Willing to send his son
Military service has been a way of life for John McCain's family. And as the GOP senator pushes to send more troops to Iraq, that commitment becomes clear: His 18-year-old son is among those about to ship out.
By BILL ADAIR
Published February 11, 2007
He says it again and again, to his colleagues in the Senate, to journalists, to anyone who will listen: The United States needs more troops in Iraq.
His message could hurt his presidential campaign, since polls indicate two-thirds of Americans disagree with him. But John McCain insists he doesn't care about the political consequences. He says the only way to fix the mess in Iraq is a huge infusion of U.S. muscle.
For all the talk, there is one thing the Arizona senator doesn't discuss. His 18-year-old son Jimmy just became a Marine and is poised to go to Iraq. In effect, McCain is saying what few politicians are willing to say: Send my son, too.
For two centuries, the men of my family were raised to go to war as officers in America's armed services. It is a family history that, as a boy, often intimidated me, and, for a time, I struggled halfheartedly against its expectations. But when my own time at war arrived, I realized how fortunate I was to have been raised in such a family.
- McCain, in his 1999 memoir Faith of My Fathers
Jimmy McCain graduated from Marine boot camp in December. He could have opted for a safer job, but chose the infantry.
In that role, Pvt. McCain will be a rifleman on the front lines and will have a simple mission: to hunt and kill the enemy.
Jimmy is likely to be sent to Iraq this summer, probably to the Anbar province, considered one of the most dangerous regions of the country.
Publicly, McCain has said little about his son. He told Time magazine last summer that Jimmy was inspired to sign up because he had friends in the Marine Corps. The senator - the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee - said he was no different than any other military dad. "Like every parent who has a son or daughter serving that way, you will have great concern, but you'll also have great pride."
After talking with Time, McCain decided he did not want publicity about his son and tried unsuccessfully to get the magazine to kill the story. Since then, neither McCain nor his wife, Cindy, have commented on their son.
"I won't talk about my kids," the senator said.
Jimmy can be seen in several family photos hanging in McCain's office, but the most recent picture appears to be several years old. A cheery-looking Jimmy is wearing glasses and an Abercrombie T-shirt.
He follows a long tradition for the McCain family. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. His older brother Jack is a student there.
But while the other McCains opted for the crisp white uniforms of the Navy, Jimmy chose front-line combat as a Marine.
Said Anthony Swofford, author of the Marine memoir Jarhead: "It sounds as though, in a pretty radical way, he is rejecting the polish and refinement of the officer corps to get his boots dirty and get himself bloody, down in the trenches."
As a boy and a young man, I may have pretended not to be affected by the family history, but my studied indifference was a transparent mask to those who knew me well. ... It is a formidable history, not easily escaped even today by descendants who might wish to pursue some interest outside the family business.
- Faith of My Fathers
The "family business," as McCain calls it, goes back generations.
William Alexander McCain fought in the Mississippi cavalry in the Civil War, as did his oldest son, Joseph Watt McCain. But Joseph wasn't keen on the battlefield, according to the senator's memoir: "In his first battle he passed out at the sight of blood and was mistakenly left for dead by his comrades."
Another of William McCain's sons, then a young teen-ager, lied about his age so he could join the Confederate army, but was not allowed to fight. A different branch of the senator's ancestors included soldiers who fought with George Washington in the Revolutionary War.
The senator's grandfather, John Sidney "Slew" McCain, was a legendary Navy officer described by author Robert Timberg as "a high-strung, irascible old sea dog." The senator's father, John S. "Jack" McCain Jr., was a four-star admiral who was the U.S. commander for the Pacific while his son was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.
Unlike most Washington politicians these days, McCain, 70, has actual experience with war. A Navy pilot, he was shot down over Hanoi and held - and often tortured - for more than five years. He refused offers to be released because he did not want to violate the military code of conduct or take advantage of his father's status.
Adm. McCain's actions during the Vietnam war - directing the bombing of Hanoi while his son was a POW - help to explain the senator's uncharacteristic silence about Jimmy.
In The Nightingale's Song, a biography of the senator and four other graduates of the Naval Academy, Timberg wrote that "those who knew Jack McCain during those years said he never brought up John's plight. When others did, he diplomatically changed the subject. But they also recall that he spent every Christmas for three years running with the Marines on the DMZ so he could be closer to his son." * * *
McCain has been calling for more troops in Iraq since the summer of 2003, just a few months after the U.S. invaded.
In August 2003, he said the U.S. should send at least 17,000 additional troops and warned that "people in 125-degree heat with no electricity and no fuel are going to become angry in a big hurry."
Today, McCain blames former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other military leaders for making strategic errors, allowing heavy-handed tactics and inflating expectations.
"It wasn't just not enough troops," McCain said in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times. "It was the firing of everybody in the (Iraqi) army, it was allowing the looting from the beginning, it was 'de-Baathification.' There was a failure to make a quick transition to an Iraqi government."
Lately, McCain has become the most vocal supporter of President Bush's plan to add 21,500 troops. "We've got a new strategy and new leaders and finally a recognition that the previous strategy was failed," he said.
That not only puts the senator in the unusual position of defending his Republican rival from the 2000 presidential primaries, it could hurt McCain's 2008 campaign.
With polls showing strong opposition to the Bush plan, Democrats have dubbed it "the Bush-McCain escalation" and "the McCain doctrine." (The senator jokes that he is flattered. "Not everybody has a doctrine named after them.")
Pollster Dick Bennett said McCain is hurting his campaign.
"John McCain is being perceived as supporting an administration that can't get the job done," said Bennett, president of the American Research Group, a polling company in New Hampshire.
But others say McCain is so well known for being independent-minded that it won't damage his standing.
John Weaver, a senior adviser to the senator, said McCain "is doing what he always does and that's put the country's interest first. All of us are proud to work for someone who is not a poll-tested politician who bends with the wind."
Andy Smith, a pollster at the University of New Hampshire, said McCain's advantage "is that people think he has integrity. That allows him to do some things that other candidates can't get away with."
It was war, the great test of character, that made the prospect of joining my father's profession attractive. ... I hoped that I, too, would know days when I would learn that courage was finding the will to act despite the fear and chaos of battle.
- Faith of My Fathers
Last summer, McCain admitted he was apprehensive about Jimmy going to war.
"I'm obviously very proud of my son," he told Time, "but also understandably a little nervous."
Today, he says his support for a troop increase has a broad goal. "I'm doing what I hope is right for every family in America," he said.
Everett Alvarez, a POW with McCain and a longtime friend, says he knows what McCain will experience - because Alvarez's son is a Navy doctor serving with the Marines in Iraq. "It's anguish. It's holding your breath and hoping nothing happens to them."
Timberg, author of The Nightingale's Song, said the McCains understand the risks and rewards of military life.
"My sense," he said, "is that the McCain family looks on military service as a higher calling, a calling that transcends the need to have a job, to make money -a calling that gives you a sense that as you go through your life, you're going to be doing things that matter."
Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Washington bureau chief Bill Adair can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 463-0575.
[Last modified February 10, 2007, 21:49:07]
[an error occurred while processing this directive]