Today, Independence Day, seems like a perfectly appropriate time to praise two war heroes: Lt. Commander John McCain, shot down in 1967 over North Vietnam by an enemy missile; and Army Captain (now General) Wesley Clark, shot four times three years later by a Viet Cong soldier.

You would think these two war heroes would have much in common, and that their close brushes with death would have created a bond, a personal attachment, a mutual respect, that would transcend the vulgar and intemperate clashes of politics. But such is not the case. On June 29, Clark appeared on “Face the Nation” and went after McCain’s military record, saying McCain’s heroic service does not qualify him to be commander in chief of the United States.

Clark continued by noting that even though McCain had commanded “a large Navy squadron,” it wasn’t a wartime squadron, and thus did not qualify as an “executive responsibility.” The moderator the show, Bob Schieffer, noted that Barack Obama, whom Clark supports, has no more executive credentials than does McCain, nor does he have any military experience. At this point Wesley replied, “Well, I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.”

Riding in a fighter plane? McCain was not “riding” in the sense that an airline passenger is passively looking out the window of a commercial jetliner. It takes a bit of courage to ne catapulted off the deck of an aircraft carrier and subsequently to manage a “controlled crash” when the plane is retrieved by the arresting gear. The flight deck of an aircraft carrier is just as dangerous in peacetime as it is during a war. After McCain was shot down, he guided his plane to a crash landing in a lake. Severely injured, he was captured and later tortured during his five years of captivity in a North Vietnamese prison.

While Clark paid slip sliding tribute to McCain, saying he honored McCain’s service as a prisoner of war. But what was left unsaid was McCain’s experience as a United States senator, his world travel in that capacity, and his presence on the Senate Armed Services Committee. It calls forth Alexander Pope’s expression “damning with faint praise” – the feebleness of Clark’s approval became a condemnation of McCain.

In addition to shooting himself in the foot, Clark showed, to quote Slate’s Fred Kaplan, that he is “politically tin-eared.” Many of Washington’s insiders were quick to counsel that disrespecting McCain’s war record is off limits and could result in a backlash that Clark could never anticipate. A headline in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reads: “Wes Clark’s insult to John McCain.” Then there is the issue of Clark’s four stars versus McCain’s two and a half stripes. How can anyone that low in rank possibly have handled significant executive responsibility and major decision making?

Clark’s tunnel vision overlooks the fact that McCain has had far more experience in the U.S. Senate than does Barack Obama. Add to that the military experience which Obama lacks altogether. Clark was disrespecting McCain as far back as March (when he was supporting Hillary Clinton). Clark’s convoluted logic seems to presuppose that McCain could not deal with national strategic issues while Barak Obama could. Where is the reasoning in this assumption? If McCain and Obama stand on equal ground in terms of neither one having been president before, then it stands that McCain’s superior time as a senator, and his military experience, would put more points on his scorecard. McCain has never been accused of “insufficient patriotism” (Kaplan’s phrase) as has Obama. Kaplan also writes: “You might think that Clark would feel a warm comradeship with McCain, having fought the same war and faced death from the guns of the same enemy. A retired Army general who has known Clark for many years told me that he couldn’t understand why Clark would say such a thing. ‘The nightmare of every soldier over there was that we’d get captured. We all thought that would be worse than getting killed.’ Yet in another sense, the retired general understands Clark’s comments all too well. ‘The soldier’s attitude toward Navy aviators, Marine aviators, and Air Force aviators was that they flew their missions, then went back to the officer’s club for a nice dinner and a good night’s sleep, while we ate scraps and huddled under a tree in the jungle.’”

There are a number of issues which may keep some voters from casting their ballots for McCain in November: the scary state of the economy; the war in Iraq; McCain’s endorsement of tax cuts for the rich; and oil, oil oil. But John McCain’s heroism and what he contributed to his country in wartime is not an issue. General Wesley Clark needs to have someone explain this to him.


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