2008-02-15 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

Duty, Honor, Country: For Some, The Words Are Meaningful
Commentary By Howard Schwach

My first vote ever was in 1960 and I cast it for John F. Kennedy for president. In those days, you had to be 21 to vote and Election Day fell on my birthday that year. I have been a registered Democrat ever since that time, although I sometimes vote for candidates from other parties if that candidate suits my fancy.

For weeks prior to that summer's convention, my father tried to convince me that I should be supporting Stuart Symington for the party nod.

He said that, despite his war record and his six years in Congress, Kennedy did not have much of a record to run on and that Symington was much more experienced and would do a better job as president. He added that Symington had a much better chance of beating Richard Nixon, the presumptive Republican candidate.

That has some resonance today, with Clinton the seasoned pro and Obama, the young challenger.

I do not believe, however, that Obama is the rightful inheritor of the Kennedy legacy. Kennedy was seasoned by war and by tragedy, he had been involved in the political process from birth. He was ready. I don't believe that Obama has the same credentials, despite what largely-discredited Ted Kennedy claims.

While my childhood was seasoned by Democratic politics and by a predilection for community service fostered by both my mother and my father, my early adulthood was colored by my service in the Navy.

People laugh at the words "Duty, Honor, Country," today as if they come from some knuckle-dragging Bubba who can't keep from drooling over a NASCAR race.

Once, however, before Vietnam, those words had meaning, particularly to the military community.

Which brings me to John McCain.

McCain's grandfather was an Admiral in the U.S. Navy, in charge of the task force that won the day at Guadalcanal.

His father was an Admiral in the U.S. Navy who was CINCPAC - Commander In Chief, Pacific during Vietnam. In fact, he was in charge of planning the bombing of Hanoi while his son, John, was sitting in a prison cell in the middle of that city.

McCain said in his book, "Faith of My Fathers," that he was destined for the Naval Academy at Annapolis and a life in the Navy from the beginning. While his grandfather was a naval aviator, he father was a submariner.

While John McCain graduated fifth from the bottom at the academy, he choose naval aviation for his specialty, flying A-4 Skyhawk attack aircraft from the deck of a bouncing aircraft carrier, the USS Oriskany off Yankee Station in the South China Sea.

If you believe that's an easy job, watch some of the documentaries about aircraft carriers, and it will debase of you that belief. I spent a few years on the USS Roosevelt just at the beginning of the war in Vietnam and we lost 15 servicemen, including a flight surgeon on a peacetime Mediterranean cruise. It is an inherently dangerous place, even in peacetime. During wartime, it is often deadly.

On the morning of October 27, 1967 (only 11 days after the birth of my son, Robert) McCain and his squadron mates from the "Ghost Riders" squadron, took off for a large Alpha Strike on a target in Hanoi.

During the strike, McCain got a tone in his earphone that told him a SAM Missile was locked on his aircraft. He was determined to drop his bombs on target, however, and refrained from taking evasive action.

He should have "juked" away from the missile, but he kept his course and dropped his bombs.

They hit the target and so did the SAM that was locked on to his right wing.

He pulled the ejection seat handle and was shot up and out of the aircraft, striking the fuselage as he did, breaking both arms and his right knee.

He landed in a shallow lake in the center of the city.

When he came to the surface, he faced two dozen angry citizens, who stabbed him, kicked him and spit on him.

Someone broke his shoulder with a rifle butt and another man stabbed him in the groin with a bayonet.

He spent the next five years in captivity, suffering constant beatings, torture and confinement without any human contact, with the exception of his tormentors.

When the Vietnamese found out that McCain's father was CINCPAC, they offered to release him, but he refused, stating the Code of Conduct that mandated that the first captured be the first released.

Unlike many people today who disparage the military and its code of honor, McCain took that code, and word "Honor" as a driving force in his life.

The Code reads in part, "I am an American, fighting in the armed forces which guard my country and its way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense.

"If I am captured, I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and aid others to escape. I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy."

Although he did make one statement when at the bottom of his despair and partially out of his mind with pain, he kept the faith and lived up to the code.

McCain was angered by the "Peace Committees made up of American citizens who came to Hanoi and urged him to denounce his country.

He understood that they had a right to be against their government's policy in pursing the war. Even his father was opposed to the way the Johnson and Nixon governments were pursuing the war. He did believe, however, that every American had an obligation to support the people fighting the war.

Perhaps that is why he is in favor of the continuation of the war in Iraq, not for the Bush government, but for the men and women who are fighting there, who are supporting their nation in a time of war.

McCain wrote, "Long after the war, I once rashly remarked that the entire senior command of the armed forces had a duty, which they shirked, to resign in protest over Washington's management of the war, knowing it as they did that it was grievously flawed. Obviously, my father was implicitly included in my indictment. It was a callous remark that I probably should have refrained from making, but I felt strongly about the obligation of military officers to place the country's welfare before their own careers. So did the men whom I criticized. They were honorable people, including, certainly, my father. Their opposition to the war's course, which in many of their cases they pressed in the strongest possible terms to the politicians who designed it, surely left many of them to consider resigning. But their country was at war. And I am sure that their sense of duty to help see the thing through to the end, a value first embraced in a great war 30 years before, far more than any career considerations, prevailed over a contentious contemplation of a principled resignation."

Perhaps we should look to McCain to lead us into the uncertain future despite the fact that many of us disagree with some of his basic political beliefs.

At least he has some beliefs that he would never compromise. He has proven that, and I am not so sure you can say that of any of the other candidates.

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