McCain Making Kerry Mistake on Vietnam?

John McCain Vietnam POW Photo Pat Lang, a retired Green Beret colonel, is somewhat bemused at how much is being made of John McCain’s military experience.

John McCain is an admirable man. There are many such who wore the uniform of the United States in adverse circumstance. Jim Webb, Chuck Hagel, Daniel Inouye, Bob Dole… Shall I go on? How many names would there be? How many million names? In their new found love of soldiers Americans ascribe something almost sacramental to the experience of military service. This is unexpected. There has emerged a kind of reverence for those who have served which is unfamiliar to the veterans of earlier generations. I am old enough to remember the aftermath of World War II. Veterans of that war were treated with respect, but not with veneration. Perhaps there were too many of them for that.

McCain’s brief experience as a junior naval aviator and his extended suffering in North Vietnamese hands seem to be thought by many to be serious qualifications for the ultimate job of making national level policy decisions about the country’s security. Television newsies gush about his empathy with soldiers and understanding for the horrors of war. Sentimentality abounds in these discussions. Sentimentality is good in Valentine’s Day cards. It is bad in picking a president for the country and a commander in chief for the armed forces.

He notes, too, that we have had presidents who made excellent wartime presidents despite little or no military experience.

I’ve argued for quite some time that it’s a mistake for candidates to tout their wartime heroism as a major factor in selling their qualifications for higher office. First, as Lang notes, being a heroic junior officer doesn’t have much bearing on being commander-in-chief. Second, to the extent that military prowess is an asset with the voters, others will make sure that they know about it. Third, and perhaps most importantly, its simply unseemly to toot your own horn in that way. Real heroes don’t shout, and all that.

Moreover, it’s far from clear that it works. If did, George H.W. Bush would have been a two-termer and his son would have been a no-termer. Indeed, it’s rarer that the candidate with the most military experience wins. The match-ups over the last forty years:

    2004: Bush re-elected over John Kerry, Silver Star recipient

    2000: George W. Bush, National Guard bare minimum stateside flyboy beats Al Gore, Vietnam vet

    1996: Clinton re-elected over Bob Dole, massively wounded WWII vet

    1992: Bush loses to Bill Clinton, dope smoking draft dodger

    1988: George H.W. Bush, Distinguished Flying Cross winner, beats Mike Dukakis, peacetime Army vet

    1984: Reagan beats Walter Mondale, peacetime Army vet

    1980: Ronald Reagan, wartime Army movie star beat Carter

    1976: Jimmy Carter, distinguished peacetime Navy career, beats Gerald Ford, WWII Navy officer

    1972: Nixon beats George McGovern, WWII hero

    1968: Richard Nixon, WWII non-line Navy service beats Hubert Humphrey, no military service

Only twice did the candidate with the more impressive military record win and, really, only 1988 is a true example. Nixon was a Quaker whose Navy career was most distinguished for his skill as a poker player; he wins this by default to a man who “tried twice to join the armed forces [during WWII], but was rejected both times due to a hernia.”

McCain’s military service was distinguished and what he endured at the hands of the Viet Cong is unimaginable to most of us. Presumably, we can draw some conclusions about his character from how he conducted himself during those times. And, certainly, 27 years in the Navy (counting his time at Annapolis) should be factored in as important experience in weighing him for the presidency.

But banging us over the head constantly with the fact that he went to Vietnam won’t get him elected president. Citing experience and contrasting with his opponent’s relative dearth of same is fine. But he’s still got to sell us on his vision for the future. The election is about 2009 and beyond, not 1967.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Military Affairs, The Presidency, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Hal says:

    The election is about 2009 and beyond, not 1967

    You run with the record you have, not with the vision you’d like to have. He’s chosen the “experience” card (and, I might add, so have you, James). Maybe he’ll get wise and deal another hand, but that seems unlikely with this team, still thinking that divine providence got them the nomination and divine providence will get them the election.

  2. legion says:

    It’s more complicated than that… By constantly emphasizing things that happened 30+ years ago, no matter how “good” for his electoral base, he opens the door to examining _everything_ from that era – especially his divorce & marital conduct. _McCain’s_ the one who’s made that fair game. Also, it reminds people of the age thing. That’s two big negatives Kerry didn’t have to worry about when talking up his own Vietnam experience…

  3. Bithead says:

    But banging us over the head constantly with the fact that he went to Vietnam won’t get him elected president.

    Exactly what I said back back in January of this year:

    And by the way, John… You been talking to Kerry about the political value of having ’served in Vietnam’? Don’t go changing your name, like he did, OK?

  4. Boyd says:

    Not that I disagree with your overall point, but you and Lang make similar mention to McCain’s “juniorness” which I believe hits wide of the mark.

    McCain was a Lieutenant Commander when he was flying in Viet Nam, which is hardly a “junior naval aviator.” Undoubtedly, the Commanding Officer of his squadron was a Commander, merely one rank senior.

    And further, McCain’s Navy experience was much more than a junior officer; he had commanded his own squadron and had been selected for Rear Admiral (Lower Half) by the time he retired.

    Granted, I’m just being anal at this point, because I don’t disagree at all that going on about his time as a POW will ultimately be counter-productive for him.

  5. anjin-san says:

    The election is about 2009 and beyond, not 1967.

    2009 and beyond… I wonder.

    Much like Bush, McCain’s vision of American seems to be a return to the 19th century and earlier, when we were a nation compose of rich folks, who mattered, and everyone one else, who mattered a whole lot less.

    As for the Vietnam card, he has already badly overplayed it. I know Kerry was a goner when he came out with the salute at the ’04 convention. Lame, lame, lame.

  6. Hal says:

    I know Kerry was a goner when he came out with the salute at the ’04 convention. Lame, lame, lame.

    At least Kerry didn’t look like a Disney animatronic with pathetically bad makeup. Small consolation, I agree…

  7. Wayne says:

    McCain’s military experience is relevant but I agree that it could be counterproductive if he concentrates on it too much like Kerry did. By the way Kerry’s experience wasn’t as great as many pretended it was. If McCain just uses it as one of many factures without making it the primary reason then it will help.

    I watch McCain in Senate hearings and one thing that perturbs me about McCain when it comes to his military experience, is that he seems to think that his experience translate across all branches and all MOS’s. There are common experiences throughout the military but there are differences also. To think as a Naval Aviator to know what it is like to do the job of a Marine Infantryman or Army SF soldier is just plain wrong. Yes he knows what it is like to be a P.O.W. but that is not the same as doing the job of a SF soldier.

  8. mike says:

    Wayne – your right his experience as an aviator doesn’t equal knowing what it is to be SF, however, he likely learned that he needs to listen to the experts in each branch unlike the current yahoo or the previous one, rather than listening to political hacks and appointees

  9. Hal says:

    rather than listening to political hacks and appointees

    I’m assuming you’re not counting high powered lobbyists in that set.

  10. mike says:

    Hal – I didn’t think about that, but yes, throw them in as well – I suspect McCain will listen to them as well…

  11. James Joyner says:

    McCain was a Lieutenant Commander when he was flying in Viet Nam, which is hardly a “junior naval aviator.”

    It’s not junior for a naval aviator but it’s junior compared to commander-in-chief. He was still operating at the tactical level at that point rather than making strategic decisions.

    He got promoted twice while in captivity and then took on a training squadron and a congressional liaison assignment, excelling at both. And, yes, he got selected for flag rank, so it was all-in-all quite an illustrious career.

    Still, his strategic expertise comes from his years in the Senate, not his time in the Navy.

  12. Wayne says:

    Yes there is a difference between strategic and tactical level. The two do overlap somewhat. When we made our tactical plans we often took into account the strategic implications of them. Someone with tactical level experience that understands the difference will most likely be better than someone with no tactical experience.

    The reason I said that was the time John ranted and rave about some A-team not shaving and he knew from his experience that there was no excuse for it. Maybe this particular A-team was wrong then again maybe not. There are times when it would be wise for a SF member not to shave.