What Is the True Story of McCain's Wartime Experience?
by Mary Hershberger
October 28, 2008
Journalists have had years to vet John McCain's account of wartime
heroism in Vietnam. But no real critique of its veracity has emerged
from leading media outlets. Reporters and commentators remain
remarkably disinclined to investigate a major underpinning of
McCain's argument that he is qualified to be commander-in-chief.
Here, historian Mary Hershberger questions why.
As we approach the end of an astonishing campaign season, one thing
grows clear: John McCain's campaign has suffered a string of
disastrous decisions. These mistakes have overwhelmed even the
campaign's trump cardits image of John McCain as war hero. And not
just an ordinary war hero but one who was captured by enemies,
imprisoned near death, and "resurrected" to return home with visible
wounds that marked his sacrifice.
Aside from the patriotic fervor and powerful religious themes this
tale evokes in American Christians who believe that redemptive
violence lies at the core of their faith, McCain's campaign correctly
counted on the media treating the image of war hero as if it stood
outside history, beyond journalistic scrutiny. The "swift boating" of
John Kerry four years ago left the media reluctant to engage in
legitimate examination of John McCain's claims.
As a historian who has studied Vietnam War documents, I read McCain's
Faith of My Fathers with growing concern over the troubling
inconsistencies and internal contradictions that I found there. When
I sought out official reports, news accounts, film footage and other
reliable sources to help resolve these contradictions, I consistently
found questionable assertions in McCain's claims. All memoirs are
constrained by the limitations of our memory, but McCain's accounts
are unusually problematic, with many stories grossly exaggerated or
simply made up.
Given the media scrutiny heaped upon Cindy McCain's life during this
campaign, one might expect the candidate himself would face equal
investigation. That has not been true. When I wrote a piece
documenting McCain's less-than-heroic actions following the
disastrous fire on the USS Forrestal, mainstream print newspapers and
magazines turned it down, including those that printed investigative
pieces on his wife and relentlessly dredged up every scrap of
information to expose her vulnerabilities. Ask yourselfhave you seen
investigative reports of McCain's claims about his military record
that match the level of scrutiny given his wife?
McCain's war record is a legitimate topic of investigation precisely
because he cites it as evidence that he should be president, as proof
that he is tested and ready to lead from day one. As such, it ought
to be more thoroughly examined than anything else. The few
investigations that have been carried out are not reassuring.
On the single issue of his plane crashes, for example, the Los
Angeles Times has concluded that "though standards were looser and
crashes more frequent in the 1960s, McCain's record stands out." A
pilot whose performance included two plane crashes and a collision
with power lines usually underwent official review to determine his
fitness to fly. McCain refuses to allow his military records to be
released so that the voting public can see whether his record matches
Much of the mainstream media frequently repeat without question
McCain's assertions about his war record, including his recent claim
that he was on track to be promoted to admiral when he left the Navy.
It is due to the diligence of writers on the Internet that claims
like this have been investigated.
A recent column by John Dean at Findlaw.com, which includes a Q & A
with me, looks at other areas in which McCain has made claims at
stark odds with official documents or news reports. Dean concludes
that the dwindling importance of the mainstream media is related to
its reluctance to "sort fact from fiction" in the wake of the Swift
Boaters. The result is that the media gives McCain a pass "rather
than risk irritating him by digging out the truth of his military background."
The irony of McCain's free pass is that newspapers like the New York
Times need look no further than their own pages to check his claims.
For example, McCain says that when he was shot down on October 26,
1967, the Vietnamese beat him over and over and refused to provide
medical treatment for days until, in desperation, he told them that
his father was an important military officer. In contrast, the New
York Times, on October 28, 1967, quoted Hanoi radio reporting the day
before that, "the son of the commander of the United States Naval
Forces in Europe was captured in North Vietnam." At the time, the
New York Times reported that the Vietnamese knew about McCain's
family connections as soon as he was captured, not days later. Which
story is true?
Likewise, as a Rolling Stone piece recently pointed out, the New York
Times reported on November 11, 1967, less than two weeks after McCain
was captured, that he had said that Vietnam appeared to be winning
the war and the United States appeared isolated. There is a
significant conflict between this and McCain's memoirs, one that has
gone unexamined in the Times.
I have found enough compelling discrepancies between McCain's claims
of his treatment in Hanoi and other sources, including his fellow
POWs, to cast serious doubt on his overall account of mistreatment
and torture there. McCain's account of his meeting with French
journalist Francois Chalais four days after he was captured asserts
that he was combative with guards in the room and refused to talk
about the care he was receiving. His account is significantly
undercut by recently released filmed footage of that meeting and by
Chalais' printed report at the time.
Many newspapers that recently endorsed Barack Obama also paid homage
to McCain's record as a war hero and former prisoner of war and have
lamented that, as the St. Petersburg Times put it, "his campaign in
recent months has been unworthy of his record." If the media had
examined his war record as it should have, rather than taking his
self-serving memoir at face value, it would be less surprised today
that McCain the candidate has been prone to poor judgment, erratic
behavior under pressure, and risky decision-making. The similarities
between John McCain's campaign record and his war record outweigh