Perhaps not since John F. Kennedy has a presidential candidate spoken as compellingly to the core values and aspirations of the U.S. military as John McCain. Certainly fellow Republicans Bob Dole and George Bush were genuine war heroes, but their struggle in World War II was of an older generation and came long before they were presidential candidates. McCain's time of testing came during the Vietnam War, a conflict that still shapes and shadows the values of today's all-volunteer force.
For those who embrace the military code of honor, McCain's repeated refusal of early release despite more than five years of torture and solitary confinement in the Hanoi Hilton is the ultimate badge of courage. His emphasis, on the campaign trail, on straight talk and a sense of duty to a higher calling rings true to every U.S. Naval Academy midshipman and West Point or Air Force Academy cadet.
"As a potential commander in chief, McCain does have a very strong appeal to the military," said retired Adm. Stanley R. Arthur, a former vice chief of Naval Operations. "His emphasis on integrity-and the piece of his message that stresses that values are important and need to be respected-connects with those of us in uniform who knocked around in the system for a long time. And when McCain has fallen short of those standards, he's generally been willing to admit his mistakes and notch it up as a lesson in the school of hard knocks. That resonates with us military types."
However, for many Pentagon leaders with stars still on their shoulder boards, as well as for defense industry executives responsible for supplying the military with modern weapons, a McCain presidency is perhaps the most disconcerting prospect since the election of retired Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, another war hero with unassailable credentials and a penchant for reform.
"John McCain is someone the troops instinctively look up to, but, at the same time, I think he makes the senior officers nervous," said Lawrence J. Korb, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City and a Pentagon official in the Reagan Administration. Like Eisenhower, who publicly sounded an alarm against the "military-industrial complex," McCain has taken aim at the "iron triangle" in Washington of money, lobbyists, and legislation that results in pork-laden defense bills.
"While most civilians in government are very careful about taking on the military, McCain's great strength is that he's not afraid to take on anyone, and the armed services know that they can't B.S. him," said Korb. "With all his focus on pork in the Pentagon budget, I can easily see McCain cutting some projects the services want."
Certainly McCain has caught the attention of senior uniformed leaders and defense executives by labeling as "Cold War relics" such weapons as the Navy's Seawolf submarine and the Air Force's B-2 bomber. He has vowed that, as President, he would "veto every pork barrel bill that comes across my desk," and he identified $6.4 billion in wasteful Pentagon spending this year that includes such congressionally favored programs as the Air Force's C-130J transport and a new amphibious helicopter carrier for the Marine Corps.
A number of senior and retired officers remember Jimmy Carter, a Naval Academy graduate and former nuclear submariner, who, while in the Oval Office, strenuously opposed the Air Force's B-1 bomber and the Navy's plans for aircraft carrier modernization. "I think there's a general feeling that the military makes out better when the person in the White House has no military experience, because the great fear is that a veteran will come in and set themselves up as `the authority' on the military," said a retired flag officer now working for a major defense contractor. "A lot of people in the defense industry are paying close attention to what McCain has said on the campaign trail and as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and some are scared by what they hear and read."
McCain has never wielded a rubber stamp on military programs. Nevertheless, he has been one of the most forceful congressional supporters of a strong military. Last year, he was a key proponent of the 4.8 percent military pay raise for active-duty service members. McCain has also promised to halt a slide in military readiness if elected President. The Veterans of Foreign Wars has twice awarded him its Congressional Award.
"McCain may make those parts of the military establishment that have a vested interest in a particular defense program nervous, but there's a general feeling that he understands that today's force is run ragged and, as commander in chief, he would fix it," said retired Lt. Gen. James Terry Scott, director of the national security program at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "And while he has a reputation for not pulling punches and telling senior officers in no uncertain terms when he disagrees with them, McCain is not one of those Senators who will beat up on the military just to posture and grandstand before the TV cameras. Those are the guys senior officers really resent, and McCain's not one of them."
Although he served a full military career before pursuing politics, McCain often defies expectations on defense issues. As a new congressman in 1983, for instance, he stunned his party establishment by forcefully and presciently opposing the Reagan Administration's deployment of U.S. troops to Lebanon, where 241 Marines were later killed in a terrorist bombing.
A decade later, after a divisive election campaign in which the GOP slammed Clinton's draft avoidance and his support for gays in the military, McCain broke with party orthodoxy and accompanied President Clinton to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He also reached across the aisle to fellow veteran, and Senator, John F. Kerry, D-Mass., to sponsor a resolution to normalize relations with Vietnam.
Anthony H. Cordesman, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and a former defense aide for McCain, said the Senator was always willing to listen to dissenting voices. "As President, I don't think he would tolerate an ideological approach to national security," Cordesman said. "I would describe John McCain as a pragmatist who has a passionate desire to actually achieve certain goals, one of which is to bring our global military commitments and our defense resources into balance. That's probably the single most important issue facing the military."