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McCain and the American
Cult of Violence

The question few pundits have dared to touch is the most obvious of all: How can we allow a man like John McCain to run for president? How and why have we gone completely out of our senses while losing our common sense?

The answer lies in the fact that John McCain would probably not even be in politics had he not been a war hero, a man whose lofty character and towering integrity were supposedly forged under brutal conditions in a prison camp. If he hadn’t been shot down in Vietnam, he’d most likely be a retired military officer, golfing in Florida or puttering with his car like Colin Powell, or still making money working for some weapons manufacturer. But he took advantage of the ridiculous popular notion that being in combat in Vietnam was a noble act, one that elevates the soldier above the rest of us, therefore making him a superior candidate for office.

Of course having been in combat is a rather lousy predictor of presidential ability, or a best a mixed bag. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Grover Cleveland, and Franklin D. Roosevelt never saw combat.  Some very lame presidents did, including U. S. Grant and Franklin Pierce. There are also some serious duds who were never in a war, like Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and, of course, the mother of all duds, George W. Bush.

Some presidents were a mixed bag, a category in which I’d put the overrated Woodrow Wilson. Whatever you think of him, you can’t call Ronald Reagan a dud, but he never saw combat, a fact that didn’t tarnish his conservative credentials. Abraham Lincoln dabbled a bit in the military, serving 7 weeks in the Illinois militia that chased Chief Black Hawk and his band Sauk and Fox Indians out of Illinois and into Wisconsin, and murdered many them at the Battle of Bad Axe on the Mississippi River. Abe never saw combat. He did a lot of riding, but his only character-building experience may have been to help bury a dozen dead soldiers and have his horse stolen, which forced him to walk and canoe back home to Illinois—and we’re not even sure about this.

McCain has benefited mightily from the re-militarization of America, the cult of the war hero that was abetted by cultural icons like Rambo, and propelled with huge military spending by Reagan administration, by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the “war on terror.” (One could add the war on crime and the war on drugs, as they are bound up in our chronic romance with violence.)

Unlike McCain, many of us had our fill of war the military industrial complex after the Vietnam nightmare. We protested and voted against the warmongers, and we opposed bloated military spending and U.S. support and arming of violent dictators in Central America. But conservative militarists and their cultural accomplices soon managed a phenomenal resurrection of the cult of war that is such a tragic stain on the American soul. They managed the revival of what’s really an ancient cult of the warrior, one that goes back at least as far as the Roman emperors and their dedication to combat and celebration of war.

The most disastrous change was the cult of the Vietnam veteran, and the use of service in Vietnam as a test of character and political legitimacy. Democrats were as guilty of exploiting their war experience as Republicans. During the 2004 campaign, Howard Dean waxed poetic about how John Kerry was deeper than those of us who had the good sense and moral values NOT to march off to war. Kerry and other Democrats used their Vietnam service as a marketing device. Instead of seeing Vietnam as a powerful lesson against war, their marketers began to tout military service as a political credential, and instead of using Vietnam to argue against attacking Iraq, the opportunistic Kerry voted to invade. Of course it came back to haunt him, since he ended up being branded as a “waffler” when he criticized Bush’s sorry conduct of the war, while the Swift Boat incident ruined him.

Yes, the loopiest things about this absurd war-hero cult is that Republicans who avoided military service have benefited greatly by discrediting Democrat vets like Kerry, or triple-amputee Vietnam vet Senator Max Cleland who lost in Georgia after being smeared for alleged weakness on national defense.

The cult of the war hero has led the media to the obsession with “character.” The result is that actual policies of McCain and Obama are completely submerged in the character question and the constant concern about WHO the “real” McCain or the Obama is.

Perhaps war does build character, but from what I’ve seen, from watching drunken World War II veterans in rural Wisconsin as a child to encountering homeless vets on the streets of San Francisco, war is just as likely to destroy character, or seriously warp it. And if being in combat is as important as political marketers and their media lackeys claim it is, do we then need perpetual war to insure a stable supply of characters shaped in battle? Or will we disintegrate morally and politically without war-annealed combat-hardened heroes to lead us into new character-forming wars? Or might it just be possible that life itself can supply enough trials and tribulations to do effective character building without the benefit of combat duty? I for one don’t think we need yet another war to find the answer, and this is why I don’t want the trigger-happy McCain running my country.


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