I was a terrible midshipman at the United States Naval Academy.
My shoes were never shined, I consistently had crap grades in military performance, and I was more concerned with my mediocre track and field career then any of the platitudes we were forced to memorize about duty, honor, and country.
But I graduated in May 2001, and five months later our nation was attacked. Service Academy graduates of my generation played a major role in these wars. Some of us died, some of us never saw a day of combat. But all of us were changed, and came home from deployments around the world with different though strongly held opinions about both our nation’s place in the world and our place in our nation. We were not, of course, the first generation of service Academy graduates to fight a war.
John McCain and the Vietnam POWs hold a special place in the oral tradition of the Naval Academy. Within 48 hours of the beginning of our training there, we had all memorized a tap code Stockdale had used to rally men at the depths of an Epictetan hell. We read the Nightingale’s Song, and secretly wondered if we would have ever had the courage to tell a torturer, after months and years of sadist torment, to go fuck themselves if we were offered an early release. We wondered if we would have the courage to stay true to our flag, and to BACK US, should we ever have our arms ripped out of our shoulder sockets. We wondered if we could do what they had done. We wondered all of these things, in the way all anxious youngsters wonder if they will measure up to their forebears.
We were right to wonder if we would measure up in combat. Because for many of us, that came, and we were tested. But perhaps we should have wondered more about our ability to measure up in another way, as combat veterans with crows' eyes and grey in our hair eventually to be entrusted with the leadership of a nation. Now, as one of our patron saints passes into that good night, we reflect on his decades of service with honor and decency.
John McCain was not a perfect man. He may have been a worse midshipman than me, having graduated fifth from the bottom in his class. He was one of the Keating Five. He was quick to anger. He was ambitious and twice ran for the presidency. But he was also a man who refused to agree with a voter who called Barack Obama an Arab. He compromised politically. He returned to Vietnam with a man who had testified in the Senate about the wrongness of the war, who had been kept literally in shackles, forced time and again to the ropes, where his arms were tied behind his back and he was lifted by his hands until his shoulders dislocated.
But as a statesman he believed in our democracy and the strength of diversity of opinion. He kept the faith of his fathers. He showed my generation how to lead, once the guns were silent. He fades from the scene a moderate, thoughtful Republican in a time when the President of the United States, an office McCain never gained, is an impulsive liar who dodged military service out of personal greed and cowardice. We will miss him for what he represents: a better way to think about those who one disagrees with. Some might argue the time for those cut from the same cloth has come and gone.
But I’m not so sure we aren’t doing OK. McCain had enough intellectual honesty to disagree with his party when he thought it was wrong, and to never be seduced by the promise of the political rewards his party elders promised would be his if he only toed the line, and kept those shoes shined. Now, we have our challenges—none more than the dishonesty and rancor of partisan warfare—but we too can measure up.
My generation of combat veterans, now greying and beginning to move into the halls of leadership, must choose: to talk as equals with the liberal, tree-hugging fellow citizens who have never worn a uniform, or to never give an inch and instead seek stardom amongst our ilk. McCain had consistently chosen one path throughout his public life: to take his political opponents at their word, to ascribe to them the best intentions, and to avoid the easy seduction of seeing his political opponents as less then he.
Veterans of my generation are no more or less citizens of this nation then those who never spent a day in uniform. We would do well to remember that, like John McCain did. Maybe, just maybe, if we can remember his example, it won’t matter how our shoes were shined, but the way we stand in them. John McCain stood straight, he never wavered, and we, who wore a uniform, will miss him.