. Jones' diatribe ought to include other "war criminals" such as George McGovern, who flew B-25s over Germany during WWII.
If the idea of a military establishment and its uses offends, at least be bipartisan.

Stephen Kislock - 11/3/2008

Hiding the Truth!

Closing all access to POW/MIA information, is what McCain did,Why?

Why did McCain, need his own "McCain Truth Bill"?

Congress had a "Truth Bill" pending and McCain killed it, why?

What is the the Truth, about McCain service record, that he is Hiding?

Bill jones - 10/30/2008

What's this "war hero" crap? What's heroic about bombing and murdering innocent Vietnamese and then doing jail time for the crime when caught?

Monty Sarvo - 10/29/2008

I wonder how it is that John Kerry was so easily demonized for his outstanding record while John McCain was not. They both have credibility issues raised by those were there at the time, both of them have medals, both of them have used the war experience as a beacon of their ability to lead the most powerful war machine in modern history. Perhaps it is because the other guys are a bit nicer. Maybe it is because Obama doesn't want to treat him like they treated Kerry. It may be just that simple. I wish however that someone else would do it so that these supposed "hero's" will lose political capital over there service records. It is not the only thing that qualifies one to be president and should not blind people to the actual question of whether a particula person is capable of serving us as our President.