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06-17-05, 08:02 PM #1
War hero reflects on how generations of his family prep for duty
'We Had a Long Talk'
A war hero reflects on how generations of his family prep for duty.
By John McCain
June 20 issue - My father and grandfather both served in the United States Navy. When I came of age, there was no doubt that I would, too. There was plenty of pressure on me to attend the Naval Academy in Annapolis. I was a child of the 1950s, not the 1960s. The distinction is important. I can remember that from my earliest days friends of my father would speculate, only half jokingly, about what class I would graduate from. I wanted to go, and wanted to serve. As a kid, I would listen to my father tell amazing tales of heroism and victory from World War II. I was fascinated. He was a submariner, and his stories were thrilling. I wanted to have stories of my own to tell someday. Little did I know that my time in Vietnam would leave me the living embodiment of the expression "Be careful what you wish for."
My father drove me to the Academy. On the way we had a long talk. Or I should say, he talked, and I listened. As he had done so many times before, he impressed upon me the importance of honor, character and duty. Those were the qualities he prized, above academic excellence. A good thing, since I did not, let us say, graduate at the top of my class.
Being the son of a well-known officer can be a mixed blessing. There is a much larger degree of scrutiny on the individual, and greater pressure to succeed and uphold the family name. That sort of pressure may have contributed to my immaturity and disciplinary problems at the Academy. But there is also an upside to having a role model in your own family. It gives you certain standards that motivate you to behave honorably. After I was captured by the North Vietnamese, these lessons helped guide my decisions. My captors tried to tempt me with an offer of early release. I knew what they were doing. They never would have made the offer if my father hadn't been commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific. They were trying to humiliate him and the United States by using me as a propaganda pawn.
I refused the offer, and stayed in prison. One major factor in my refusal was our code of conduct. But I don't think there is any doubt that I was also strengthened by my resolve that my father would not have greeted my release under those circumstances with approval. I recalled his words to me, and I could almost hear his voice telling me to do the honorable thing. It would have been taking advantage of his status to accept that offer. I didn't want to embarrass him and I didn't want to let my comrades down. So I stayed.
My father faced a similar burden. In the winter of 1972, negotiations between the United States and the North Vietnamese bogged down. There were major obstacles, and near Christmas the talks had all but broken off, and we sent B-52s to bomb Hanoi. The B-52s weren't always very accurate, and they conducted their missions from 32,000 feet. There was a certain risk of striking the prison in Hanoi where I was held, which was located in the city's downtown. The decision to move ahead with the strikes wasn't a difficult military decision for my father. He was doing his duty. But it was probably a very painful decision personally, because of the risk to his son. Faced with the choice, he did what he knew he had to do, just as he expected me to do.
The years pass, and in a few weeks' time I will be the father behind the wheel of the family car, driving my son Jack to the Naval Academy, where he begins in the fall. Along the way, we will have a long talk, and I will tell him, again, about the importance of honor and character and duty. I hope he doesn't need it as much as I did.
McCain, the senior senator from Arizona, is the son and grandson of U.S. Navy admirals, and served as a naval aviator during the Vietnam War.
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