Sunday, June 15, 2008

What was the NY Times trying to say with its story on a 1974 McCain paper about POWs?

The New York Times has a lengthy story about a 34-year-old paper that John McCain wrote about the Code of Conduct for members of the U.S. armed forces and how it may continue to shape his views about foreign conflicts to this day. The Times succeeded in getting the paper made public through a Freedom of Information request.

McCain wrote the paper for the National War College when he was still a lieutenant commander in the Navy, and likely headed for a top naval leadership post like his father and grandfather before him. It was largely based on his experiences as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese for five years, during which time he was repeatedly tortured and punished.

To help American prisoners of war avoid becoming propaganda pawns -- as some did in the Vietnam war -- McCain recommended in his paper that "all members of the Armed Forces should be informed of the nature of United States foreign policy if he is expected to risk his life in defense of it."

“The biggest factor in a man’s ability to perform credibly as a prisoner of war is a strong belief in the correctness of his nation’s foreign policy," he wrote.

But foreign policy can change, big time. It did several times during the Vietnam war -- under the administrations of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. It's proving just as fluid during the Iraq war, and who knows what it will be after the November election?

The military Code of Conduct of today and when McCain was a POW makes no mention of foreign policy. It is written as if from commander to subordinate. It talks about "the principles which made my country free," and wisely stops there.

This is how Articles 5 and 6 read:


When questioned, should I become a prisoner of war, I am required to give name, rank, service number and date of birth. I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause.


I will never forget that I am an American, fighting for freedom, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles which made my country free. I will trust in my God and in the United States of America.

Try adding something like "and complete support of U.S. foreign policy" to either article, and what do you get? A hash that could put an even heavier burden on American POWs, wherever they are being held.

It's not totally clear from the Times article whether, and how, McCain today thinks foreign policy should be incorporated in the Code of Conduct. But in his email response to the reporter who wrote the story, McCain does not choose to modify his 1974 views.

On its website Sunday, the Times bumped the story from its homepage, where, originally, it had prominent placement from the night before. Maybe it decided the story was just too mucky. If so, good choice. I'll bet McCain agrees.

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