By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
As the Iraq Study Group issued its long-awaited report on the war, declaring that the United States should not dispatch more troops, Sen. John McCain reacted with his long-held and contrary view: It will take more boots on the ground, or the nation faces "sooner or later, our defeat in Iraq."
Then the Arizona Republican discreetly flew to San Diego, where the next day, Dec. 8, he sat under a hot sun to watch a skinny 18-year-old in military-issue glasses graduate from boot camp and become a Marine. His son Jimmy.
John McCain's public certainty about Iraq masks a more private and potentially wrenching connection. If more troops go there, as McCain hopes they will, his youngest son could be one of them, taking his place in a line of family warriors that is one of the longest in U.S. history.
Sen.-elect James Webb (D-Va.) also has a son in the Marine Corps named Jimmy. On the campaign trail, Webb declined to talk about his son, who is in Iraq, but he wore Jimmy's boots as he called for American forces to come home.
McCain has not drawn any attention to his son and declined to be interviewed for this article.
A leading contender for the GOP presidential nomination, McCain has been one of the few and among the most vocal politicians pressing for more troops in Iraq. "We left Vietnam, it was over, we just had to heal the wounds of war. We leave this place . . . and they'll follow us home," he said on a news show recently. "So there's a great deal more at stake."
McCain's own father faced the anguish of sending a son to war. Adm. John McCain Jr., who commanded Pacific forces during the Vietnam War, ordered airstrikes on Hanoi even while his son, a Navy pilot, was imprisoned there after being shot down.
McCain was held captive for more than five years, repeatedly beaten and tortured. On more than one occasion, the North Vietnamese offered to release him as a propaganda move to shame his father. McCain, citing a prisoners' code of conduct requiring that POWs be released in order of capture, refused.
During McCain's imprisonment, his father, while privately collecting every scrap of information about his son that he could, "made an ironclad rule that no one would talk about his son around him," said Torie Clark, who was a staffer for the younger McCain and a Pentagon spokeswoman. "He wanted to make sure he made decisions based on what was right for U.S. forces . . . not what would be good or bad for his son.
"I'm not surprised that the current John McCain separates the private from the public."
In "Faith of My Fathers," the family memoir McCain wrote in 1999 with Mark Salter, his chief of staff, he recalls the prisoners' jubilation at the 1972 bombing of Hanoi, ordered by his father, that helped end the war. His thoughts foreshadowed his position on Iraq:
"The misery we had endured . . . was made all the worse by our fear that the United States was unprepared to do what was necessary to bring the war to a reasonably swift conclusion," the authors wrote.
"No one who goes to war believes once he is there that it is worth the terrible cost of war to fight it by half measures," they wrote. "War is too horrible a thing to drag out unnecessarily. It was a shameful waste to ask men to suffer and die, to persevere through awful afflictions and heartaches, for a cause that half the country didn't believe in and our leaders weren't committed to winning."
Those who know McCain say they are not surprised that his children would feel a call to duty -- his son Jack is a Naval Academy midshipmen -- and that the senator would not allow his paternal concerns to influence his thinking about how the war should be conducted.
"I get a feeling that he sometimes must think he's seeing an old movie being played back," said George "Bud" Day, who was McCain's cellmate in Hanoi and remains close to him now. "There's no doubt his kids have the McCain genes. That means they're going to war."
McCain's view of the war and his family history is born of "his sense of duty, that is so deeply ingrained . . . there were probably times that he felt a prisoner of it," said Robert Timberg, who has written a book about McCain and who, the senator has said, "knows more about me than I do."
McCain has spoken publicly about Jimmy only once. In response to questions from Time magazine in June, as his son prepared for boot camp, he said, "I'm obviously very proud of my son, but also understandably a little nervous." After the interview, the magazine reported, McCain tried to get the story killed.
His reluctance to publicly discuss his thoughts about his son going to Iraq is a sign of decency, said Timberg, a fellow Annapolis graduate and Vietnam veteran. But there is another reason, common to fathers with sons in war.
"The last thing in the world he'd want to do," Timberg said, "is to anger the gods."
Jimmy McCain is an outgoing young man who told his fellow recruits that he had no ambition for politics, recalled Lance Cpl. Dominic Stam, 17, who served in a platoon with him for a time.
"On the very first day, I felt sorry for him because all the drill instructors already knew who he was," Stam said. Over three months of rigorous training, 80 of the 500 recruits quit. McCain "did really well" and "was a squad leader for a while," he said. "He started out as John McCain's son . . . and became Private McCain, just another Marine."
Stam said McCain signed up for the infantry. He reports to Camp Pendleton for more training in early January and could deploy by mid-2007. "He decided to choose one of the most dangerous jobs in the Marine Corps, and I respected him for it," Stam said. "He could have chosen something where he would be safe."
On graduation day, Stam scanned the military officers and family on the reviewing stand. There was John McCain, in suit and sunglasses.
"He sat there like a normal parent," Stam said. "He looked proud to me. I can't imagine a parent not being proud."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.