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Courage, Cowardice, and John McCain

'Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life', by John McCain

Dan Brook

"To have courage for whatever comes in life-everything lies in that."
- Mother Theresa, frontisquote

"Suck it up, for crying out loud."
- John McCain, p. 35

John McCain is a senator from Arizona, was an underperforming student near the bottom of his class, a mediocre pilot, a former naval captain and POW in Vietnam, and a best-selling author of two books of memoirs (Faith of My Fathers and Worth the Fighting For). In the face of rising corporate interference in the political system, Senator McCain has very vocally pushed for campaign finance reform. With the tone of partisanship in Washington, D.C. becoming more shrill in recent years, McCain has decried that divisiveness and called for bi-partisanship to efficiently and effectively get the work of the ruling class done. Now, McCain is the Republican nominee for president.

McCain has written a book, with his longtime staffer Mark Salter, on the important subject of courage entitled Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life. In the spirit of JFK's Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage from forty years earlier, and also filled with tales of courageous people-what they did and what they said-McCain's book can be both entertaining and inspiring. McCain talks about courage in this book and can, in fact, be courageous himself at times.

One might wish, however, that he more consistently walked the talk. In spite of his complaints about too much partisanship instead of "bipartisan resolve" and honest politics, McCain (twice!) supported and strongly endorsed George W. Bush for president... because of "party loyalty". McCain's "party lotalty" also extends to supporting Bush's policies about 90% of the time. (McCain also incredulously praises Cheney's "resolve, experience, patriotism".) Making matters worse, McCain once unequivocally stated in a 1996 New Yorker essay: "Going to campaign against John Kerry is something I wouldn't consider". So much for principles and promises. We might hope that McCain were as courageous as his colleague Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont, who when conscience called, defected from the Republican Party to become an Independent, thereby tipping the balance of power in the Senate and maintaining his sense of dignity.

Even with his occasional criticisms, McCain has been an ardent supporter of Bush's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, declaring them fights "between right and wrong, good and evil" while campaigning with Bush. "It is no more ambiguous than that", McCain continued. Indeed, his longstanding criticism is that Bush isn't being hawkish enough, isn't fighting hard enough, isn't sending even more U.S. troops to kill and die in there. Indeed, McCain praised the "courage" of US troops, invoking the threat of weapons of mass destruction. McCain, here, is unfortunately not exhibiting courage, but is instead employing a weapon of mass distraction. If only McCain would re-read his own book and muster the courage to be as brave as his military brother, General Anthony Zinni, who has been criticizing the war in Iraq, arguing that Bush is fighting the "wrong war at the wrong time", suggesting a major change of course instead of "staying" this disastrous one.

"If it takes courage to kill or be killed in a war", McCain declares, "it is a courage often prompted by an instinct for survival", often including an economic one as well as physical and psychological ones. Undoubtedly, some soldiers fighting a war might be courageous. Soldiers and others, however, who refuse and resist illegal and immoral orders in an illegal and immoral war are certainly courageous, as well. For some, an instinct for survival extends to others, not just themselves, enlarging their circles of compassion. We can only wish that McCain were as courageous as his colleague in the House of Representatives, Barbara Lee, who was the only one in either the House or the Senate to vote against the war in Afghanistan.

McCain refers to those who held him captive in Vietnam as "gooks", the derogatory and racist term used by Americans to describe Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians. He has defended this practice by claiming that he isn't referring to all Vietnamese, only those who acted in certain horrible ways. Selective racism, however, is still racism. In this regard, we could at least wish McCain were as courageous as his fellow politician, former Alabama Governor George Wallace, a symbol of virulent racism and racial apartheid in the Jim Crow-era US, who now publicly regrets and rebukes his former beliefs and espouses racial tolerance, equality, and harmony. So much for "moving on", as McCain often claims to have done and hypocritically advocates for others.

Going beyond this modest bravery, we might further hope that McCain could be as courageous as the millions of ordinary people around the world-women and men, activists and organizers, workers and farmers, students and teachers, writers and others-who stick their necks out to uphold vital principles and thereby make a positive difference in our world. But McCain may be too elitist and out of touch for this.

While this is an interesting book on an important subject and at an important time, there is a disconnect between the book and the author. To his credit, though, McCain admits his lack of courage, saying that his exhortations to be courageous "have too often failed to inspire me in difficult circumstances to do the right thing" (71). Cynically choosing the unqualified and reactionary Sarah Palin as his running mate may have been one of these moments. McCain can effectively and approvingly quote Winston Churchill-courage is "the first of human qualities...because it guarantees all the others" (39)-but he apparently doesn't measure up to him, even if he shares some of Churchill's racism and militarism.

In many people's minds, Senator John McCain's name is synonymous with the words independent, maverick, and courageous, even though he supports Bush's imperialist oil wars, Bush's tax cuts for the rich, Bush's Supreme Court nominees, Bush's use of torture by the CIA, Bush's authoritarian anti-choice position, Bush's call for building scores of new nuclear power plants, and other tired, old policies of the right wing. Why Courage Matters may increase this misplaced sense of McCain's supposed virtues. Unfortunately, when it counts, he is neither independent nor courageous. When it comes to real courage, McCain is missing in action.

Dan Brook, Ph.D., teaches sociology at San Jose State University and welcomes comments via

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