“I understand war.” — John McCain III, on many occasions.
With all due respect, he doesn’t. Oh, I have no doubt that he understands, far better than I, the reality of fighting a war. (Then again, he’s never commanded troops, or had to kill someone he could see.) But he doesn’t understand why wars are fought, or really what “victory” means.
Several times in the first debate (I didn’t watch, but I saw the highlights) he claimed that Barack Obama doesn’t know the difference between strategy and tactics. As with so much of the McCain campaign, this was evidently projection; said campaign has continually demonstrated a failure to grasp the strategy of the election process. McCain savaged his biggest strength (his reputation as a so-called “Maverick” who would go against his incredibly unpopular party) in favor of short-term plays to the base and brazen (and untruthful) attacks on Obama. He got short-term gains in the polls out of it, but now he’s found himself increasingly considered a partisan Republican, an identification which Obama never could get to stick before. Tactics (short term) before strategy (long term).
Similarly, McCain’s dedication to “victory” in Iraq is a sublimation of the strategic to the tactical. I can, barely, conceive of a tactical victory in Iraq.. A strategic victory, however, seems impossible, not least because the only reasonable strategic goal in the Iraq War was the deposition of Saddam, which we accomplished long ago. The rest — the “stable democracy” and all that — has never been coherently put forward.
The central event of McCain’s life is, no doubt and no wonder, the Vietnam War. However, his peculiar circumstances — he basically missed 1967-1973 — left him subject to a common conservative vision of that war, the old “stab in the back” myth that “victory” was made impossible because of the antiwar movement. This is patently absurd.
Again, a tactical “victory” in Vietnam is easy enough to imagine, but I don’t have to imagine it. One author has mentioned the easiest way to have won a tactical victory in the war. That author was Richard Nixon, who admitted later that he considered bombing the dikes of North Vietnam, or even using an atomic bomb on Hanoi. This certainly would have won a tactical victory, “won” the Vietnam War, but this would, leaving aside the moral aspects (which never bothered Nixon much) have been a strategic disaster.
The Vietnam War was fought not to protect the corrupt government of South Vietnam, but as part of the larger strategy of containing Communism, particularly of the Soviet variety. In this it failed, and soon enough not only South Vietnam but its immediate neighbors to the west had gone Communist, and the failures and activities of the United States had caused us incalculable harm in public opinion, particularly in western Europe. Use of a nuclear weapon would have rendered the United States a global pariah.
Post-Nixon Republicanism has been congenitally incapable of accepting this, and McCain is very much in the Republican mainstream. Their goal is to “win” at all costs, but these “wins” are always tactical, always “defeat of the enemy”. Bush the Elder was a Nixonite, and he brought us the quick-and-easy Gulf War, a resounding tactical and strategic victory that neoconservatives decried because it did not depose Saddam. Bush the Younger is a Reaganite, and brought the Iraq War, a quick tactical victory that turned into a nightmare because it had no strategic goal. McCain, of course, is a rabid Reaganite, and squarely in this tradition.