John McCain III was born into a Naval family to John S McCain Jr and Roberta McCain at Coco Solo Naval Air Station in the Panama Canal Zone. His father Admiral John S. McCain II, served as Commander United States Pacific Command while paternal grandfather, John S. McCain Sr. was also a four-star United States Navy admiral. The two were the first father-son pair to achieve four-star ranks.
Becoming one of the oldest men to become a naval aviator, John McCain Sr pioneered aircraft carrier operations in WW2. In 1942 he commanded all land-based air operations in support of the Guadalcanal campaign, the Philippines and Okinawa, causing a tremendous destruction of Japanese naval and air force in the closing period of the war. He died four days after the formal Japanese surrender ceremony. In 1949, he was posthumously promoted to full admiral by a resolution of Congress. During WW2 his son, John McCain Jr commanded submarines in several theaters of operation sinking several Japanese ships. Decorated with both the Silver and Bronze Star, he was Commander In Chief of Pacific Command [CINCPAC] during the Vietnam War, for all US forces in the Vietnam Theater from 1968-1972.
After graduation, John McCain III became a naval aviator. Requesting a combat assignment, McCain was posted to the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal, flying A-4 Skyhawks. His combat duty began in mid-1967 when Forrestal was assigned to Operation “Rolling Thunder”. McCain and his fellow pilots were frustrated by micromanagement from Washington, later writing, “In all candor, we thought our civilian commanders were complete idiots who didn’t have the least notion of what it took to win the war”.
In the words of Meghan McCain, Senator John McCain’s daughter, “My father was a great man. He was a great warrior. He was a great American. I admired him for all of these things. but I love him because he was a great father. My father knew what it was like to grow up in the shadow of greatness, he did just as his father had done before him. He was the son of a great admiral who was also the son of a great admiral. When it came time for the third John Sidney McCain to be a man, he had no choice but to walk in the same path. He had to become a sailor. He had to go to war. He had to have his shot at becoming a great admiral as they also do. The past of his father and grandfather led my father to the “Hanoi Hilton” (as the prison in Hanoi for American POWs was nicknamed by its inmates).
Close to the epicenter of the fire or USS Forrestal on July 29, 1967, John McCain escaped from his jet and was trying to help another pilot when a bomb exploded and struck him in the legs and chest. Volunteering for further assignment to the USS Oriskany soon after recovering from his injuries, he was shot down by a missile over Hanoi on October 26, 1967, flying his 23rd bombing mission. Being captured after parachuting into a lake, he was bayoneted and his shoulder was crushed with a rifle butt before being transported to Hanoi’s main prison. Beaten and interrogated, he received no treatment and was placed into solitary for 2 years in 1968 when the North Vietnamese discovered that his father was an admiral. When his father was named commander of all US forces in the Vietnam theater in mid-1968, the North Vietnamese offered McCain early release, wanting to appear merciful for propaganda purposes. McCain refused repatriation unless every man taken prisoner before him was also released. He remained a prisoner for 5 and a half years more until March 14, 1973.
To quote the eulogy rendered by his daughter Meghan, “My father knew pain and suffering with an intimacy and immediacy most of us are blessed never to have endured. He was shot down, he was crippled, he was beaten, starved, tortured and humiliated. That pain never left him. The cruelty of his communist captors ensured he would never raise his arms above his head for the rest of his life, yet he survived, yet he endured. Yet he triumphed”. According to Meghan, “this is where he showed his character, his patriotism, his faith, his endurance in the worst of possible circumstances. This is where we learned who John McCain truly was. And all is very true except for the last part. Today I want to share with you where I found out who John McCain truly was and wasn’t in the Hilton. It wasn’t in the cockpit of a fast and lethal fighter jet or on the campaign trail. John McCain was in all those places, but the best of him was somewhere else, the best of John McCain, the greatest of his titles and the most important of his roles was as a father,” unquote.
After doing National War College in Washington during 1973-1974 his flight status was reinstated and he became Commanding Officer of a training squadron in 1976. Beginning 1977, he served as the Navy liaison to the US Senate, he considered this represented his real entry to politics and the beginning of his second career as a public servant. Retiring from the Navy on April 1, 1981, as a Captain, he competed for a Republican open seat in Arizona’s First Congressional district in 1982 and won a highly contested primary election. Elected to lead the incoming group of Republican representatives in 1983, he supported most aspects of the Reagan administration policy, including a hardline stance against the Soviets and policy towards Central American conflicts, such as backing the Contras in Nicaragua.
He succeeded Barry Goldwater in 1987 as Senator upon his retirement as US Senator from Arizona. On delivering a well-received speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention, he was short-listed by the press for a vice presidential running mate for Republican nominee George H W Bush, and was named Chairman of “Veterans for Bush”. He developed a reputation for independence during the 1990s, taking pride in challenging party leadership and establishment forces. His signature issue was “campaign finance reform” in combating the corrupting influence of large political contributions, from corporations, labor unions, and other organizations. He worked on the initial versions of the McCain-Feingold Act which never came to a vote. Becoming Chairman of the powerful Senate Commerce Committee in 1994, he took on the tobacco industry in 1998, proposing increased cigarette taxes in order to fund anti-smoking campaigns and promote health research studies. Criticizing previous Clinton administration inaction. In 1999, McCain voted to approve the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, demanding the genocide in Kosovo be stopped. Calling Iraq was a “clear and present danger” to the US, he supported the Bush Administration for the Iraq War Resolution in 2002.
Breaking with the new George W Bush administration on a number of matters, like HMO reform, climate change and gun legislation. he was one of only two Senate Republicans to vote against the Bush tax cuts in May 2001. McCain used political capital and experience to become of the Senate’s most influential members. Supporting Bush and the US-led war in Afghanistan after 9-11. McCain and Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman wrote the legislation that created the 9-11 Commission, and with Democratic Senator Fritz Hollings, he sponsored the Aviation and Transportation Security Act federalizing airport security. In March 2002, McCain-Feingold, officially known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 was signed into law by President Bush, his greatest legislative achievement.
Praising Bush for the “War On Terror” he supported his re-election. Defeating his nearest competitor with a 77% margin of victory, he was re-elected Senator in 2004. In October 2005, McCain introduced the McCain Detainee Amendment to the Defence Appropriations Bill, prohibiting inhumane treatment of prisoners including prisoners at Guantanamo and confining military interrogations to the techniques in the US Army Field Manual. McCain was named by Time as one of the Americas 10 best senators in 2006.
In his eulogy during the memorial service, former President Bush had this to say, “Perhaps above all, John detested the abuse of power. He could not abide bigots and swaggering despots. There was something deep inside him that made him stand up for the little guy. Where did such strength of conviction come from? Perhaps from a family where honor was in the atmosphere. Or from the firsthand experience of cruelty, which left physical reminders that lasted his whole life. Or from some deep well of moral principle. Whatever the cause, it was this combination of courage and decency that defined John’s calling – and so closely paralleled the calling of his country. It is this combination of courage and decency that makes the American military something new in history – an unrivaled power for good. It is this combination of courage and decency that set America on a journey into the world – to liberate death camps, to stand guard against extremism, and to work for the true peace that comes only with freedom,” unquote.
McCain formally announced his intention to run for President in 2007, stating: “I am not running for president to be somebody, but to do something; to do the hard but necessary things, not the easy and needless things”. Despite his strengths as a candidate, his well known military service and experience as a POW, his experience from the 2000 campaign, and expectation that he would capture Bush’s top fundraisers, he lost to Obama but with considerable grace. During his rallies, supporters were espousing anti-African and anti-Muslim sentiments. When Gayle Quinnel told him she did not trust Obama because he was an Arab, to which he replied, “No ma’am. He is a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues”. His response was considered as a historic marker for civility in American politics. Conceding victory to Obama’s 46% to Obama’s 53% he emphasized the significance of Obama being elected the nation’s first African American president. Obama’s inauguration speech in 2010 contained an allusion to McCain’s theme of ‘finding a purpose greater than oneself’. Asserting that the war In Afghanistan was winnable, he criticized Obama not only for a slow process in deciding whether to send additional US troops but for scrapping construction of the US missile defense complex in Poland, and strongly opposed the Obama health care plan.
As the Arab Spring took center stage, McCain urged that embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak abdicate. Pressing for the US to support democratic reforms he was a vocal supporter of the 2011 military intervention in Libya. Voting for the Budget Control Act of 2011 in August that resolved the US debt ceiling crisis, he and Senator Carl Levin were leaders in efforts to codify the National Defence Authorisation Act for Fiscal Year 2012 that terror suspects, no matter where captured, could be detained by the US military and its tribunal system. He constantly pushed for the US intervening militarily on the side of the rebels during the Syrian civil war in 2011. Visiting them in 2013 he called for arming the Free Syrian Army (FSA) with heavy weapons and establishing a no-fly zone over Syria.
After the 2013 chemical weapons attack by the Syrians, he voted in favor of Obama’s request to authorize strong American military response against President Assad’s govt. He supported the protests against the Ukrainian President in 2013, following the Russian intervention in 2014 became a vocal supporter of providing arms to Ukrainian military forces.
He condemned CIA’s torture practices after 9-11 as staining national honor, emphasized that “our enemies act without conscience. We must not”. He opposed the Obama administration’s December 2014 decision to normalize relations with Cuba and the agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme, saying that Kerry was delusional in giving away the store in negotiations with Tehran. He supported the Saudi Arabian led military intervention in Yemen against the Shia Houthis and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. McCain endorsed Mitt Romney’s anti-Trump speech in 2016, saying he had serious concerns about Trump’s “uninformed and indeed dangerous statements on national security issues”. He chaired the Jan 5, 2017 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee where Republic and Democratic Senators and intelligence officers, head of NSA and US Cyber Command presented a united front that affirmed the Russian govt. used hacking to influence the US Presidential Elections. With the Rohingya crisis turning into ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Sep 2017, he moved to scrap planned future military cooperation with Myanmar. Heading a bi-partisan team of US legislators, he was one of few major US political leaders who visited FATA to see for himself the success of our counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations, he was effusive in congratulating the Pakistan Army for a job well done.
He did not vote in Senate after December 2017, remaining in Arizona to undergo cancer treatment. Less than 2 weeks after brain surgery he returned to Senate on July 25, 2017, casting a deciding vote allowing the Senate to begin consideration of bills to replace “Obamacare”. Soon after he announced he would no longer receive treatment, he died peacefully at his home in Arizona on August 24, 2018. He is buried alongside Naval Academy classmate and lifelong friend Admiral Charles. R Larson, Prior to his death, he requested former Presidents Bush Jr. and Obama deliver eulogies, and asked that both Trump and Sarah Palin not attend.
To quote former President Bush further in his eulogy for McCain, “John – as he was the first to tell you – was not a perfect man. But he dedicated his life to national ideals that are as perfect as men and women have yet conceived. He was motivated by a vision of America carried ever forward, ever upward, on the strength of its principles,” unquote. At a time when Americans are questioning their global purpose, the threat of possible major power conflict, rapid technological changes have introduced new economic uncertainties. With the future of the post-World War II global system in question, McCain saw the urgent necessity of principled US leadership in the face of dangers coming to surface in the Western democracies, these included from self-centered populism, nationalism, and protectionism. These dangers were multiplied by authoritarianism, extremism, and terrorism from external sources. Most of all, Senator McCain understood that the political polarization and self-centered myopia in the US were hazardous in a larger sense.
Politico Magazine published “McCain’s “rules for living” as observed by a long-time staffer, “duty” first, respect the democratic process, protect the minority, engage the opposition, take risks, clean up the role of money in politics, honor the office, curate freedom’s comparative advantage, recognize that America’s economic and military power are products of its values and ideals, lead from the front, gain peace through strength, show candor with allies and adversaries, modernize strategies and alliances and know your history. We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all corners of the globe,” unquote. In 2015, John McCain became Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. On being diagnosed with brain cancer in 2017, he reduced his role in the Senate to focus on his treatment.
John McCain’s farewell message was read by a close friend and aide after his death, “There is always the temptation to see in the dreams of others for democracy all of the particular reasons why their struggles are different from ours…But if I leave you with one thought tonight, my friends, let it be this: It is our obligation, as free peoples, to look beyond these divisions. To disregard all the arguments that counsel passivity in the fight for human dignity, and to reaffirm that core idea united us all, and solidarity with the universal longings of the human soul, for basic rights and equality, for liberty under the law, for tolerance and opportunity. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down; when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been” unquote. In his farewell message, McCain thanked Providence for giving him the opportunity “To be connected to America’s causes liberty, equal justice, respect for the dignity of all people brings happiness more sublime than life’s fleeting pleasures. Our identities and sense of worth are not circumscribed but are enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves”.
McCain said, “I owe it to America to be connected to America’s causes: Liberty, equal justice, and respect for the dignity of all people brings happiness more sublime than life’s fleeting pleasures. Our identities and sense of worth were not circumscribed but are enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves. We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down; when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been,” unquote.
The timing of the death of soldier citizen John McCain has extraordinary ramifications for the crossroads the US is standing in today. For me personally, this defender of democracy and freedom symbolized American courage and fair play, this extraordinary all-American always had that and more. That is not to say it does not exist, it does among a vast majority but is increasingly less on display. With emerging threats to its global leadership and the principles for which the US once stood for in the free world, democratic rule, protection of individual rights and equal justice before law, “his death is either the passing of an era or the rekindling of American purpose”, to quote my good friend Fred Kempe, President of the Atlantic Council.
Some American families are truly great, that is the strength of America. For me, an endearing sight at the Memorial Service was his 100 plus mother Roberta McCain in a wheelchair, his wife Cindy stoically calm and two of his sons in service uniform, Navy and Marine respectively. The McCains remind me of the Perots. Privileged to have Ross Perot Jr Chairman of EastWest Institute (EWI), New York as a close friend, one had the privilege of meeting his father Ross Perot Sr. Despite being billionaires all the Perots, grandfather, son, and grandsons have served in the Armed Forces. Also a US Presidential candidate this man was so committed to the employees of the company he built that he launched a private mission to rescue those who were imprisoned in Iran in the late 1970s. In the McCains, the Perots, and many other American families like them, one sees at first hand the great sense of service and commitment to their country that so many Americans have, whatever their wealth and status.
For me it was a great honor that Ambassador Clint Williamson and Julia Fromholz from the McCain Institute of International Leadership, Washington DC, humbled me with their presence at my family home Amaanibagh Angoori (near Islamabad) in October 2017 to present to me in person, in front of family and friends, a signed photograph that Senator John McCain had inscribed “Thank you for your brave service to Freedom and Democracy”. One does not even dream of comparing oneself with this truly great man and wonderful human being who was honored and remembered this past week but given what we had in common, both soldier brats, aviators and POWs, truly feel his loss. The photograph remains a treasured possession to be displayed with pride.
I must thank McCain Institute and Julia Fromholz for inviting me to John McCain’s Memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington DC on Saturday, Sep 1, 2018. For circumstances beyond my control, I could not avail of this privilege, greatly regretting my absence seeing the service live on TV. The memorial service brought home to me graphically the way a nation should honor its heroes, my friend and former foe alike the eulogies were ample recognition of what a great nation America is, was and can be as long as it remains fair and square in its dealings with other nations. More than a memorial service for a man who had died was a celebration of the life the man as he had lived it, with honor and dignity, his courage and conviction a shining light on his spirit and soul. Extraordinary American soldier and citizen all-American John McCain, rest in peace!
The writer is a defense and security analyst.