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McCain and the Meaning of Memorial Day

On this Memorial Day, I can think of few if any tributes to the enduring military values of this republic more significant than that offered by Senator John McCain when he spoke at the U.S. Naval Academy on April 2nd.

McCain’s speech to his alma mater — the alma mater of the four-star Navy admiral who was his father and the four-star Navy admiral who was his grandfather — came in the midst of the Western senator’s so-called “biography” tour. He undertook it because research showed that, while he is quite famous, most voters don’t know that much about him in depth aside from his having run for president in 2000 and 2008, being a Vietnam War hero, and having a reputation as a maverick. And he undertook it because values are important to John McCain, as anyone who’s read his classic memoir, “Faith Of My Fathers,” is aware.

Ironically, McCain’s Annapolis speech didn’t get much coverage at the time. Of the cable news nets, only MSNBC, the most liberal of the three, carried any of it live, and then just a snippet. Even Fox News did not carry the Annapolis speech live, choosing instead to carry on with its usual morning chatfest.

It’s unfortunate, because the speech captures much of the humor of the man and, more importantly, a sense of the American martial tradition.

If the usual hit squad tactics of our recent politics don’t come to dominate the general election campaign, we’re in for a fascinating clash between two candidates who represent what are frankly rather exotic strains in American life.

In Barack Obama, the representative of an exotic multi-racial, multi-cultural future that repels and frightens many Americans even as it attracts many others.

In John McCain, the representative of a military tradition which for most Americans, who increasingly never serve in the military and have no direct experience with it, is exotic in its coming out of a storied past.

There is probably no more traditional educational institution at the core of America’s military heritage than Annapolis. Merely allowing women to receive appointments as midshipmen was a lengthy cause celebre that led many — including possible Obama running mate Jim Webb, the Annapolis grad and Vietnam War hero who was Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the Navy and opposed women in combat — to no end of protest.
McCain, an old friend of Webb’s, as it happens (he calls Webb “a legendary fighting man”), talked about the taut Annapolis discipline with amusement.

“Witnesses to my behavior here,” he noted, “a few of whom are present today, as well as a nagging conscience, have a tendency to interrupt my reverie for a misspent youth, and urge a more honest appraisal of my record and character here. In truth, my four years at the Naval Academy were not notable for exemplary virtue or academic achievement but, rather, for the impressive catalogue of demerits I managed to accumulate. By my reckoning, at the end of my second class year, I had marched enough extra duty to take me to Baltimore and back seventeen times – which, if not a record, certainly ranks somewhere very near the top.”

But, he says, while he ignored some of the Academy’s conventions, he was “careful not to defame its more compelling traditions: The veneration of courage and resilience; the honor code that simply assumed your fidelity to its principles; the homage paid to Americans who had sacrificed greatly for our country; the expectation that you, too, would prove worthy of your country’s trust.”

Few if any universities have such an emphasis on the history and valor referenced by McCain, much less an honor code which stipulates that midshipmen will not lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate among them those who do. Most Americans are ignorant of military history, which merely makes up much of our engagement with the wider world, in some ways shaping it into what it is today.

McCain spoke of the tough Annapolis discipline that over the course of plebe summer (the Academy’s version of basic training in which “plebes,” freshmen, have their civilian airs stripped away and are remade into a rudimentary semblance of a naval officer-in-training) and beyond constantly tests midshipmen even as they engage in academic and athletic pursuits much more familiar to civilians.

“The Naval Academy was not interested in degrading my dignity. On the contrary, it had a more expansive conception of human dignity than I possessed when I arrived at its gates. The most important lesson I learned here was that to sustain my self-respect for a lifetime it would be necessary for me to have the honor of serving something greater than my self-interest.”

The discipline, says McCain, stood him in good stead when he needed it later, in combat and his famous captivity in the Hanoi Hilton. Earlier, ironically, the retired Navy captain, with a rather oblique remark about the “perpetual springtime of youth” had referred to his famous days as perhaps the hardest-partying officer in the Navy prior to his shipping out for the Vietnam War.

“When I left the Academy, I was not even aware I had learned that lesson,” said McCain, referring the discipline which enabled him to gain a greater sense of both of himself and of his part in a greater whole. “In a later crisis, I would suffer a genuine attack on my dignity, an attack, unlike the affronts I had exaggerated as a boy, that left me desperate and uncertain. It was then I would recall, awakened by the example of men who shared my circumstances, the lesson that the Academy in its venerable and enduring way had labored to impress upon me. It changed my life forever. I had found my cause: Citizenship in the greatest nation on earth.”

McCain went on to discuss a pervasive cynicism that afflicts America.

“In part, it is attributable to the dislocations economic change causes; to the experience of Americans who have, through no fault of their own, been left behind as others profit as they never have before. In part, it is in reaction to government’s mistakes and incompetence, and to the selfishness of some public figures who seek to shine the luster of their public reputations at the expense of the public good. But for others, cynicism about our country, government, social and religious institutions seems not a reaction to occasions when they have been let down by these institutions, but because the ease which wealth and opportunity have given their lives led them to the mistaken conclusion that America, and the liberties its system of government is intended to protect, just aren’t important to the quality of their lives.

“I’m a conservative, and I believe it is a very healthy thing for Americans to be skeptical about the purposes and practices of public officials. We shouldn’t expect too much from government – nor should it expect too much from us. Self-reliance – not foisting our responsibilities off on others – is the ethic that made America great.

“But when healthy skepticism sours into corrosive cynicism our expectations of our government become reduced to the delivery of services. And to some people the expectations of liberty are reduced to the right to choose among competing brands of designer coffee.”

Then McCain discussed patriotism.

“Love of country, my friends, is another way of saying love of your fellow countrymen-a truth I learned a long time ago in a country very different from ours.

“That is the good cause that summons every American to service. If you find faults with our country, make it a better one. If you are disappointed with the mistakes of government, join its ranks and work to correct them. I hope more Americans would consider enlisting in our Armed Forces. I hope more would consider running for public office or working in federal, state and local governments. But there are many public causes where your service can make our country a stronger, better one than we inherited. Wherever there is a hungry child, a great cause exists. Where there is an illiterate adult, a great cause exists. Wherever there are people who are denied the basic rights of Man, a great cause exists. Wherever there is suffering, a great cause exists.”

John McCain represents two great traditions in American life. The career military tradition, in which he and his forebears have served America as professionals for more than a century. And the Scots-Irish tradition, the history and meaning of which is laid out in Webb’s “Born Fighting: How The Scots-Irish Shaped America.”

Both traditions overlap. Without them, we wouldn’t be celebrating our ease on this fine Memorial Day.