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September 09, 2004

McCain's Reasons For Not Wanting Anyone Checking on Medals

I was wondering why McCain was so hostile to the Swiftvets who have questioned Kerry's medals. My first thought was that McCain was of high enough rank in Vietnam that he had written up some of his own subordinates for medals for minor incidents or without corroboration (for his subordinates, note, not himself). But trying to Google this, I discover that (a) McCain's service was mostly as a prisoner, so maybe he wouldn't have been putting subordinates up for medals, and (b) he has a number of medals himself, all dubious. I can't find much on this, but the well-known David Hackworth wrote this:...

...

For sure, McCain has the fruit-salad -- a Silver Star, a Legion of Merit for Valor, a Distinguished Flying Cross, three Bronze Stars , two Commendation medals plus two Purple Hearts and a dozen service gongs.

...

McCain's valor awards are based on what happened in 1967, when during his 23d mission over Vietnam, he was shot down, seriously injured, captured and then spent 5 1/2 brutal years as a POW.

In an attempt to find out exactly what the man did to earn these many hero awards, I asked his Senate office three times to provide copies of the narratives for each medal. I'm still waiting.

I next went to the Pentagon. Within a week, I received a recap of his medals and many of the narratives that give the details of what he did.

None of the awards, less the DFC, were for heroism over the battlefield -- where he spent no more than 20 hours. Two Naval officers described the awards as "boilerplate" and "part of an SOP medal package given to repatriated (Vietnam- era) POWs."

McCain's Silver Star narrative for the period 27 October 1967 -- the day after he was shot down -- to 8 December 1968 reads: "His captors... subjected him to extreme mental and physical cruelties in an attempt to obtain military information and false confessions for propaganda purposes. Through his resistance to those brutalities, he contributed significantly towards the eventual abandonment..." of such harsh treatment by the North Vietnamese.

Yet in McCain's own words just four days after being captured, he admits he violated the U.S. Code of Conduct by telling his captors "O.K, I'll give you military information if you will take me to the hospital."

A Vietnam vet detractor says, "He received the nation's third highest award, the Silver Star, for treason. He provided aid and comfort to the enemy!"

The rest of his valor awards -- issued automatically every year while he was a POW -- read much like the Silver Star. More boilerplate often repeating the exact same words. An example: "By his heroic endeavors, exceptional skill, and devotion to duty, he reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Naval Service and the United States Armed Forces."

Yet McCain's conduct while a POW negates these glowing comments. The facts are that he signed a confession and declared himself a "black criminal who performed deeds of an air pirate." This statement and other interviews he gave to the Communist press were used as propaganda to fan the flames of the anti-war movement.

Accounts by McCain and other writers tell of the horror he endured: relentlessly beatings, torture, broken limbs. All inflicted during savage interrogations. Yet no other POW was a witness to these accounts.

A former POW says "No man witnessed another man during interrogations... We relied on each other to tell the truth when a man was returned to his cell."

The U.S. Navy says two eye-witnesses are required for any award of heroism. But for the valor awards McCain received, there are no eye-witnesses, less himself and his captors.

...

McCain refused an early release. An act of valor? Three former POWs told me he was ordered to turn it down by his U.S. POW commander and he "just followed orders."

McCain certainly doesn't appear to be a war hero by conventional standards, but rather a tough survivor whose handlers are overplaying the war hero card.

This isn't on the same level as the Kerry medals scandal, because the charge is not that (a) McCain lied about what happened to get phony medals, or even (b) McCain has made a big deal of getting medals he didn't deserve. In fact, McCain's Senate bio doesn't even mention his Vietnam service! And a CNN article says

"They are treating us like heroes," he told his Naval Academy roommate Chuck Larson when he got back to the States, "and all I did was get shot down and try to survive the best I could. I really want to put that behind me. What's important to me is what I do from now on. I don't want to live and be nothing but a POW."

Rather, what Hackworth is saying is (c) McCain has lots of medals, but really they seem to boil down to just being medals for being a prisoner -- that is, for being unlucky-- rather than for doing anything special as a prisoner. Thus, as with Kerry, we've heard a lot more about McCain having medals than about what exactly he did that made him deserve the medals.

If any readers know anything that refutes Hackworth on this, please let me know. I didn't find anything. In an hour or so, I did find the interesting U.S. Veteran Dispatch which makes strong (wild?) charges against McCain with lots of very specific questions and requests for McCain to release clarifying records, but though I found lots of claims that Bush people questioned McCain's credentials in the 2000 Republican Primary, I couldn't find any specific claims, anything refuting any such claims, or any links to McCain war records. In particular-- what do McCain's medal citations say?

This matters because Kerry's first line of defense in his own medals controversy-- the first five paragraphs of his campaign's "FACT CHECK: Swift Boat Veterans for Bush" page-- is that Senator McCain says nobody should question Kerry's medals. It matters all the more because Kerry's first line of defense is pretty close to being his last line of defense, too-- just check out the web page and note how much of it actually isn't even close to being fact-checking, as opposed to (a) saying it's unfair to criticize Kerry or (b) commentary on the people who are criticizing him without reference to what they actually say.

I should add that McCain's "don't inquire into whether medals are deserved" stance is not just something he's doing to help Kerry. McCain has long held that belief, and not just with respect to his own medals.

The best example is his position in the Wounded Knee Medal of Honor controversy. The U.S. army gave out disgracefully large number of Medals of Honor before World War I, and in 1916 a board was set up to look them over. The Medal of Honor website says

This board rescinded the awards of 911 Medals of Honor. Stricken were the 27th Maine, the 29 officers and men who had accompanied the remains of President Lincoln from Washington to Springfield, Illinois in April, 1865, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, and another very colorful hero of the Indian Wars, William F. "Wild Bill" Cody. Cody, like James J. Andrews, had been a civilian guide or scout and thus was not eligible for the award. The most ridiculous award that was rescinded was one that had been issued to a Lieutenant Colonel Gardiner in 1872 by Secretary of War Belknap upon Gardiner's application. Gardiner wrote, "I understand there are a number of bronze medals for distribution to soldiers of the late War, and request I be allowed one as a souvenir of memorable times past."

Thus, not all medals are deserved (surely not a shocking item to combat veterans). I'm sure there are even more acts of heroism that don't get medals than medals unassociated with acts of heroism too, but that's not our focus here.

Now let's return to Senator McCain. Among the medals *not* stricken in 1916 were 17 awarded for heroism at the Battle of Wounded Knee, one of the last Indian War battles. Some peole call it "the Wounded Knee Massacre", because the Indians were so pitifully outgunned and it was more like a brawl than a battle. Since 25 U.S. soldiers were killed, not all by friendly fire, I'm willing to call it a battle. It wasn't an occasion that required heroism, though. Here is Senator McCain's letter on the medals.

Thank you for your recent letters, together with signatures and comments from other citizens via the Internet, proposing that Congress rescind seventeen Medals of Honor awarded to U.S. Army personnel for actions at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on December 29, 1890, and at Drexel Mission on the following day.

The policies and decisions of the United States Government that led to the Army's being at Wounded Knee in 1890 doubtless can be characterized as unjust, unwise, or worse. Nevertheless, a retrospective judgement that the Government's policies and actions were dishonorable does not warrant rescinding the medals awarded to individual soldiers for bravery in a brief, fierce fight in which 25 soldiers were killed and 45 others wounded. Neither today's standards for awarding the medal nor policies of the United States with regard to Indian tribes are what they were in 1890.

This is a bit disingenuous. Medals of Honor in the Civil War weren't awarded at a rate of 17 per 25 men killed. Standards were far lower in 1890 than either in 1863 or 1918. It shows McCain's attitude, though: don't mess with whether medals are deserved.

Posted by erasmuse at September 9, 2004 09:34 AM

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