Today there was an incendiary post by M.J. Rosenberg at TPM Cafe called “Bragging War Heroes.” The post got quite tough with the McCain campaign’s heavy reliance on their candidate’s POW experience, in the acceptance speech and before. Rosenberg made some claims about past war heroes and their comparatively modest political use of their military backgrounds that are devastating, if true (to paraphrase my old graduate adviser). I would be interested to know what other historians think:
You would never know it from the media coverage, but John McCain is not one of America’s greatest war heroes. He is a former POW who survived, heroically. He deserves to be honored for that heroism.
But one thing distinguishes McCain from other war heroes, the kind whose heroism changes history rather than their life stories.
America’s two greatest war heroes were Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower. Grant saved the union. And Ike saved civilization.
And neither one ever bragged about their experience. (Can you imagine Ike smacking down Adlai Stevenson by saying that while Adlai ran a nice medium-sized state, he was the Supreme Allied Commander who ran D-Day, defeated Hitler, and liberated Europe?).
Impossible. Like Grant, Eisenhower did not brag.
Actually, modesty about military accomplishments is typical of war heroes and not just here. In Israel, it is unheard of for great military leaders to brag about their service.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak was the most decorated soldier in Israel’s history (he was a commando who, among other amazing feats, dressed as a woman — with a handful of soldiers — invaded a terrorist stronghold in Beirut, killed the terrorists, and then fled to a waiting dinghy and headed home). Yitzhak Rabin led the IDF in its Six Day War victory. Ariel Sharon saved Israel from destruction in 1973 when he snuck up behind the Egyptian army and encircled them in the Sinai.
None of these guys talked about it. McCain does. Continuously. His lack of modesty — about something war heroes tend to be modest about — does not become him.
Now it might well be true that Grant and Eisenhower were this reticent about using their military careers, but if so their modesty stands apart from a long pre-existing tradition. Perhaps President-Generals Washington, Jackson, Harrison, and Taylor did not personally make speeches about their war experiences, as far as I am aware, but the people who campaigned for them had no such compunctions, to say nothing of their lower-ranking successors Frank Pierce and Teddy Roosevelt. In the middle of the 19th century, bragging about war heroism was practically the default strategy of American presidential politics. There were campaign biographies galore, but probably more important were my true love (historical evidence division), the campaign songs. It was “The Hunters of Kentucky,” promoting Andrew Jackson’s role in the Battle of New Orleans, that really launched the trend:
I s’pose you’ve read it in the prints, how Packenham attempted
To make old Hickory Jackson wince, but soon his schemes repented;
For we with rifles ready cocked, thought such occasion lucky,
And soon around the general flocked the hunters of Kentucky.
You’ve heard, I s’pose, how New Orleans is famed for wealth and beauty
There’s girls of every hue, it seems, from snowy white to sooty.
So Packenham he made his brags, if he in fight was lucky,
He’d have their girls and cotton bags in spite of old Kentucky.
But Jackson he was wide awake, and wasn’t scared at trifles,
For well he knew what aim we take with our Kentucky rifles;
So he led us down to Cyprus swamp, the ground was low and mucky,
There stood John Bull in martial pomp, and here was old Kentucky.
A bank was raised to hide our breast, not that we thought of dying,
But then we always like to rest unless the game is flying;
Behind it stood our little force, none wished it to be greater,
For every man was half a horse and half an alligator.
Jackson won two terms against non-military opponents partly on the strength of such epic bragging. But his opponents were not to be outdone, unseating Jackson’s hand-picked successor in 1840 with an elderly veteran named William Henry Harrison. The Whigs’ campaign songs boasted even more broadly and folksily about Old Tippecanoe’s triumphs during the War of 1812 than Jackson’s had. Everybody knows “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too,” but there were many more, like “The Buckeye Song“:
In the end, I have to demur from M.J. Rosenberg’s broader interpretation of past American political practice. What is more unique and distinctively modern about John McCain’s politicization of his wartime service is the McCain story’s emphasis on suffering and endurance in the midst of military failure. There is a personal triumph there, to be sure, and a spiritual and psychological success. But surely there is a tremendous difference between the war record of a long-term POW in a losing cause and success as a field commander in a winning one. One might be said to make a bit more sense as a qualification for Commander-in-Chief than the other. Truly it took our modern therapeutic culture, in which people routinely publicize their past personal traumas as badges of honor and the subjects of best-selling books, to turn McCain’s sort of war heroism into a recommendation for high national office. [Probably the closest previous example at the presidential level would be the carefully retailed legend of JFK and PT-109. Even there, the war was won even if the boat was sunk.]