[As an Arizonan, I have the dubious honor of being represented by John McCain. As an American, I have the Constitutional right to petition my government. Regular readers know that I have been busily petitioning and carrying on a dialogue of sorts with my senior senator. I would really like to meet and talk with him but he has been unwilling to meet with other anti-war activists so I haven't actually requested a meeting since I don't think that request will be honored. John McCain is a Very Important Person, very busy--too busy to subject himself to my questions.
Instead of an in-person meeting, I met with the senator in the very favorable venue of my own head and tried to present the kind of responses he would offer to my questions and comments. This long dialogue is the result of that meeting. I will send a copy to the senator's office. If he responds in any way, I post that response (without additional comment intitially but I do reserve the right to comment in a subsequent post). In the meantime, here's the result of the imagined meeting.]
Me: “Senator McCain, I’m Mark Fleming. Thanks for taking the time to meet with me.
McCain: “My pleasure, Mr. Fleming. As senator from Arizona, I believe it’s important to hear constituents’ views and tell them how I represent those views and Arizona’s interests in Washington. May I call you Mark? We can be less formal in our discussion (and the guy writing this will type less). Call me John.”
Me: “Thanks, John. I know you are busy and can’t meet one-on-one with every Arizonan but I do think I am sufficiently familiar with national and international affairs to speak intelligently and offer alternatives that merit your consideration, and I believe, your support, if you want America to succeed in this world.”
McCain: “Is that your goal, Mark, to see America succeed? What do you mean by American ‘success’?”
Me: “You ask a broad question so I’ll offer a broad answer. American success is the freedom to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. For everyone. Everywhere. Always.”
McCain: “Nice sentiment. What’s it mean in practice?”
Me: “Well, John, I’m a simple man. I think it means just what it says, that all persons have certain unalienable rights, ‘endowed by their Creator’ and, further, that they can act to secure those rights, individually or in concert with others. For me as an individual, it means exercising those rights in a way that does not limit others’ ability to do the same. In the world at large, I expect the same of my country. It’s simple when you look at it like that.”
McC: “The world is not simple. And certainly there are people in this world who are hostile to the idea of individual liberty and will enthusiastically take advantage of an open and welcoming attitude like yours. We must protect ourselves from those who mean us harm.”
Me: “I know that. History is filled with too much mayhem and straight out evil for anyone to naively assume that individuals and societies will always act with reason, understanding and non-violence. The world can be a dangerous place. That said, I am not content to live in a world where fear and violence is the norm. I can at least imagine, as John Lennon said. Or like Robert Kennedy, I can ask, “Why not?”
McC: “I share that vision. America is a world leader. Has been for 60 years now. Madeline Albright correctly described the US as the ‘indispensable nation’. As your senator, I must deal with the world as it is, not as I might wish it were. I must be coldly realistic. That is my solemn duty.”
Me: “Duty. That’s a big deal in your life.”
McC: “You don’t grow up in a Navy family without acquiring a sense of duty. I take pride in serving my country. My grandfather was a World War II admiral. My father followed in his footsteps. Serving my country seemed like the right thing to do. My background gave me opportunities worked out well for me. I got to fly. And I served my country with honor.”
Me: “I know your basic story but recently learned about your “hunter-killer” missions. Minstrel Boy told me about them and your reputation for cool competence. To be honest, as a grunt, I tend to discount pilots; we didn’t see much of you guys where we were and you got to sleep in a bed at night. Until you were shot down. That singles you and your fellow prisoners of war for recognition. Your bravery and determination under very difficult conditions demonstrated a true sense of honor. I would be proud (in a non-aggrandizing manner, of course) to have such an accomplishment in my background.”
McC: “You also served, Mark. You did your duty.”
Me: “Nothing like you. Had I shown your courage, I would have refused to serve. I did not believe the war was in the national interest so the honorable course would have been to say no when my country asked me to kill. You can say, at least, that you believed in what you were doing. Hell, I doubt if you would have survived as a prisoner had you not believed. I was very conflicted because I also had a sense of duty and some interest in GI Bill education benefits. In the end I took the easy way out and lucked my way through combat for five months until I got a relatively safe rear job and went home. My experience left me angry and bitter that I had surrendered my humanity by killing in a war that should have never begun and should have ended well before I got caught up in it.”
McC: “We come away from Vietnam with different experiences and different lessons.”
Me: “Not surprising. We went in with different experiences and understanding. I can only assume that you believed in the war.”
McC: “Of course, I did. It was my duty. My father was commanding the fleet. I can’t recall ever saying it myself, but didn’t your ROTC college room mate say something like, ‘It’s not much of a war but it’s the only one we’ve got.’? We wanted in on the action. That’s what we trained for. It’s what we can do well for our country. I wanted to serve. I understand your room mate was also a fighter pilot.”
Me: “Yeah, he flew A-7's in Cambodia in 72 or 73. Was shot down once but managed a crash landing near his base. He wrote me that he did well in bombing and strafing school and seemed to enjoy it. Did the “blowing shit up” factor add excitement to the job? I recall a certain guilty thrill when I fired heavy infantry weapons and rockets. I can only imagine what an A-6 is like.
McC: “As you can imagine, it’s quite a powerful machine. But it can also be vulnerable to good anti-aircraft fire. It’s also a deadly serious business. As a fighter-bomber pilot, you attack for a reason. You are unleashing deadly force against enemies. Yeah, flying is exciting. You don’t become a Naval aviator if you want a quiet life.”
Me: “What did it feel like to know you were killing other human beings?”
McC: “They were military targets. Enemy forces who were acting against America or its allies in Vietnam. Those were my orders.”
Me: “That’s a key difference. I didn’t see them as enemies.”
McC: “They would have killed you in a New York minute.”
Me: “I know that. It would’ve pissed me off royally, given what I felt about the war. But their hostility was nothing personal. I guess they may have hated me as a foreign occupier but not because I was Mark Fleming, son of Frank and Kay Fleming of Danville, Virginia and 1970 University of Virginia graduate. They hated me for what I was doing in their country. I hated myself for the same reason. Did you hate the Vietnamese when you attacked them?”
McC: “It wasn’t a matter of hatred. I was executing a mission against enemy forces.”
Me: “You never asked why they were ‘enemies’?”
McC: “Above my pay grade.”
Me: “Mine, too, but as a citizen I have the right, and I would say, duty to ask that question. Hell, John, I have to ask it as a human being when that kind of violence is unleashed in my name or when I am asked to become part of that violence.”
McC: “That’s not part of the curriculum for a military officer. You and I both know that would be dangerous. You can’t have an effective military where everyone can question everything. Even worse, you don’t want to compromise civilian control of the military.”
Me: “Here’s another difference between you and me. I think even military personnel should always ask questions. Junior officers and enlisted personnel can serve as a military’s conscience. I don’t mean resistance, although that has a place in appropriate circumstances, but offering a moral compass, a reminder of what’s right. That’s what finally brought both My Lai and Abu Ghraib to light. At the top of the pay scale, I expect senior officers to offer frank, candid information based on their knowledge and experience to civilian leadership. But that doesn’t mean compromising civilian control. That’s why the Framers created a Navy but not a standing army. They knew the danger of a permanent military class.
McC: “Times have changed, Mark. The United States would be at grave risk without a standing army in the modern world.”
Me: “Why not a world without armies?”
McC: ”That’s preposterous.”
McC: “We’d be at risk. The US demobilized after WWII and the Communists conquered China, invaded Korea, threatened the Philippines, southeast Asia and central Europe. America was the only nation still standing after the war. America has a responsibility to contribute to world security. You only have to look at history to know what happens without a strong America.”
Me: “As much as I would like to see a world without armaments and war, I know that we need to be prepared to defend ourselves. It’s in the Constitution and is one of the reasons that individuals with unalienable rights agree to limit those rights by joining together in a society. In a world of nation states, military force may be necessary to preserve that society. But I consider the most effective military to be one that is used sparingly, if at all. I may have the right to kill in self-defense but that is not a right I ever want to exercise. I prefer to keep away from those situations. I want my country to do the same.”
McC: “You seem to live in some kind of fantasy world. The United States cannot simply ignore a real world filled with hostile states and clandestine organizations all bent on our destruction.”
Me: “I’m not suggesting that America ignore the world. I simply want America to engage the world differently. I know we have adversaries. That’s what they are to me: adversaries, opponents. Not enemies. Enemy implies perpetual hatred. I do not hate anyone, even temporarily. I may dislike what they do. Their actions may disappoint and anger me. I may believe they think poorly, if at all, but none of that is hatred. I would rather talk, educate, negotiate and understand than attack and kill.”
McC: “Try negotiating with Mohammad Atta and the 9-11 killers. You can’t change a mind like that with reason and ideals.”
Me: That was 19 guys who attacked us. Looking past them to Al-Qaeda and allied groups that plan and carry out violent attacks, I don’t see much opportunity to negotiate. They are the bad guys to disrupt and destroy. But these organizations are criminal syndicates that combine violence with religion and nationalism ideas to further their political goals. The world has long experience thwarting and disrupting these kind of activities and that experience has rarely involved major, extended military commitment.
McC: "You seem to think that the only adversary, if you will, are these stateless organizations. Iran is right next door to Iraq. Iran has been hostile to this nation for three decades. Syria has long been a threat. Hamas threatens Israel and is increasing its strength in Lebanon. Negotiation and diplomacy are all very nice, but the United States cannot afford to play only defense in this critical region. That’s why we need to win in Iraq, to maintain regional stability.
Me: “Have you ever asked why Iran or Syria or any other country is hostile to the United States? That's not above your pay grade any more.”
McC: “They are hostile. They support our opponents. Iran is threatening the region with nuclear weapons. What more evidence do you need?”
Me: “I want to know why they are hostile. These nations and for that matter even Al-Qaeda must have some reason for acting against the US in the region. They must believe it’s in their interest to do so. Understanding those root causes will help us respond effectively to their challenges and threats."
McC: “They don’t believe in freedom. They want to impose their ideas on everyone. Just like the Communists. Islamic fundamentalists may lack the weaponry and reach of the Soviet Union, but as a clandestine and well financed organization, they are capable of creating great instability, putting America’s interests in jeopardy.”
Me: “What do you mean when you say ‘America’s interests”?
McC: "Secure from attack, secure in our economy, secure in the free society envisaged by the Framers."
Me: “That’s not unlike my definition of American success: the freedom to pursue life, liberty and happiness, for everyone, everywhere.”
McC: “Yours seems somewhat broader. I don’t see anything specific to America. It sounds like you’re talking about the entire world.”
Me: “Yeah, I am. I do that for two reasons. One is spiritual: I cannot refuse to share my wealth and good fortune with those who have nothing. America has wealth and a society that has grown more open and tolerant throughout most of its history, at least until recently. That wealth and tradition should be shared with the world to promote freedom and success for all. I’m not talking about self- or national-abnegation here; just reasonable sharing and cooperation, whether individuals in a society or nations that share this planet. I also recognize that sharing must be based on mutual benefit and an understanding of the differences among societies.
My second reason is practical. A society where some have all and most have little is inherently unstable. Marx was certainly right in predicting the results of exploitation and immiseration–at some point, the many dispossessed will simply take the wealth they are denied. Marx wasn’t so good at coming up with a solution but he was spot on about the dire consequences of economic inequality. The more unequal the wealth, the more likely the have-nots will reach a point of desperation and simply take the wealth they are denied. The world saw the terrible results of despair in Revolutionary France and Russia during and after World War I. Even American capitalism was at risk from despairing masses during the Great Depression, saved only by the New Deal and World War II. I think that makes a practical case for policies that reduce gross inequality in wealth.”
McC: “Now you’re sounding like a leftist, Mark.”
Me: “You say that like it’s something bad. I think I sound like a human being and American who has a sense of justice and history. I am a leftist because I find ideals and policies that match my values. I began my political activity as a Goldwater conservative and much of what he said about individual liberty still resonates with me.”
McC: “Well, as a United States senator and, I hope, president, I have a duty to look out for America’s interests first. The United States has vital interests around the world and it’s my duty to protect them as best I can to the best of my ability.”
Me: “I couldn’t agree more, John. But I do question how well you and the President Bush are doing that right now. I see America becoming less competitive in the world. I see American jobs and cash moving overseas. The US dollar is no longer the world’s sole reserve currency. The number of terror attacks around the world since 9-11 has increased. I see a war that was started on false pretenses creating a generation of enmity for the United States in the Muslim world. I see our soldiers and Marines held hostage to Iraqi political stalemate and in-fighting among Iraqi factions.”
McC: “Everyone thought Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. We didn’t invade based on lies, just poor information. And even in the absence of the weapons, we got rid of a brutal tyrant. What we didn’t do was send enough troops or manage the war better. We accomplished our invasion handily. President Bush and his advisors bungled the post-invasion.”
Me: “Everyone thought Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction because that’s what the administration insisted over and over was the case. I don’t know if the administration erred through willful distortion or blind ignorance. Neither scenario speaks well of the president. As for the post-invasion, the president and his advisors were wholly unprepared for what they got into. They should have known. Hell, I did. Saddam even told the world that the real fight would begin after the invasion. Wasn’t anybody listening?”
McC: “We should have sent more troops. I’ve been saying that for a long time.’
Me: “You mean like the three to four hundred thousand Army Chief of Staff General Shinseki recommended before he was cashiered?”
McC: “Certainly more than we went in with.”
Me: “You weren’t all that vocal at the time. I can’t recall hearing you arguing strongly against the invasion plan. I don’t remember you calling for more troops in 2003 and 2004 as the insurgency grew.”
McC: “I was supporting my commander-in-chief in pursing America’s national security. When duty calls, it’s imperative that we all pull together. I made my views known without fanfare.”
Me: “Remember what I said earlier about senior commanders speaking out truthfully? I think that is what you failed to do. Maybe you did go hammer and tong with the president, vice-president and SecDef. If you were so sure that they were sending insufficient troops into Iraq, should you not have spoken out publicly and supported the General Shinseki’s assessment of troop strength? You had high credibility with much of the nation and are recognized as informed on military and international affairs. Unlike military commanders, you don’t have to fear for your career by challenging what you consider erroneous policy and action. I expect that from my public officials. You were silent at a critical time. Look at what your silence wrought!”
McC: “You’re blaming me for bungling Iraq?”
Me: “Yes, you certainly contributed to the fiasco. Had you insisted on adequate force prior to the invasion, Americans would have been at least somewhat more informed about its costs. I say somewhat because I don’t believe that America could ever successfully occupy Iraq after an invasion. I think sooner or later Iraqi sectarian, ethnic and nationalist sentiments would have led to resistance and civil war with Americans caught in the political and actual crossfire. But that’s not part of the debate any more. The debate is now about how to end the mayhem and destruction.”
McC: “We can’t leave the field to our enemies. That would be irresponsible and dangerous. It would lead to catastrophe.”
Me: “Enemies. Catastrophe. You use those words a lot. I don’t have enemies.”
McC: “Adversaries, then. They still want to kill and harm us. I will not leave them free to do harm America. That’s the catastrophe I’m warning against. America cannot retreat from the world.”
Me: “You forget that I strongly support American engagement with the world. I just prefer that it not be at the point of a bayonet. That doesn’t mean surrender or retreat. It means clearly understanding our interests and how we work with other nations to secure those interests. In the long run it’s a far more sustainable policy than military intervention and occupation.“
McC: “And then you wake up in the real world when America is threatened.”
Me: “Threatened by what? The Iraqi resistance? They are only a threat as long as we are in their country. When we leave, that threat is no more.”
McC: “If we leave anarchy and a hostile regime in place, Iraq will threaten us for a long time.” Al-Qaeda is there. They will attack us wherever they can.”
Me: “And we can monitor, harass and disrupt their operations with international cooperation, effective intelligence and targeted operations. And more than likely, Iraqi nationalists will turn against the al-Qaeda foreign fighters and expel them.”
McC: “And they will simply migrate to other countries to cause trouble. If we don’t destroy them in Iraq, terrorism will metastasize like a cancer.”
Me: “John, that has already happened. Terrorism migrated to Iraq when we opened that front. It continues in Afghanistan, the Caucasus, Africa and Asia. Cells are active throughout Europe, I am sure. Occupying Iraq has only increased the hatred and anger that creates terrorism. I have no illusions about eradicating terrorism. It’s a tactic as old as warfare, which we both know is all too much a part of human history. I believe we can contain terrorism and mitigate its impact but the world will still suffer casualties from terrorist attacks.”
McC: “You would leave America vulnerable to another 9-11? It sounds like you accept a world where terrorists are free to operate.”
Me: “Not free to operate. I expect my government to protect this nation from terrorism but at a reasonable cost. I strongly believe that’s possible. We have identified and disrupted real and wanna-be plots. The British have done the same. I think the record shows that if someone had been paying attention prior to 9-11, we may well have stopped that attack. There were a lot of red flags. We could have done a lot more then and we can do more to make effective use of real intelligence and analysis to protect this nation. And we can do so without abandoning Constitutional government that has been our signature contribution to the world.”
McC: "You have the leisure to be naive. I have a duty to protect America. If that means taking risks seeking a better future, so be it. I would not be serving my country if I did less."
Me: “You would be serving your country far more if you were to really think about how America engages the world and begin looking past your neo-Cold War militarism as a model for foreign policy in the 21st century. You would be doing quite a bit to protect America by pursuing diplomatic, economic and cultural initiatives rather than waging war.”
McC: “Sometimes war is necessary and inevitable. You are dreaming if you think we can do without a military.”
Me: “I acknowledge that need but I also acknowledge the responsibility to use that military as a last resort, when all other options are exhausted. I expect the men and women who lead that military–including you, John–to not waste the patriotism and sacrifice if its armed forces in unnecessary wars.”
McC: “I’m a senator. I don’t lead the military.”
Me: “You’ve built your career based on your military expertise. You've certainly presesnted yourself as a miltary expert. I expect you as a veteran and a man who served with honor and courage to recognize the special duty we have to the nation and the men and women who serve in our military. That duty is to make their sacrifices meaningful. Looking at what America has done to Iraq, I don’t think we can say that about their sacrifice. Our troops want that meaning very much. When you sacrifice your humanity, when you descend into the depravity of combat, it MUST mean something. Otherwise, you’re just a killer.”
McC: “I have always respected and honored our military.”
Me: “Iraq doesn’t speak well of your respect.”
McC: “That statement impugns our troops and me.”
Me: “It certainly does impugn you, John. I most certainly does not impugn our troops, their courage or their sacrifice. Sending them on an unnecessary mission, without the equipment and training they need, asking them to sacrifice life and soul in a fruitless war impugns only those who send them. That’s you, John, with a lot of company.”
McC: “Those troops want to serve America. I’ve talked to them. They want to succeed. You would deny them that victory.”
Me: “All troops want to serve. That’s why they volunteered. They are can-do, gung-ho patriotic Americans who believe in their country and want to contribute. I’ve heard them, too, John. I know that many believe in their mission. From the lowliest private up through the generals, the military wants to perform, it relishes challenge. So a well respected general like David Petraeus is willing to make an effort if given the opportunity and a reasonable level, even if the odds are long, because the president asked him to. That can-do spirit is what makes the military such a valuable resource. What makes it effective is strong leadership that knows when and how to use that military in the nation’s best interests. You and President Bush failed to do that in Iraq. An unnecessary invasion has become a homicidal nightmare.”
McC: "We must challenge America’s enemies wherever they threaten us. You just don’t seem to understand, Mark."
Me: "You don’t understand, John. I have no enemies."
McC: "America faces serious challenges from some dangerous adversaries. I call them enemies. You are hopelessly naive and trusting in a hostile world. You would risk America’s security."
Me: "Frankly, I think you are pursuing a hopeless, self-defeating policy that will only put America further at risk by sowing a generation’s worth of hatred around the world at a high cost to American troops, their families and taxpayers."
McC: "I think we’ve reached an impasse here. I can’t agree with you. Nor, it seems, are you willing to listen to me."
Me: "I’ve listened to you for years but don’t think the policies you advocate serve America's long term interests."
McC: "If we’re done, then, it’s time to get back on the Straight Talk Express. I need to take my message to America. It’s not too late for this nation to wake up to the danger."
Me: "Actually, John, I think America is beginning to wake up, if not to my leftist universalism, at least then to the futility of the war you so vigorously support."
McC: "Thanks for joining me, Mark. Don’t let the door swat you on the way out."
Me: "You’re welcome, John. It’s been interesting. Be careful making those hard right turns on the Express. You could end up in a ditch."
Labels: fantasy, mccain, national security