Sunday's New York Times carries a fascinating front-page story on the National War College thesis written by then-Navy Cmdr. John McCain. He finished the paper in 1974, following his release from five years of captivity in North Vietnam. And it comes to the Times via Matt Welch, who just published an excellent and provocative biography of McCain.
Most notable about this paper is the insight it provides on how McCain forged his views on war in Vietnam and carried those views forward once he came home. His central argument contains a view of national purpose and perseverance that is at the heart of his message today for Iraq.
According to the Times:
About a year after his release from a North Vietnamese prison camp, Cmdr. John S. McCain III sat down to address one of the most vexing questions confronting his fellow prisoners: Why did some choose to collaborate with the North Vietnamese?
Mr. McCain blamed American politics.
"The biggest factor in a man's ability to perform credibly as a prisoner of war is a strong belief in the correctness of his nation's foreign policy," Mr. McCain wrote in a 1974 essay submitted to the National War College and never released to the public. Prisoners who questioned "the legality of the war" were "extremely easy marks for Communist propaganda," he wrote.
Americans captured after 1968 had proven to be more susceptible to North Vietnamese pressure, he argued, because they "had been exposed to the divisive forces which had come into focus as a result of the antiwar movement in the United States."
To insulate against such doubts, he recommended that the military should teach its recruits not only how to fight but also the reasons for American foreign policies like the containment of Southeast Asian communism -- even though, Mr. McCain acknowledged, "a program of this nature could be construed as 'brainwashing' or 'thought control' and could come in for a great deal of criticism."
There is a very powerful idea here. In writing about his own survival in Nazi concentration camps, psychologist Viktor Frankl emphasized the importance of "purpose." In short, he who has a why can endure just about anything. For Frankl, that purpose was living to publish his story and his psychological insights on the camps. McCain argues that his purpose was to support American foreign policy and the containment of Communism -- and that knowing this purpose and believing in it was crucial for his survival.
He also writes about the importance of national unity and universal support for the troops, which he suggests are necessary bedrocks for the morale of men and women in combat. (Particularly those in the crucible of a POW camp, where faith in one's cause matters so much.) He singles out war protesters and critics for undermining the will of the troops and hurting their ability to persevere.
Fast-forward 30 years. His view doesn't appear to have changed. He concurs with military officers of a certain age that if only we'd had the popular will and the gumption to persevere in Vietnam, we would have won there too. Similarly, he believes in staying in Iraq as long as necessary, and committing whatever resources necessary, in order to win -- whatever that means. And, as he wrote in 1974, he feels that dissent and criticism undermine today's mission, embolden our enemies and hurt troop morale.
But is that right?
Should we offer our unconditional, unwavering, unquestioning and blind support for the troops -- and the administration which sent them into war? Is that our role in the American democratic system? Does "support the troops" literally mean support their mission no matter what? Or is there another way?
I fundamentally disagree with McCain's thesis and broader argument. Our Constitution gives the ultimate say in matters of war and peace to the people -- through their election of the president and Congress and their ability to shape political decisions through popular will. This is an imperfect system, as we have seen in both Vietnam and Iraq. Unpopular wars take a long time to bend to popular opinion. But, it is our system, and our Constitution, and it demands a type of engagement from the people that is the antithesis of what McCain describes.
Support for the troops does not mean unquestioning and unconditional loyalty to the cause, whatever the cause may be. Rather, we support the troops by doing our duty as citizens, by being engaged, by caring about the war (and the troops who come home), and by making the best decisions we can about war and peace. This requires a healthy dose of skepticism and independent thinking. Some of our enemies might look at this dissent and take comfort. They would be wrong. Our democracy's ability to allow dissent, and form national policy on the basis of citizen engagement, is one of our greatest strengths.
(Standard disclosure: I've advised the Obama campaign on national security issues, however, the views presented above are mine alone.)
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