Trump Swiftboats McCain the Way W. Swiftboated John Kerry

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The chickens of 2004 have come home to roost in the Republican Party. The Republican strategists around George W. Bush in that year decided to rip John Kerry’s face off by attacking him, in accordance with Karl Rove’s dirty tactics, at his strength. Bush, who hid out from the Vietnam War in the Texas Air Reserve faced a decorated war hero in Senator Kerry. A campaign of falsehoods and vilication was gotten up against him by unscrupulous propaganda gangsters that questioned his heroism and his medals. Their charges were shown to be without merit, but they no doubt did hurt Kerry’s reputation and campaign with their falsehoods.

Now another Republican candidate is trying to swiftboat a decorated veteran. But this time the candidate is Donald Trump and the veteran is Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). (McCain, by the way, defended Kerry in 2004; but then he had been the victim of Bushie dirty tricks in the 2000 primaries and knew the filthy ends to which they were willing to go).

Trump attacked McCain on Saturday in an act of petty revenge. McCain had complained of Trump’s demagoguery, saying he had “fired up the crazies.” Trump replied that McCain is a “dummy”, having been last in his class at Annapolis. Then yesterday at a conservative forum in Iowa, the moderator called McCain a war hero, and Trump replied, “He is a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

The problem with Sen. McCain is not that he isn’t heroic– he is. It is that he proposes US wars too often and too lightly.

It is worth noting that the only brush with the military Trump ever had came when he was expelled from middle school for behavioral problems at age 13 and was placed by his parents in the New York Military Academy in hopes that it could straighten him out (obviously it couldn’t).

There is no shame in having been against the Vietnam War (I was, too), the reason Trump gives for having sought student deferments. But people who haven’t been in war, in my view, are not in a position to question the valor of people who have. Someone who served in a war can be wrong about politics and then we should argue with them on political grounds. But if we weren’t there, we don’t know the test of character they faced and can’t speak to that.

Hanoi had among the most extensive anti-aircraft batteries of any city in the world when McCain was flying missions over it. That takes courage, so Trump is wrong that the senator only became heroic by virtue of being shot down. That he was downed shows how dangerous his multiple missions were in the first place.

McCain was in brutal captivity for 5 and a half years at the hands of an authoritarian regime. He was tortured. He declined an opportunity to leave his mates behind because his father was an admiral. Getting through all that takes courage. So too does getting over it and showing the resilience to go on to serve his country in the senate.

You can be against the war he fought in and still recognize heroism there.

Trump clearly spoke out of annoyance (he really, really dislikes being disagreed with or dismissed as unserious).

Trump is a one-man advertisement for campaign finance reform, socialism and banning casinos. Whatever circumstances made him a plausible candidate for president should be immediately changed to make sure that kind of thing never happens to our country again.

But in addition, I think all the Republicans who say they are outraged at Trump’s comments need to step up and apologize to John Kerry if they didn’t, as McCain did, defend him from the swiftboaters.


Related video:

CNN: “Donald Trump questions if McCain is a ‘war hero'”

50 Responses

  1. There are a number of excellent articles about McCain as a POW that are easy to find. His nickname by other POWs was The Canary. He made 3 broadcasts that are still classified. I have met a number of former POWs with very strong opinions on him. Having said that, I am a Vietnam Veteran, but have no idea how I would have behaved. Also, Vietnam draft dodgers have no right to criticize the actions of those of us who served.

      • Muhammed Ali and Bill Clinton were much bigger draft dodgers than Trump or Cheney. Bubba should be the hero of every young male who didn’t get kidnapped by Lyndon or Richard Nixon. Bill Clinton was still fighting the draft at age 23. :) The draft ended because young males refused to fight in an ILLEGAL war cooked up by a bunch of old men.

        • Ali did sacrifice his career for principal, but my point was about dodging the illegal draft during the Vietnam war. An individual’s motivation is beside the point. Ali, Clinton, Trump, Cheney and George Bush all did the same thing, the smart thing. Their names aren’t on that wall. They all escaped being kidnapped by the U.S. government and thrown into a meat grinder. Others wound up going to Canada. They were smart too.

          John McCain became a “hero” when his plane crashed after dropping bombs on innocent people including women and children.

          Why did John Kerry really go fight in Vietnam? Was it too serve his country in an illegal wart OR to further his political career goals?


          McCain and Kerry are not heroes. Some of the real heroes were murdered at Kent State trying to stop an illegal war.

  2. I would like to see a full airing and investigation of award-winning journalist Sidney Schanberg’s essay on POW’s possibly left behind in Vietnam and John McCain’s role in that before proclaiming McCain a hero. The essay was published in 2010 in The New Conservative. Link
    link to

    Prof. Cole, you are wrong about what constitutes heroism. Flying into antiaircraft fire certainly takes courage, but it does not constitute heroism by a long shot (I know, I should have phrased that differently…). The flyer is dropping bombs from 2 to 5 miles away and cannot possibly know if he may be killing civilians. That is your definition of heroic? Please…
    McCain deserves respect for his willingness to serve in the military. He also deserves respect for having been a POW. God bless him for having survived the torture inflicted on him.
    But I am certainly unaware of Schanberg’s essay having been discredited as untruthful. So let’s have that investigation first before we label John McCain a hero.

    BTW, none of this changes Donald Trump’s being a jackass.

  3. “Trump is a one-man advertisement for campaign finance reform, socialism and banning casinos.”

    I think that you have an unintentional omission here Juan. What I think you probably meant to write was:

    “Trump is a one-man advertisement for campaign finance reform, socialism and banning casinos as well as comb-overs”.

    Seriously though: yes, we should honor McCain’s war record, but I for one will never forgive him for the further degradation of US public political discourse by foisting Sarah Palin into the public spotlight.

  4. “…we don’t know the test of character they faced and can’t speak to that.”

    Bombing Hanoi was a test of character? I can remember the glory days — lasting perhaps as many as 3 decades after WWII — when people were held morally accountable for their actions.

    Trump is a madman, and his madness comes out in breaching the rules of public deference to all things military, but the fact remains that McCain was a poor airman cushioned by his father’s rank.

    Trump’s twist has a crazed samurai/Totenkopf flavor: he got captured! Death before surrender! No retreat! That’s what we should be complaining about: the descent into overt fascism.

    • In my day the favorite tattoo in the Corps, other than the inexplicable bulldog in a helmet smoking a cigar, was ‘Death Before Dishonor’. That’s a bit more broad than ‘No retreat”.

      McCain was a U.S. Navy carrier pilot who flew multiple missions in a very dangerous combat environment. Regardless of his detractors that has to be respected. He’s had his detractors, but they are petty next to accomplishments. I subscribe to Juan’s view.

      By the way, not only was his father a senior Admiral but also his grandfather who served in WW II in the Pacific.

  5. Thanks Juan,

    Great conclusion below.

    “Trump is a one-man advertisement for campaign finance reform, socialism and banning casinos. Whatever circumstances made him a plausible candidate for president should be immediately changed to make sure that kind of thing never happens to our country again.

    But in addition, I think all the Republicans who say they are outraged at Trump’s comments need to step up and apologize to John Kerry if they didn’t, as McCain did, defend him from the swiftboaters.”

  6. tick…tick…tick….The Donald’s 15 minutes just ran out. Bad mouthing McCain because he was captured and tortured in North Vietnam prisons for over five years was five kinds of stupid, even for Trump. Republicans love their war heroes more than John Wayne. The Donald is done.

    Watching the Republican candidates shoot each other down will be great fun, like a sport. Scott Walker might be next. He has a lot of holes in his game and definitely not ready for prime time.

    • Well, now let’s wait and see. The psychology of the new American warrior cult still holds mysteries. What happened to Kerry shows it’s not really about service or heroism. It’s about bloody tribal loyalty. No Democrat is a good American in this view. No one who avoids war is a good American.

      Most of all, the right-wing movement judges military duty as merely one of the ways to determine which rich White male Christian is worthy to be the warrior chieftain. And the job of the chieftain is to argue moral justification for the tribe’s aggression and greed.

      So this is like an elimination tournament where a veteran who doesn’t recklessly justify those things is inferior than a veteran who does, and the details of their service are rewritten to fit the narrative. But a non-veteran who justifies those things can make himself more “American” than a veteran who justifies them less recklessly.

      Goldwater, a bomber pilot, cast the fatal spell with his words: “Extremism in the name of liberty is no vice.” Somehow, all these absurd criteria are measures of how far our war chieftain is willing to go to conquer us some goodies… which is all liberty means to a creature who only values property. Whoever escalates the most is proclaimed the greatest warrior.

  7. Very well said! There is a minor slip of the pen in the last sentence of the second paragraph. I think you meant to say ” the lengths to which they were willing to go” rather than ” the ends…”.

  8. genevieve hunt

    @DemFromCT One of those Swiftboater puppets lives in my town. He was in the news spouting his crap every day. He’s gone into hiding

  9. I do not like Trump or McCain, but, I suppose being a liberals or progressive I find the attack by Trump troubling for it shows just how low politics is, yes swift boating it is.

  10. I think that McCain is not a hero. There is some serious talk by others in the same POW camp that say he was given preferential treatment. Being made prisoner does not translate to hero for me. Yes he served.

  11. Oh, I’d say this was really more of a garden variety slur, without the calculation, guile, creativity or chutzpah of a Rovian assault. After all, where was the third-party follow-up and what would his intention have been? Trump is just another spoiled child, who has learned that raising his voice and being outrageous draws attention. That’s as far as his aspirations really stretch.

  12. I am surprised and even amazed that none of the commentary on Trump considers the idea that all of this is nothing more than political theater designed to make other Republican candidates more attractive to the voter. Trump is the nut, and the others – and their positions – are normal.

    • Perhaps Trump wins the nomination because so many Republicans really are “crazies” and think of illegal immigrants from Mexico just like The Donald. He’s definitely hit a chord with this anti-immigrant rabble rousing speeches.

      Trump as the nominee would mean the end of the Republican party. Rapidly changing demographics and liberal social mores like Gay marriage, pot legalization would prove to be fatal. The GOP would NEVER recover from Trump.

      The Donald would wind up being the real “HERO.”

      TRUMP–PALIN 2016 woof, woof :)

  13. I am not so sure John McCain really does qualify as heroic. The son and grandson of admirals, he was assured both a place at Annapolis and advancement through the ranks. Yet at Annapolis he finished at the bottom of his class and he was such a terrible pilot that he crashed three planes which were not under fire (including the crash that resulted in his capture), and yet the Navy kept putting him back in the cockpit. I’m the son of a Navy fighter pilot and cannot help but be struck by the unearned privilege that John McCain enjoyed in the military, and for that matter, all of his life.

    Yes, McCain did once turn his back on that privilege when his Vietnamese captors offered to release him early in deference to his father’s position, and he refused to go. That one act might fairly be described as heroic, but it was singular and the rest of his military career was more privileged than heroic.

    Please do not construe this as an endorsement of Trump’s Swiftboating. It isn’t. I just don’t believe that John McCain was a true war hero in the manner that, say, John Kerry was.

  14. I suggest that you read this article. I suspect that it’s the closest thing we will see in our lifetime about McCain. Like George Bush, he was a playboy, flyboy who gambled with planes & other people lives. There are many articles still available on the internet about McCain and this particular article shows how McCain’s activity was glossed over & over looked because his father was an admiral with lots of connections. There are many articles & videos featuring people who were POWs alongside McCain. This article is mainly about the USS Forrestal tragedy & how it was handled.

    Investigating John McCain’s Tragedy at Sea

    link to

  15. if he’s a hero because of his time as a pow but if you look at his service record he was a bit of an asshole

  16. What people do & say when tortured ought never be held against them. However, McCain is a war criminal! He bombed Hanoi. What Vietnamese ever did to him or this country any harm until Ideology Mad Uncle Sam started to involve himself in its affairs.

  17. Seems I recall that McCain was pardoned
    by “I’m not a crook” Nixon for his Conduct
    Unbecoming an Officer while in captivity.
    One must remember RHIP, especialy for
    the son of a Flag Rank Officer who was
    himself the son of Flag Rank Officer.

  18. Trump Crazies-Without-a-Clue Wing of the Republican Party

    Making the truly unacceptable extremists and maladroit running for President as Republicans look good.

    Led by a media vuvuzela bigot with bad hair and zero chance at nomination.

    Step right up, folks. (Cue the midway music.)

  19. I am sorry but I do not consider volunteering to drop fire on Vietnamese peasants from a fighter jet heroic. That he was tortured is awful. But the United States destroyed Vietnam, ruining the lives of millions of people. And McCain has used his war hero status to intimidate others and compensate for his lack of ability. (While he may not be as lacking as Bush, he is still rather simple minded.) I have very little sympathy for him. (And let us not forget his support for the Iraq War, defense of Kissinger, claim that the surge worked, etc.)

  20. He bombed Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi right before the North Vietnamese shot him and his plane down.

    Nothing particularly heroic about that; so Trump unknowingly called him out.

    McCain is no hero; for bombing a hospital, he is a WAR CRIMINAL

    • From Wiki:

      Late in the Second Indochina War on December 22, 1972, a string of American bombs intended for nearby Bach Mai Airfield missed their target and struck the hospital instead, nearly destroying the building and killing 28 hospital staff members.[1] The hospital was subsequently rebuilt, largely with private donations from the United States.[2]

  21. I am finding some claims that McCain and other POWs were pardoned by NIxon. Does anyone have any ideas on that lead?

  22. Well said. And while we’re at it, let’s remember the disgusting acts of Saxby Chambliss and his little droogies against Max Cleland. I hope the Dems are smart enough to make Jeb disown this guy by name every chance they get.

  23. In the defenses of McCain, I keep noticing omissions of factors that ought to count for something and that took away from his being that thing far too often and loosely called a “hero.”

    His father was not just any admiral. From 1968 to 1972 John Sidney McCain II was the commander of all the U.S. forces in Vietnam. Having a father like that had to have helped McCain throughout his military years, after his very poor showing at Annapolis. But McCain demonstrated that he had fallen far from the tree by being nothing more than a reckless jet jockey, when more than one of those enormously expensive things called war planes came to grief through his taking chances. So, as the son and the grandson of not one but two four-star admirals, he probably thought he was untouchable when, in 1967, over Hanoi, he saw, as he wrote somewhere, missiles coming up at him “as big as telephone poles.”

    Ever since 2008, when I read about these things, I’ve never seen how the U.S. Navy could not have actually breathed a big sigh of relief when one of those “telephone poles” clipped that latest aircraft that was unlucky enough to be under his rear end and it was up to the Vietnamese to bind his wounds after he hit the ground at the cost of several broken limbs and to keep him alive and out of trouble for the next five years. That allowed the Navy to hold on to some of its remaining hardware a bit longer, and they no longer had to worry about that foolhardy progeny of admirals coming to a final reckoning.

    But this also enabled McCain to take part in crashes of other kinds over the subsequent years, the biggest one being trying to put a deeply silly and badly informed woman within a single heartbeat – his own — from running the U.S. government. That’s a hero?
    For one of a very few times D. Trump hit on something that had some basis. But those things happen, and it’s entertaining to watch the effects of his having detonated such a big stink bomb among his own kind.

  24. I remember a joint TV appearance of McCain and George McGovern when McCain disrespected and belittled McGovern, who was a highly decorated WWII pilot who felt no need to assert his manliness thru truculence and mindless belligerence, So if McCain got SwiftBoated too bad.

  25. the logical question that arises is whether McCain would have been given but for his capture, and POW status? That question leads to identification of what is a war hero by actions vs war hero with medals, a question of merit or status?

  26. Those of us who did not serve the military-industrial complex in Viet Nam have every right to condemn the actions of those US military personnel who committed war crimes in Viet Nam. Reliable sources say Lt. Calley was just one of many such perpetrators.

    • Thank you. To suggest that only those who served in the military have a right to criticize others who others who served is a dangerous notion. I want nothing to do with a country wherein such Ouroboric logic holds sway.

  27. “Hanoi had among the most extensive anti-aircraft batteries of any city in the world when McCain was flying missions over it. That takes courage”

    By this logic, Luftwaffe pilots during the London blitz were acting “heroically.” No sale.

    • A better example than the London blitz would be that of Coventry. In fact “Coventry” became both a verb (to Coventry) and and an adjective (Coventried) for total annihilation of a city and most of its inhabitants. It was a term I heard a lot in the talk of my parents and neighbors in post-war England.

  28. This is the primaries. You have to look at it from the perspective of the appropriate audience.

    So I’m going to just cut to the chase. The only Repub. who will stand up to Trump’s antics is probably Chris Christie. By the standards according to which they’re going to be judged, the rest are a bunch of [derogatory term for female genitalia]’s.

    Although audiences would no doubt enjoy watching the undercards, I’m thinking ahead here.

    Christ Christie must challenge Trump to a manly feat of strength, (which he should win easily due to his greater weight). However, Trump would have no option but to accept.

    To make it work, the challenge must have the following stipulation: winner gets to become president, and the loser must, if the loser is Christie, eat nothing but health food and attend yoga classes for a year, and if the loser is Trump, get his head shaved on national TV! Ha! This would naturally raise the stakes for Trump.

    And in fact there is precedent for exactly this. Trump has participated in a similar challenge in the past, although he won. See here (watch the whole video! Trump appears about a miute into it. This clip shows how the other repub. candidates besides Christie really aren’t going to have a chance in this reace):

    link to

    • “BRING ‘EM ON!!!” The last Republican president should be the referee, so don’t dismiss the Texas connection. Rick Perry and his six shooter won’t be silent. The Republican primaries will be like a food fight at Animal House. After Labor Day, things will get messy. Better load up on the popcorn early.

    • “derogatory term for female genitalia]’s [sic]”.
      The terminal “s” is redundant as “genitalia” (Latin) is already plural. And your sexism is disgusting. Why not call them “pricks”?

  29. Thucydides would say that Trump is part of a larger degeneration:

    “Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal supporter; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question incapacity to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting a justifiable means of self-defense. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries. In short, to forestall an intending criminal, or to suggest the idea of a crime where it was lacking was equally commended, until even blood became a weaker tie than party, from the superior readiness of those united by the latter to dare everything without reserve; for such associations sought not the blessings derivable from established institutions but were formed by ambition to overthrow them; and the confidence of their members in each other rested less on any religious sanction than upon complicity in crime.”

  30. Yesterday Scott Walker said he would tear up the Iranian agreement and be ready to commence bombing Iran….ON THE FIRST DAY HE WAS PRESIDENT….Forget Trump….now that’s insanity.

  31. I am at a loss to understand the uproar over what Trump said:
    “Trump replied, ‘He is a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.’ ”

    Is McCain a war hero because he was in captivity so long? In America anyone in combat is a hero. This is because war is America’s greatest sport. Anyone who plays basketball in the NBA is a hero to those who fanatically love basketball.
    By the way, I also thought that Trump was trying to be funny—or cute—by adding that he likes those who avoid capture. I don’t think Rambo gets captured. Or if he does he escapes.
    What Trump said is not even close to the swift-boat onslaughts fired at Kerry.

  32. Trump is the GOP’s inner child. The more that the GOP attempts to disown him, the more that Trump pushes the GOP out from behind the curtain and reveals the party’s true face.

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